On Feb. 16, 2012, in Toulouse, Mohamed Merah, 24, bought the GoPro camera he intended to use to film his killings. Three weeks later on March 6, accompanied by his brother Abdelkader he stole the TMAX scooter—a model 530, the type everybody was talking about in the cité and which he thought would be a cool ride. His brother helped complete the killer’s equipment with a leather jacket and a hoodie. When exactly Mohamed acquired the Uzi, the pump-action shotgun, the Python revolver, and the three Colt .45 automatic pistols he used is not known.
Merah’s first killing took place on March 11, 2012, in a parking lot. The previous evening, someone whose identity would become a matter of debate at the trial had used the family computer in the Merah house to answer a classified ad from a French paratrooper, Imad Ibn-Ziaten, who wanted to sell his motorbike. Ibn-Ziaten’s 1st regiment had been in Afghanistan and was now stationed in Toulouse. An appointment was set up.
On March 11 at 4 p.m., Ibn-Ziaten, 31, showed up at the parking lot as expected. Merah ID-ed him, then pulled out one of his Colts and ordered him to lie face down. The video filmed by the GoPro camera on Merah’s chest allows us to hear Ibn-Ziatem’s firm answer. “You put that gun away right now. I’m not gonna lie down. You get out. I’ll stand. You wanna shoot me? Go on, shoot me. But I’m not lying down.” Merah then shot him in the head. The film records him moving toward the body right afterward to pick up the cartridge, saying “That’s what Islam is, bro. You kill my brothers, I kill you. He met up with the angel of death. Me, I’m not afraid of death.”
Four days later in the midafternoon, 50 kilometers north in the city of Montauban, Merah showed up on his scooter at an ATM in front of the Doumerc military base where a group of soldiers was picking up some cash. He killed Mohamed Legouad, 23, sapeur paratrooper at the 17th regiment, as he was typing his PIN code, shooting him in the back. He then shot Corporal Loïc Liber, who was trying to run away, in the head and in the chest. (Liber is the only one to have survived the massacre, albeit severely disabled for life.) After reloading his gun, Merah fired toward Corporal Abel Chenouf, 25, who was crawling on the ground in an attempt to escape. After shooting Chenouf, Merah turned him on his back and finished him off with a bullet in the head. He then re-mounted his scooter and took off, crying out, according to witnessess, Allah u akbar. That evening, Merah invited his sister Aïcha and his brother Abdelkader to dinner in a Toulouse pizzeria. He spent the following Saturday night in a nightclub on the outskirts of town.
On the morning of March 19, Merah could not approach another military officer he’d planned to kill, so he turned to the next item on his target list, a decision that would make sure his name was remembered and would make him a hero to a generation of would-be French jihadists. At 8 a.m., Merah arrived at the gates of the Ozar ha Torah school and started shooting teachers and children. With his mini-Uzi, he first killed Rav Jonathan Sandler, 31, a former student of the school, and his two sons Arié, 6, and Gabriel, 3. He then ran after Myriam Monsonego, aged 9, as she was trying to seek refuge in the courtyard of the school. He grabbed the young girl by the hair and attempted to shoot her, but his Uzi misfired. So he took the time to drop that weapon and to pull out the Colt .45 with which he shot her at point-blank range in the head. Then, with no discernable target in sight, the children now safely inside a classroom where they hid under tables, crying, the killer quietly walked back to the TMAX 530 scooter he was so proud of. As he rode away, security cameras captured him joyfully free-wheeling in the streets.
Mohamed Merah’s murder spree changed France. In particular, the killing of Jewish children gave a shape and content to the spontaneous anti-Semitic urges that had bubbled up in the country’s cités since the early 2000s, inspiring would-be terrorists in the years to come. To name only the most famous examples: Mehdi Nemouche, author of the massacre at the Brussels Jewish museum in 2014, who watched the media coverage of the Toulouse murder in jail; the Kouachi brothers, the killers of the cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo, a journal they argued was controlled by “the Jews,” all named Mohamed Merah as their source of inspiration.
