Video: Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah's transformation to angry young jihadist
MOHAMED Merah’s descent into darkness began in the grim housing estates on the edge of Toulouse.
The 23-year-old grew up in the drab multi-storey estates of Les Izards and Mirail, where he is mostly remembered for his love of football and motorbikes and for buying sweets for local children.
But within a few years he had transformed into an angry young jihadist with a fanatical belief in Salafism, an ultra-conservative brand of Islamism.
French authorities believe that he and his older brother, Abdelkader, became involved in two local Islamist organisations, Forsane Alizza (The Knights of Pride) and a more militant, jihadist network known as the Toulouse group.
The Toulouse group, which brought together young fundamentalists of North African descent, was formed in around 2006, with the stated aim of targeting American interests in France and sending recruits to Iraq.
Led by an imam originally from Syria, the group allegedly met in an isolated house in the countryside outside Toulouse.
The organisation was investigated by the authorities in 2006 and 2007. Merah’s older brother, Abdelkader Merah, who was arrested by French police on Wednesday, was believed to be a member.
He was placed under surveillance and featured on a long list of suspects drawn up by French intelligence.
“Mohamed was about 18 years old but we think he may have been in contact with those on the list, through his brother, including more recently when members of the group were released from prison,” an investigator told Aujourd’hui en France, a French newspaper.
“It is a structured group that maintains links with other networks in Paris and Belgium. We are focussing our efforts on the links the group may have had with the Merah brothers.”
Members worshipped at a mosque in the Toulouse suburb of Bellefontaine and allegedly hatched a plot to attack a shopping centre in the city.
“Some of them trained for combat and documents were found which led us to believe that they were preparing themselves for kamikaze actions,” a judicial source said.
In 2009 several members of the group were found guilty of various terrorist-related offences and given prison sentences of between six months and six years.
Mohamed Merah was not among those arrested. Instead he dabbled in petty crime and worked on and off as a panel beater. He tried, and failed, to join first the French army and then the Foreign Legion.
He lived largely on the dole, frequently changing address, and castigated his mother for not living with a man – her single status was an affront to his increasingly hard-line views.
His latest criminal conviction was for driving without a license – he was found guilty and was due to have been sentenced by a court in Toulouse next month.
Police believe he may also have had links to The Knights of Pride, an Islamist group that was banned last month on the orders of Claude Gueant, the French interior minister, on the basis that it was inciting “armed struggle” against the perceived enemies of Islam.
He then set his sights further afield, making two trips to Afghanistan and another to Pakistan’s lawless border region of Waziristan, where he reportedly contracted hepatitis A.
A social worker who knew Merah as a teenager when he was growing up on a dreary housing estate in Mirail said he started off as a normal young boy but was later “indoctrinated” by Salafist extremists from the area.
“He liked danger - he used to race cars and motorbikes and do dangerous stunts. That turned into delinquency and petty crime. But to then start killing people, that is something quite different. Somebody must have directed him,” Christophe, who has worked with generations of North African immigrant teenagers, told The Daily Telegraph.
“He fell in with the Salafists – the hard core who want to attack the West. It’s not uncommon – I overhear 17-year-old kids here saying how they want to become suicide bombers. I’m not surprised by what happened. These kids get brainwashed, they become predators.”
Residents of the housing estates where Merah grew up expressed outrage for what he did.
“This is not Islam. Islam is supposed to be about doing good things. I try to speak to these young men but I’m afraid for what they might do to me,” said Ahmad Maoudi, 66, a Moroccan immigrant.