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The Edge of Terrorism

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France’s Fatal Failure to Stop Mohamed Merah’s Killing Spree

November 12th 2017

Paratroopers at Eiffel

On the evening of March 15, 2012, as news broke that three soldiers had been shot down in broad daylight and that the unknown killer with a helmet on his head had been spotted fleeing the scene on a TMAC scooter, Anne Chenevat immediately called her former husband, Abdelghani Merah. “I told him it could very well be his little brother Mohamed,” she said to the court at the Abdelkader Merah trial in Paris last month.

Anne had reason to be suspicious. She had fought the Salafi influence of Abdelkader Merah on his family members for years. As soon as her son Theodore was born, Kader, as Abdelkader was known, had made very clear to her that one day when Theo was of age, he, Kader, would come and pick him up in order to make a good Muslim out of him.

When Theodore was 10, he’d been approached by Kader’s mentor Olivier Corel, leader of the Salafi community around Toulouse. Corel had whispered to him, “it is all right for you to hate your parents, they’re not good Muslims.” Theodore himself—today a lean, tall boy in his 20s, who stiffly walked to the stand cramped in a strict suit—testified at the hearing that from that age on, his uncle had taken Theo to private reunions with Salafi families during which a future world war between Muslims and miscreants was discussed. “He began to have nightmares,” Chenevat told the court. “He would come to me and ask if I would convert in anticipation of the coming Muslim war, so I would not be killed. I said I would never convert unless my life was at stake.”

Anne also knew how powerful Kader’s influence was on Mohamed, despite—or because of—the sadistic treatment Kader exerted on his little brother since childhood. Everybody in the family used to beat up Mohamed—his mother, Zulika, had used electric wire.

But Kader was especially sadistic, having gone so far as to handcuff Mohamed on a bed when he was 10 for hours, feeding him rotting food. Instead of rebelling, Mohamed had come to see his elder brother as a father figure.

According to a psychiatrist I spoke to for this article who is doing research on the Merah family, and who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, there was an unspoken incestuous sadomasochistic contract between Kader and Mohamed, and it was that contract that accounts for the ambivalent relationship between the two brothers, a relationship that is reported to have oscillated between estrangement and adoration over the years. Be that as it may, there is no question that the abusive relationship between the two brothers was formative for Mohamed.

As a child, Mohamed was spotted at school as an especially gifted boy. At home, as the youngest and the brightest member of the family, he became a punching bag. He was 4 when social services received the first warnings of his ill-treatment at home and a resulting psychiatric disorder bordering on psychosis. He was placed in a community home, from which Zulika would promise to pick him up for the weekend but never showed up, leaving Mohamed in a rage. A report from the vice principal of the high school he attended some years later speaks of “a child especially gifted … but also a grave danger.” The report concludes: “It is most urgent to intervene in the familial environment for in light of his intellectual capacities, Mohamed could well turn into a very dangerous teenager.” Nothing was done.

In 2003, a conviction for purse-snatching sent Mohamed to jail for 18 months, a sentence he judged entirely unfair. Yet, reports citing this sojourn in jail as the source of his radicalization are inconsistent with the facts. It would take three more years before Kader began to have contact with the Islamist networks of Toulouse. His brother then followed him.

In addition to all of this family knowledge, Anne Chenevat knew of Mohamed’s trips to Pakistan and she knew he was in possession of at least one gun. On the evening of the Montauban killings, which was a Thursday, she called her former husband to mention her fears. Versions of the dialogue that ensued vary. In Abdelghani’s version, he answers that the weapon reportedly used for the killings is of a different caliber than the one Mohamed owns, so it can’t be him. In Anne’s, her former husband’s denial is more straightforward : “Are you crazy? My brother would never do such a thing! Don’t be foolish.” That evening, Anne Chenevat hanged up and, instead of calling the cops, obediently went to bed.

“I want to apologize to the victims’ families of the Ozar ha-Torah school,” she said on the stand. “If I had called the police, Mohamed would have never showed up at the gates of the school the next Monday.”

But in fact, he probably would have. Anne Chenevat was not the only one to have spotted his ex-brother-in-law as the possible shooter of the killing that Thursday. On the afternoon of the next day, the Toulouse bureau of French domestic intelligence, the DCRI, sent to DCRI Central in Paris a note profiling 15 suspects, among whom was Mohamed Merah. On the stand, then-director of the DCRI Toulouse Christian Balle Andui testified: “The weekend passed in a complete silence from Central. Nobody called. And on the next Monday, as I arrived on the crime scene at the Ozar Ha-Torah school, I learned of the connection with the Montauban shootings.”