Merah was killed by police at the end of a night-long siege on March 21. As he was beginning to be mourned and called a hero by a significant fraction of the Toulouse cité youth, his brother Abdelkader was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder (a charge to which criminal conspiracy with terrorist intent would later be added). Seven months later, on Oct. 4, after Abdelkader’s wife, Yasmina, had started a medically-assisted attempt to have a child, Abdelkader received a visit from his mother, Zoulika, Aziri in jail. The following conversation took place in Arabic and was taped and later translated by police officers.
Zoulika Aziri: You see, my heart is oppressed. I’m worried about you.
Abdelkader: Why? I am well, mama. Don’t you know what Merah or Merat means?
Zoulika Aziri: I know. Merat, it is ‘heritage’. (…)
Abdelkader: And ‘gift’? How does one say ‘gift’? Mohamed, he made me the greatest gift there is!
Zoulika Aziri: If you were to have a child and you called him like him?
Abdelkader: What a success if he became like him! May it please Allah!
(Changing the subject, they began to speak of Mohamed’s body at the morgue:)
You didn’t wanna see him at the morgue, it was difficult.
Zoulika Aziri: I couldn’t. it was unsufferable.
Abdelkader: Did you tell them to take pics?
Zoulika Aziri: I told Hamid.(…) I told him, you see, that Abdelkader wants to have pictures of his brother. Allah brought him back to us shining, you hear. They say he was never killed. He fell.
Abdelkader: He sprang like a lion. (…) The lawyer, he told you he’s gonna visit. … Tell him to bring me his autopsy report.
Zoulika Aziri: Insh’Allah…
Abdelkader: All his pictures when he fell. His head. How many bullets he took. All of that.
Zoulika Aziri: Ah!
Abdelkader: How the autopsy was performed and all.
Zoulika Aziri: Ah! It’s all in pictures and all.
Abdelkader: A whole file like that!
Zoulika Aziri: Allah is the greatest insh’Allah.
Abdelkader: My little brother. I wanna see him. I’m fortunate he comes to visit me in my dreams. I saw him. There was this huge village hall full of tables, full of people, and they all were stunned by Mohamed. They kept chanting, ‘How handsome, how beautiful he is!’ And then I saw him. He was sitting in a chair. I told him, ‘What is the purpose of heaven?’ And he answered: ‘Right now, I am driving.’ And I woke up and I wondered, ‘What does “I am driving” mean?’ And, in fact, Allah the Magnificent says the souls, they come like birds under the throne of the Merciful, they…
Zoulika Aziri: They swirl.
Abdelkader: They swirl! Wherever they want. So, in fact, he drives the birds!
Zoulika Aziri: He drives the birds. They say they feed on the best dishes, you hear.
Abdelkader: Ha ha ha!
Zoulika Aziri: And until the death of all of us and at the end of the world. We will stand in front of Allah and there he is! Right now. He is marrying the Houris (the Virgins).
Abdelkader: He’s got the Houris now. Right now. I swear, by Allah. Yes, right now, he ain’t in the grave. He’s in heaven.
Zoulika Aziri: He has the Houris with him?
Abdelkader: He’s got the Houris and he makes the shameful act with them. (They both laugh) He does everything! Ha ha! Let us praise Allah! He’s got a wife, he’s got everything, he eats.
Zoulika Aziri: They say he’s got many.
I edited this dialogue for length’s sake, but the content is unchanged, as it goes on and on…
This bizarre vision of Islam is fueled by incestuous fury and apocalyptic daydreaming. Nothing could be more different than the religion offered by the Muslim families of the French soldiers assassinated by Merah, who testified in front of the special criminal court judging Abdelkader last month in Paris’s Palais de Justice.
Most had remained silent for five-and-a-half years. Imad Ibn Ziaten’s brother Atin reminded the court that Imad’s refusal to lie down despite Merah’s threat “was an act of resistance. He was a soldier and he defended the republic.” He testified how revolted he was that Salafis like the Merah brothers could “take our religion hostage in the name of an ideology that calls Nazism to mind. To hear Abdelkader say that he wishes his brother’s in heaven is disgraceful.”
