Al Qaeda gunman in France reportedly escaped Afghan prison
The man French authorities hold responsible for the recent murders of seven people in southern France, including three children, is a French-Algerian claiming allegiance to al Qaeda. Mohamed Merah, a French citizen and resident of Toulouse, was tracked today to an apartment, where security officials are negotiating his surrender. Three policemen have reportedly been wounded in the seige. According to Le Figaro, Merah was planning to attack again today, targeting another soldier.
Although in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at the Jewish school speculation emerged that the killer might be a neo-Nazi, counterterrorism police quickly honed in on Merah. A break in the investigation came after a Yamaha dealer in Toulouse recalled that a man had asked to have an antitheft device removed from a motorbike of the same kind used in the recent murders of three French soldiers near a military base and four people at a Jewish school, according to The Guardian.
The 24-year-old suspect told police "he wanted to 'avenge Palestinian children and denounced French 'crimes' in Afghanistan," the BBC reported. Police today have found a large quantity of weapons in his car.
Merah had "been under surveillance by France's domestic intelligence service for several years after being identified in Afghanistan," Reuters reported, but apparently the tracking had not revealed anything suspicious. Prior to the recent murders, he seems to have led a relatively quiet life in Toulouse with his widowed mother, two brothers, and two sisters. Authorities are currently investigating claims that an elder brother's car contained explosives, and have taken the family into custody for questioning.
But several years earlier, Merah had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to participate in jihad, and received training there. On Dec. 19, 2007, he was arrested in Kandahar on charges of emplacing IEDs in the province, and was sentenced to three years in jail, Reuters reports. He escaped in a Taliban jailbreak in June 2008, according to Afghan prison officials.
The prison break in Kandahar in 2008, a complex assault involving suicide bombers, rockets, and an exploding tanker truck, resulted in the release of more than 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents. Canadian troops in the area tried to round up escapees, but many vanished. Three years later, more than 450 Taliban commanders and fighters escaped the same jail by tunneling out.
A US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that the suspect may have been a member of Forsane Alizza ("Knights of Pride"), a Salafist group that was officially banned in France in January for "inciting national, racial and religious discimination." According to Kuwait News Agency, the group had recently advocated throwing acid in the face of a Swiss politician, and had an anti-Israel agenda. Merah's association with the group is unconfirmed, however.
Recapping details that have emerged in negotations with the suspect today, French Interior Minister Claude Geaunt said: "His radicalisation took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan."
French officials say that since the Sept. 11 attacks, they have arrested 914 suspected Islamist militants and imprisoned 224, averting several planned attacks, according to Reuters.
Update: There is controversy over whether the initial report that Merah had escaped an Afghan prison in 2008 is correct. Afghan officials have since stated that a man named Mohammed Merah did indeed escape in the Taliban jailbreak in 2008 in Kandahar but that he was an Afghan citizen, not French, reports The New York Times.