Plenty of factors contributed to Merah’s freewheeling killing spree that weekend. It is the piling on of those different layers—from the highly pathological milieu of the Merah family to the well-structured Islamist networks of Toulouse, to the numerous flaws of the investigators who knew of Merah and of the power of the networks—that makes the story of the Merah killing such a textbook case of everything that has gone wrong in France over the past decade. Indeed, the sum of the failures in intelligence and police work, and the political reasons for those failures, are simply overwhelming.

***

Today 64, Christian Balle Andui appeared on the stand as a model of competency. With an emotion sometimes verging on tears, he detailed very thoroughly the extent of everything DCRI-Toulouse knew years prior to the slaughters. He mentioned the first bits of information, dating from 2000, regarding both the Muslim Brothers networks, who had taken control of the Bellefontaine mosque in Toulouse at the time via a series of cultural associations with the intent of “taking hold of civil society” and the Tablighs, traveling Muslim preachers advocating a rigorous Islam in the Sonacotra foyers where migrant workers stayed. Although in theory, said Allui, the Tablighs and Muslim Brothers competed against each other for the conquest of Muslim souls, they could also work together occasionally on matters of common interest. The Islamists of the Corel network that the Merah joined were spotted many times around the Bellefontaine mosque, and the Sonacotra foyer was set in the neighborhood of Les Izards in Toulouse, where Mohamed Merah lived.

The Merah family was itself no stranger to radical versions of Islam. In his book, Abdelghani mentions how he and Kader went vacationing with their father in Algeria in 1994—in the midst of the civil war during which the Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA killed 200,000 people, mostly women and children, on behalf of the Front Islamique du Salut or FIS, the main Islamic party in the country at the time. As it turns out, in addition to being a drug dealer in France, Merah’s father, who was also called Mohamed, had his own GIA connection.

According to Balle Andui, it was GIA militants who first came in the Toulouse region as far back as 1995 to preach violence and set up the first Islamist networks in the region. It was then that they met with Olivier Corel, the Syrian Muslim Brother who had settled in France in the 1980s as a political refugee, which is how the Artigat network got started. In addition to the Toulouse region, GIA militants spread across France in the early ’90s in places like Lyon, and, above all, in the North from where they extended to Belgium and London. The mass-killings orders in 1994–95 were given from London in leaflets, and implemented in Algeria, where victims were selected according to their profession—“kill journalists,” “kill lawyers”—or genders—“kill women.” Weapons were bought from Muslim brigades in nearby Croatia where the Balkan war was raging, and transported to Belgium, a route that remained unchanged until 2015.

In the early 2000s, said Balle Andui, the Artigat network was structured around two bridgeheads. One was set in the La Reynerie neighborhood around the Clain brothers, two converts from La Réunion Island whose main job was to proselytize door-to-door. The propaganda material was picked up in London and above all in Brussels, printed in an Islamic center there financed by the Saudis. Their radical terror network extended to Egypt, where, in 2009, they would send Abdelkader Merah. That was also the year of a terror attack in Cairo that killed a French girl, Cécile Vanier. It was then that one of the suspects interrogated by police, Farouk Ben Abbès, an acquaintance of the Clain brothers, mentioned for the first time the Bataclan theater as a target, because it was owned by Jews. In 2015, the voice on the ISIS video claiming responsibility for the Bataclan massacre would be identified as Fabien Clain’s, the more charismatic of the two Clain brothers.

The other bridgehead was located in Les Izards, Mohamed Merah’s neighborhood. It was centered around Mohamed Essid, father of the Jihadi Essid, and the man that Abdelkader would offer as second husband to his mother in 2011. Essid is a complete fanatic and a very violent man,” said Balle Andui to the court. “He specialized in recruiting young delinquents.”

A 2011 declassified report by the DCRI-Toulouse states the Artigat group opted for violence in 2007. Their first action was sending people to Iraq. Kader is reported to have joined the group one year sooner. Interestingly enough, though, his enthusiasm for terrorism preceded his political indoctrination by six years. In 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks on New York, he is seen yelling “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!” on the streets. He thinks of tattooing Bin Laden on his forehead, then on his neck. From then on, he is nicknamed “big Ben-Ben,” in reference to the leader of al-Qaida. Mohamed, for his part, called himself “little Ben-Ben.”

So DCRI-Toulouse knew plenty about what was going on in Toulouse. Mohamed Merah was followed and his phone conversations studied. “His attitude,” said Balle Andui, “showed that he was trained in the techniques of armed groups to escape surveillance. He presented all the signs of being dangerous.” Reports were written and sent.

