Investigators have found no signs the suspected gunman behind a deadly string of attacks in southern France was under orders from al-Qaida or any militant group, a top French official said Friday — disputing Mohamed Merah’s claim of terrorist ties before he died in a shootout with commandos.
France’s prime minister and other officials have been fending off suggestions that anti-terrorism authorities failed to adequately monitor the 23-year-old Merah, who had been known to them for years before he carried out three deadly shooting attacks this month.
Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent who claimed links to al-Qaida, was killed in a dramatic gunfight with police Thursday after a 32-hour standoff at his Toulouse apartment. Prosecutors said he filmed himself carrying out the attacks that began March 11, killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three French paratroopers with close-range shots to the head. Another Jewish student and a paratrooper were wounded.
An autopsy of the gunman’s body showed he received two fatal bullet wounds to the left temple and to the abdomen — but that he was hit by some 20 bullets, mainly in the arms and legs, judicial and police officials said.
The head of the elite police unit, Amaury de Hauteclocque — whose mission was to take Merah alive — insisted his men fired only in self-defense.
Investigators looking for possible accomplices honed in on Merah’s 29-year-old brother, Abdelkader, and the brother’s girlfriend, described by one official as espousing an ultraconservative form of Islam. Both were detained early Wednesday, along with Merah’s mother.
The brother and girlfriend were being transferred Saturday to police anti-terrorist headquarters in Paris for further questioning. Abdelkader Merah had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq, but was never charged. Merah’s mother was to be released.
Meanwhile, a senior official close to the investigation told The Associated Press that despite Merah’s claims to negotiators of al-Qaida links, there was no sign he had “trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists.”
The former auto body worker had traveled twice to Afghanistan in 2010 and to Pakistan in 2011, and said he trained with al-Qaida in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan. He had been on a U.S. no-fly list since 2010.
The official said Merah might have made the claim because al-Qaida is a well-known “brand,” adding there was “absolutely no evidence allowing us to believe that he was commissioned by al-Qaida to carry out these attacks.”
Merah was questioned by French intelligence officers last November after his second trip to Afghanistan, and was cooperative and provided a USB key with tourist-like photos of his trip, the official told the AP.
While he was under surveillance last year, Merah was never seen contacting any radicals and went to nightclubs, not mosques, the official said. People who knew him confirmed that he was at a nightclub in recent weeks.
Merah told negotiators during the police standoff that he was able to buy a large arsenal of weapons thanks to years of petty theft, the official said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s spy chief, meanwhile, said that Merah told negotiators he attacked the Jewish school only after missing his original target — a French soldier.
“It wasn’t the school that he wanted to attack,” Ange Mancini told France-24 TV, calling the school shooting “opportunistic,” because it happened to be nearby.
That account appears to contradict Merah’s claim that his attacks were to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children as well as to protest the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan and a French law banning Islamic face veils.
The widow of the slain rabbi and mother of two of the slain children issued an emotional plea online Friday, urging Jewish parents to honor her dead family members by loving their children and teaching them to love “their fellow man.”
In a letter released on an Orthodox Jewish website, Eva Sandler wrote that the “spirit of the Jewish people can never be extinguished.”
“May no one ever have to endure such pain and suffering,” she wrote. “I thank the Almighty for the privilege, short though it was, of raising my children together with my husband. Now the Almighty wants them back with Him.”
Sandler’s husband, Jonathan, and the couple’s sons, 5-year-old Arieh and 3-year-old Gabriel, were buried Wednesday in Jerusalem, along with 8-year-old Myriam Monsenego.
Officials painted a picture of a self-radicalized young man — the type of lone-wolf terrorist intelligence services have long most worried about, who radicalize alone and operate below the radar.
Merah told police during the standoff that he was trained “by a single person” when he was in Waziristan, not in a training center, so as not to be singled out because he spoke French,” the director of the DCRI intelligence service, Bernard Squarcini, told the Le Monde newspaper.
Some politicians, French media and Toulouse residents questioned why authorities didn’t stop Merah before he started his killing spree.
Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande said questions needed to be asked about a “failure” in counterterrorist monitoring. Other candidates posed similar questions, and even French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said “clarity” was needed on why Merah wasn’t arrested earlier.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon told RTL radio Friday that authorities “at no moment” suspected Merah would be dangerous despite his long record of crime and his time in prison.
“We must not mix religious fundamentalism and terrorism, even if naturally we well know the links that unite the two,” Fillon said.
In response to the slayings, Fillon said France’s conservative government is working on new anti-terrorism legislation that would be drafted within two weeks.