Bin Zatin’s mother, Latifa, who has been traveling across the cités of France since her son was killed to try to work with the Muslim youth, among whom she says she sees “many Merahs growing,” appeared on the stand with a scarf around her head. She spoke of her thoughts of suicide and how her faith, and the memory of her son, had kept her alive and given her the strength to fight. But to me, the most impressive of the family members was Radia Legouan, the 39-year-old sister of Mohamed Legouad, a post-office employee and mother of two, who in the middle of her testimony to the court, suddenly burst into an Antigone-like improvised address to her dead brother.
Here’s a quote. “To forget, but how? To mourn, but how? Such a death, o God! Such a death! Every day for the last five years now, our parents go to your grave. The family does not gather anymore. You are the phantom limb of this family. You haunt me, my brother, you haunt me. I forgot everything. I went down, my brother, I sank down. I have discovered the world of depression, of psychiatry, of neurologists.” The granddaughter of an Imam, she, too, spoke of the world from which the Merahs sprang. “I don’t understand. I don’t. My father, my grandfather, never spoke to me that way.”
The family of the third victim bearing an Arab name, Abel Chenouf, was Catholic. It was the victim’s mother in law who came to testify for her daughter Carole, who was seven months pregnant when she was given the news of her fiancé’s death. She told of how they had had to identify the body the next day and how in the morgue, the contractions had started and Carole had to be taken to the hospital.
Their loneliness was obvious—a loneliness that probably accounts for their lyricism. As they testified, it became clear that the reasons for their loneliness were not simply the result of having lost a loved one. Rather, they were rooted in the fact that they were utterly alone, alienated from the bizarre and murderous radicalism of their son’s killer, a radicalism that sprang from the communities to which they were said to belong by birth or faith, yet rejected by the official agents of French society as a whole, in whose name their sons had fought and then been murdered.
“The commissioner,” said Latifa Ibn Ziaten, “thought my son was drug dealing and that was the reason why he got killed. He said, ‘You’re all the same, anyway, don’t lie to me.’ He would not let me see Imad on account that the morgue was closed. The next day, they performed the autopsy before I had a chance to see him.”
She was by no means the only one. All of them—all of them—mentionned the same racist attitude from the cops who broke the news of the killings by addressing them first as suspects, on account of their Arab names and of their looks.
The other reason for that loneliness, and not the least, was the lack of Muslim support. Not one representative of the Muslim organizations in France came in solidarity to console the Muslim families of the Muslim victims. Not one attended the trial or made the slightest public gesture or utterance on their behalf.
The contrast with the Jewish families couldn’t have been more striking. The former head of the Toulouse CRIF, Nicole Yardeni, made the trip with a whole delegation to hear Samuel Sandler, who lost his son and his two grandsons in the massacre. She came with Jonathan Chetrit, today 23, who successfully improvised the sheltering and protection of the children in the Ozar Ha Torah school during the shooting, and Sharon Benitah, 15 today, who witnessed the death of her friend Myriam Monsonego.
The lawyer Jacques Gauthier, who, speaking for the school, probably made the deepest speech before falling into tears, said the victims were “still here with us today and they preside over these debates. … Why them? Why not your children, judges? Or yours, my colleagues? Or yours, journalists? And why not me? I felt Mohamed Merah’s terror act around me. I felt it as you hear the bullets on a battlefield. Because I was born in Toulouse, because I’m Jewish, and because I’m a former student at the Hozar Ha Torah school…”
No, the Jews, who are so lonely today in French society, were not alone in the courtroom. But the Muslim families—these Muslims so much at the center of the national public debate today—were. No imam showed up in the courtroom. None of the left-wingers who are so eager to stand against “Islamophobia” and to point to the evils of racism and social discrimination wrote a single word of support to the Ibn Ziaten and Lagouen families.