When Mohamed Merah came back from Pakistan in the fall of 2011, DCRI-Central sent instructions for a debriefing and sent two specialists to perform it. According to their conclusion The dangerousness of Mohamed Merah has not been established. He should be approached for recruiting.” In fact, investigation shows that even the Clain brothers and Corel probably did not quite trust Mohamed’s skills as a jihadist, at least at first. He sounded too crazy, was too spontaneous, too much the petty-delinquent type for their taste. Only after his first trip to the Middle East did they agree to give him contacts in Pakistan.

It is probably through Fabien Clain that in September 2011, in the tribal zones of Waziristan, Mohamed Merah met with the Tunisian Moez Garzallaoui, an al-Qaida operator who supervised his training. Clain most certainly knew him from his wife, Malika El Aroud, who grew up in Brussels where Clain regularly traveled. She was the widow of another man from Brussels, Abdessatar Dahmane, one of the killers of Sheik Ahmad Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaida two days before Sept. 11 in Afghanistan.

Such a network proved too big for DCRI-Toulouse to handle on its own. Christian Balle Andui on the stand: “For us, DCRI-Central had considerable means. They had contacts with embassies abroad and foreign services we did not have. So they knew what they were doing. On the other hand, though, I was shocked by their attitude. You could not think of recruiting Merah without first a thorough investigation by a judge. All the more so, since his account of his trips in Pakistan were simply not credible.” But that investigation never took place.

***

On Mar. 15, 2012, the link between the murder of Mohamed Ibn Ziaten four days prior and the killing of three soldiers in Montauban that day was immediately established. DCRI-Toulouse pointed out the Salafist trail at once. Paris, in response, judged it “not obvious” and, because the victims were of Maghrébin origin, ordered them to investigate neo-fascists instead.

The order was plainly absurd. Yet, France was in the midst of a presidential race, in which incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy freely borrowed slogans and ideas from the National Front. Paradoxically, he, therefore, needed something to distance himself from the NF in order to prove he wasn’t a simple imitator.

The Friday evening, in response to Paris’s instruction, Christian Balle Andui sent a note profiling 15 possible suspects. Half were extreme-right activists and half were Salafis. Mohamed Merah’s name appeared on the second list.

In addition, at Paris’s request, the Police Judiciaire also sent to DCRI-Central the surveillance videos showing the unknown Montauban killer riding his scooter that investigators of DCRI-Toulouse weren’t at liberty to see. If they had, said Balle Andui, they probably could have identified Merah.

Once again, politics had come in the way. The restructuring of the DCRI was Sarkozy’s work and, at Central, the new director Bernard Squarcini was Sarkozy’s man. Back in 1993, Sarkozy, then mayor of the city of Neuilly, had gained popularity by directly negotiating with Eric Schmidt, a man who called himself “the Human Bomb” and had taken a whole primary school hostage. There was a political gain to be made at the prospect of defeating yet another terrorist himself. On the stand, Squarcini claimed he never saw the note sent by Toulouse. DCRI-Central was in no position to identify Merah on the video, either.

On March 21, two days after the Hozar Ha-Torah killing, the siege at Merah’s apartment was a joke, with the minister of interior giving instructions to the raid squad while playing PR for Sarkozy all night long on news channels. Meanwhile, Merah was free to leave his apartment to send the videos of his killings to Al-Jazeera and then return home, unwatched by anyone.

The next day in a full-page interview published by Le Monde, Squarcini came up with the lone-wolf theory. “He radicalized himself alone, in jail, by reading the Quran. There is no belonging to any network.”

On the stand, Squarcini, who supervised the surveillance of Islamists networks in the ’90s, admitted the existence of the Artigat network. He then tried to justify himself by explaining how one could be both “solitary and with accomplices.” Once again, in France, language, confronted with terror, lost its meaning.

The last day of the trial, Latifa Ibn Ziaten, mother of Mohamed Ibn-Ziaten, was hit in the chest right outside the courtroom by a young militant of the Jewish Defense League, an extreme-right wing organization populated by a handful of Jewish thugs and delinquents. That same day in the city of Bagneux, the commemorative plaque set in memory of Ilan Halimi, the young Jewish boy kidnapped, tortured for three weeks, and killed by the Gang of the Barbarians, was defaced one more time with anti-Semitic graffiti.

***

Read the first part of Marc Weitzmann’s dispatch from the Abdelkader Merah terrorism trial in Paris here.


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