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‘In the Beginning, the Brothers, They Told Me To Kill’

How did Mohamed Merah happen? In the third of a five-part series on anti-Semitism in France, the roots of the Toulouse gunman.

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Mohamed Merah, in a screen capture from French television France 2, March 2012. (Photoillustration byErik Mace for Tablet Magazine. Original photo: AFP/Getty Images)
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After a childhood in what the police called “an Islamo-delinquent family,” in the heavily populated Toulouse neighborhood of Les Izards, Merah radicalized himself in prison but, as he says in the transcript, “Before prison I was already OK with what they [the Islamists] were doing in Algeria.” In April 2010, he tried to get in touch with local Islamists. Failing to do so, he went to Syria in July 2010, starting an astonishing trip that took him to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, even Israel, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, where he visited the ruins of the Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, waiting, as incredible as it sounds, “to be kidnapped by them so I could convince them that I am sincere and they could train me.” But he was not successful. (Where he found the money to travel is still a mystery today; as is the fact that he was all this time under surveillance by the French police who debriefed him upon his return to Toulouse only to apparently buy his false version of his travels, in which he was only a tourist.)

It was during a second trip, in August 2011, that he finally met “the brothers” who would initiate him into terror. And here’s the credo (retold in a French that challenges a translator): “In the beginning, the brothers, they told me to kill. A brother from Arab origin. He said I should kill everything—everything that is civilian and miscreant, everything. The gays, the homosexuals, the ones that kiss each other in public. He said, ‘Shoot them down,’ see? But me, I had a message to carry. And, er… I knew that by killing only militaries and Jews, the message, it would carried better. Cuz if I were to kill just civilians, the French population they’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just another crazy terrorist.’ Even if I had the right. But now the message’s different. Now I just kill militaries and Jews, see?”

It is not too much to say that Merah became in France, to the detriment of the easily-forgotten victims, an object of true fascination. Invited twice on the National Radio France-Culture that fatal week on an unrelated theme, I remember the first show took place the morning of the murder and I was the only one at the mic to mention what had happened; as for the second show, two days later, coincidentally the day Merah was killed, everyone in the studio was debating about him. Le Monde’s literary supplement, a few weeks later, went as far as commissioning and publishing a front-page short story authored by a French writer of Algerian background, Salim Bachi, titled “I, Mohamed Merah.” The story, which purported to get “inside the head” of the killer and presented Merah as no more than “a little brat” victim of France’s social and racial discrimination, was a justification of the crime in the name of fiction, in a bad copy of Jean Genet’s style. The debate on the left—where France-Culture and Le Monde politically stand—was not so much to exonerate Merah—that was just a cumbersome by-product—as it was to save the rest of France’s Muslims from any prejudices that might result from his actions: The words were “Do not generalize!” Even though Merah had his sociological reasons to act—so went the somewhat incoherent rhetoric—he’s a special case. There will be no more Mohamed Merahs.

The theory of the loner, remarkably enough, was even more popular on the right, with the head of the Central Interior Intelligence Administration, Bernard Squarcini, defending, against all evidence, the point of view that Merah was “a lone wolf.” In fact, after Merah’s death, his father tried to sue France for murder, from Algeria where he returned to live after being convicted in France of drug trafficking; Merah’s stepfather is known for being an Islamist; his son (Merah’s half-brother) Sabri Essid was arrested in Syria on his way to jihad in Iraq; his sister Souad was taped saying she was “proud” of Merah’s deed and according to recent intelligence has since moved to Syria; and Merah’s brother Abdelkader, today in prison for abetting his brother, a few years ago tried to stab Abdelghani, the only son of the Merah family who has apparently tried to escape the grip of Islamist ideology. (The reason for the stabbing, according to a book Abdelghani, 38, wrote, was his marriage to a woman whose grandfather was a Jew.)

Yet Squarcini had good reason to cover up the failures of the investigations. Toulouse Police had identified Merah before the school attack but had been forbidden to move by the Parisian team under Squarcini’s direct order. The rationale was administrative constraint—France is a notoriously centralized country—but politics may also have played a role. Squarcini had been appointed by Nicolas Sakorzy, who was president at the time. Sarkozy was running a populist campaign for his reelection and badly needed results in the area of security. The whole siege, in that regard, had been a media circus, with Interior Minister Claude Géant on the field in front of the camera non-stop, half PR for Sarkozy and his men and half journalist. The disorganization that ensued among the police force left Merah free to actually leave his apartment in the middle of the night, while he was under surveillance, to set up a future hide-out and call a journalist at France 24, the international TV channel, to whom he claimed responsibility for his action and mentioned the videotape of his murders soon to be aired, he said, by Al Jazeera. Then he quietly went back home. (Al Jazeera had indeed received the tape. Tellingly, the journalists in Doha had decided to wait for the emir’s decision on whether to air it. One imagines with dread what would’ve happened if France and Qatar had not been on good terms. To this day, no one knows if copies of the tape were made.)

The result of all this ideological and political turmoil was, again, to place Merah at the center of public life. He became a star. A minute of silence declared for the victims in all French primary and secondary schools was countered in at least three cases by teachers who felt they should list the killer among the victims. Walls were tagged with graffiti here and there in his memory. He was inspirational for Mehdi Nemmouche, the Brussels killer, and is regularly named by the “pro-Palestinian” demonstrators rioting in Paris these days.

Today, everybody remembers his name. As for the children, they’re just three unlucky kids from an Orthodox Jewish school. As someone told me in the aftermath of the murder, “What do they need special schools for, anyway?”

***

Part four of France’s Toxic Hate will appear in two weeks, with a look at the rise of the National Front.

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‘In the Beginning, the Brothers, They Told Me To Kill’

How did Mohamed Merah happen? In the third of a five-part series on anti-Semitism in France, the roots of the Toulouse gunman.

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