Yet, the parallels between the French soldiers of Arab origins and their killer couldn’t have been more striking. All were from poor backgrounds. All, as the cops once more proved, had experienced discrimination and racism—not once, but probably hundreds of times. Some were the exact same age as their killer. But while Mohamed Merah dealt drugs and trained for killing in the Pakistani tribal zones, they enlisted in the French army and showed pride in wearing the French uniform. Indeed the question asked by Jacques Gauthier is worth asking again: Why them? What makes one choose this and the other choose that?
It was clear from the start that because the main perpetrator of the killings was dead, and because he’d been considered a “lone wolf” by French domestic intelligence in 2012, any attempt to judge accomplices five years later was bound to generate frustrations. There were two of them. Abdelkader Merah, on whom all debates focused, and Fattah Melki, a delinquent charged with selling Merah his Uzi. Opening on Oct. 2 and planned to last five weeks, the trial, which was the first to judge a major terror attack in France, got off on the wrong foot from day one.
As police investigation had found, Abdelkader Merah had joined a radical group of Salafis called the Artigat network as far back as 2006—four years before his little brother. The Artigat network was led by a political refugee from Syria, a former Muslim Brother born in 1946 and called Abdel Ilat Al-Dandachi, aka Olivier Corell, aka The White Sheikh, of whom Abdelkader was a fierce disciple. The most prominent members of the network were now either in jail, dead, or in Rakka with ISIS. Indeed, it was by following Abdelkader’s activities that the local intelligence of Toulouse had discovered Mohamed Merah in 2010, and began to build a file on him as well, following Mohamed’s trips in the Middle East, and in Pakistan.
One of the reasons why French investigators had been unable to stop Mohamed Merah was that they focused on his elder brother. Abdelkader was the big fish—not Mohamed, a petty delinquent, mentally unstructured, psychologically frail, unfit for the training that a planned terror attack requires, and more versed in the ins and outs of drug dealing and petty robbery than the Quran and the hadith of the prophet, about which he knew next to nothing.
Abdelkader was the intellectual. A permanent student, Raskolnikov-like, he’d been sent by the Artigat network to Egypt in 2009. There he had studied at the Al-Fajr school, a Salafi center known for its connections with Islamist networks. He was there during the Cairo terror attack of that year, in which a French student, Cécile Vanier, lost her life. He stayed in Egypt for a year-and-a-half, returning to Toulouse in February 2011.
Although allegedly at odds with his brother, Abdelkader reconnected with Mohamed right in time to help facilitate his terror attack. He was there when Mohamed stole the TMAX. He bought the leather jacket Mohamed wore while on his way to the killings. In Abdelkader’s home, the police found a large library of Islamist propaganda including books, leaflets, audiotapes of speeches calling for jihad against miscreants and Jews.
Yet not a shred of evidence linked Abdelkader to the killings themselves. He was never present when Ibn-Ziaten had been killed, nor in Montauban or during the Ozar Ha-Torah massacre. There was nothing to indicate he even knew of his brother’s projects, let alone that he helped him with logistics. Sensing this, the juge d’instruction—the French equivalent of the D.A.—had added a charge for criminal conspiracy with terrorist intent in the hope it would strengthen the case. But the definition of the association de malfaiteurs en vue d’une entreprise terroriste, the French name for that charge, is very loose. As Abdelkader’s lawyer, star Eric Dupont-Moretti, made a point to note, the charge was created out of the void at the end of the 19th century to fight anarchist activism—as France in the 1890s was the first European country after Russia to experience terror. The charge was resurrected in the mid-1970s against leftsist groups. In both instances, the crime’s definition could extend to pretty much anything, from throwing bombs to the printing of political tracts. So Abdelkader may have been a radical, but the feeling was that he was there in the box in lieu of his brother.
So two questions underlined the debates in the courtroom: What made the Merahs the Merahs—what differentiates them from Muslims such as Ibn Ziaten and Lagouen? The other question was: Where does complicity start?
During the first two weeks of the trial, it seemed that Dupont-Moretti would have his way. Big, heavy, a bully thundering under the marble of the Palais de Justice against what he called “terrorist justice,” he presided over the hearings instead of the judge himself. Frank Zientara, the presiding judge in question, looked like a bumbling silhouette disappearing in the red velvet of his ermine robe, behind the mahogany desk, crushed by the violence of the facts of the case as much as by the daily tension that reigned inside the courtroom. Twenty lawyers of the victim’s families and of the victims’ representatives appeared frozen in indignation and impotence while the prosecutor appeared to lose her temper each time Dupont-Moretti spoke. The tension was so pervasive that at some point during one of the hearings’ interruptions, two of the lawyers came close to a physical fight, while some of the victims’ families fell into tears.
While all this was going on, Abdelkader Merah sat in his box, his fatty silhouette shaped in a clean white tunic, his long curly hair in a ponytail and his glasses on his eyes, entirely in control of himself. His voice, as he answered questions from the judge and protests from the victims’ lawyers, was even and calm. He stood up against the 20 lawyers and the prosecutor for five weeks with the same self-confidence that reportedly made the Muslim chaplains of his jail wary of meeting with him, for fear that he would convince them that he spoke the language of true Islam. And yet what really was arresting in him was not the appearance of strength—it was the discrepancy between his intellectual confidence and the pathetic platitudes he offered when questions turned personal. It was the mix of aura and mediocrity that was striking.
“Reading is my passion,” he would say. “I read everything that opens the mind: gangsters’ biographies and religious books.” “I don’t listen to music because it leads to perversity.” “I love weapons. Men who don’t are fags.” “My parents had a very happy relationship,” he offered despite social-service reports describing systematic beatings from his father against Zoulika Aziri. “My mother, she was perfect,” he added even though evidence that she beat her children was plenty. Pressed to explain further, “ours is a different culture than the French,” he would add, even though he was French and born in the country. “For instance, we never say ‘I love you’ to each other. We don’t have the same way of life. Some things that are done in some countries can’t be done in others. We have an Algero-Berber culture. For instance, when a woman enters a living room with men in it, she can’t wear a low-cut dress. I don’t know,” he would add, somewhat contradictorily, “I’m a Westerner, I’m from here. But back home in Algeria, women can’t wear a low-cut dress.”
I’m a Westerner—back home in Algeria. Nothing seemed to make sense.
It was in the third week of the trial that the dysfunctional world of the Merah family appeared in the courtroom. A world of incestuous fury and daydreams of apocalypse in which—as another Merah sibling, Abdelghani, put it—“all love each other and all hate each other, all help each other and all steal from each other at all time. And we all lie,” he added like a warning. “And the person who lies the most constantly is the mother.”
First, it was Abdelghani Merah, 40, bald, nervous, jobless, and homeless. A former alcoholic, former wife-beater, now “the traitor of the clan,” which is to say, the good guy, who in the autumn of the year 2012—pretty much at the time where, from his jail, Abdelkader was asking his mother for pictures of his naked dead brother and dreaming of him in heaven at night—published a book, Mon Frère ce Terroriste (My brother the Terrorist), written with the help of the journalist Mohamed Sifaoui, in which he denounced the violence, the anti-Semitism and the radicalism in which he claims he was raised; who says his father was close to Algerian Islamists. In the aftermath of the book’s release, and for the five years that followed, he gave several conferences denouncing Islamism, and in March 2017 undertook a solitary redemptive march from Marseille to Paris, arriving in Paris on March 19, for the fifth anniversary of the Ozar Ha-Torah massacre, which he called “Merah day,” putting his family in the spotlight one more time; whose whole life, in short, is now framed in the light of his brother’s killings but who, inexplicably, the day after Mohamed Merah was killed by police, had said to his mother, “Don’t be sad, he died as a Moujahid.”
Then came Aïcha Merah, the sister who did not veil herself or leave for Algeria. Thirty-something and a hairdresser by trade, she was the only one in the family to claim atheism. Having moved out of the neighborhood in Toulouse after the killings out of fear, she was so stressed in the court’s chamber waiting to testify that she vomited and had to be briefly hospitalized. Her phone number was discovered in a phone found in Abdelkader Merah’s cell and out of fear, or familial solidarity, or because she doesn’t care, she had denied ever having heard anti-Semitic statements from her siblings. She had stated, furthermore, that her father was a great man, not at all an Islamist, no more than Abdelghani was the tyrannical domestic brute portrayed by police and social reports, for the good reason that since their parents’ divorce in 1993 all the boys in the family were at some point violent because it was the only way to please their mother.
And the mother, of course, came, too—Zoulika Aziri, 61, a fat body enclosed in a tight niqab, her face greasy and gray, her eyes expressionless, a monster of a woman; who according to social-services reports used to beat up Mohamed with an electric wire and once, in 1997, traveling to Algeria as she did on a regular basis to make money on the side, simply left for the airport, leaving her son Mohamed, then aged 9 without money or food—and not even a set of keys to come home (Abdelghani and his then-wife, Anne, discovered him in the street and sheltered him); who at the end of the 2000s said to Abdelghani that he should leave his wife and take care of her, Zoulika, instead, and help her out financially; who in 2011 let her other son Abdelkader set up for her a marriage with a man she hardly knew, Mohamed Essid, close to the Artigat network and father of the jihadist Sabri Essid. She spent three hours on the stand pretending not to understand French when the questions of the court became tough, claiming she either knew nothing or could not remember what she had said to the police five years prior. In her answers, when she did answer, she used the word “normal” to qualify practically anything out of the ordinary, from domestic violence to the videos of beheading that Mohamed Merah watched and forced one of his neighbors to watch, videos that she called “normal war videos”; she stated that her son Abdelkader was “kind,” and that the Merahs were simply “normal” Muslims who held no grudge at all against “the French or the Jews.”
Anne, Abdelghani’s former wife, entered the court—a small, frail woman in her 30s, of Catholic background, who met Abdelghani when she was 16, who a few months later, as he introduced her to his mother, was spat upon by Zoulika who called her “a kike and a French,” and who nonetheless stayed in the family and in the Merah house where they all lived—and where Abdelghani used to beat her on a regular basis; who took the trouble to explain to the court, in a tone that sounded like an apology, that she was “not even” Jewish, that it was her biological grandfather whom she had almost never met, only twice, when she was very little (the bit of information had been passed to Zoulika by Abdelghani himself). Her preference at the time, among the Merah siblings, went to Abdelkader, for he was the smartest, and “when I was seven months pregnant and Abdelghani hit me it was Kader who protected me.” She watched TV and fell asleep side by side with Kader on the living room sofa of the family apartment while her husband was out drinking.
Anne thought that Kader had turned violent only once he was of age and became strong enough to confront Abdelghani. He told him that, while he, Abdelghani, had taken over after their father left, his reign was now over—at which point he stabbed his brother seven times. It was to demonstrate that he was now in charge, she explained, that he began to beat up and torture Mohamed on a regular basis and to insult her, Anne, calling her dirty Jew and dirty French, though she felt rewarded when Zoulika, suddenly mellowing, would tell her, “you, for a French, you are still better than some Arabs.”
“Me, I loved everyone among the Merah,” she also said. “I saw them like my little brothers and sisters. I used to get along very well with Souad”—the first to join the radicals. It is surely difficult to imagine a more hellish family, like something out of a particularly grotesque Muslim version of Dickens. The only moments when everyone in the family agreed was when they talked about France and Palestine.
“The sole object of this trial is to determine whether the accused are guilty of the facts that are reproached to them,” presiding Judge Frank Zientara had stated the first day of the trial. But when the last Merah family member left the stand, it was clear that the courtroom had, for a moment, veered from the rational shores of legal issues toward the uncertain seas of terror itself.
Read more of Marc Weitzmann’s reporting on European terror from France here.