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A death worth knowing: The killing of Mohammed Merah

The French police were able to link Merah’s shootings through ballistic tests and were eventually able to isolate and discover the gunman’s identity through technical means

Only one thing can be said about the death of Mohammed Merah, the al Qaeda-inspired terrorist and murderer, at the hands of the French police:

Good shot!

Apparently Merah, who was likely involved in the death of at least seven French citizens, had attended radical Islamist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sentenced to three years in prison by an Afghan court, he reportedly escaped with hundreds of other jihadist inmates from a Kandahar prison in June 2008. According to some German and French press accounts, he returned to France “unmolested” by authorities, despite his Afghan arrest, conviction, and other radical ties. Afghan authorities have denied the Kandahar prison story.

Previous Examples
The 24-year-old Mareh is not the first of his ilk in Europe. In December of 2010 Taimour Abdulwahab detonated a bomb in downtown Stockholm, Sweden. Deservedly, Abdulwahab — a “suicide bomber” — was the only casualty. Of course, his intent wasn’t suicide — a suicide bomber’s intent is murder, not suicide — but labeling what he did as suicide somehow makes more sense in some circles. Abdulwahab, a Swedish citizen of Iraqi origin, reportedly became radicalized over time in Europe and eventually traveled to an al Qaeda training camp in Iraq before returning to Sweden. He maintained his ties to his mujahid friends, yet apparently carried out the attack on his own initiative.

In March of 2011, Arid Uka, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, became enraged at a video on YouTube he believed showed the rape of Muslim women by U.S. soldiers. The video was, in fact, a movie clip, but Uka was ignorant of such a distinction. Instead, he armed himself with a 9mm pistol and murdered Senior Airman Nicholas Alden and Airman First Class Zachary Cuddeback on a bus at the Frankfurt airport. Witness reports state that he cried “Allahu akbar” while he fired. Both Alden and Cuddeback, along with Staff Sergeant Kirstoffer Schneider and Senior Airman Edgar Veguilla, who were wounded in the attack, were on their way to a tour in Afghanistan. For these killings Uka received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Uka’s attack was the first Islamist attack German security services were unable to prevent.

For Merah, the relatively new (created in 2008) French domestic intelligence agency — the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Interiur, or DCRI — had him under surveillance for some time. Though French police authorities knew of his radical leanings, they may not have had enough evidence to demonstrate he had been planning a crime. He remained at large.

Jihadist Jack-in-the-Box
He had, however, committed relatively-petty criminal offenses in the past, before his trip to the terrorist training grounds in the no-mans-land of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Like others before him, both in Europe and the U.S., he started down the jihadist road while in prison http://www.policeone.com/corrections/articles/2473312-Jails-are-the-Jihadist-jack-in-the-box/. Once he turned his petty grievances and perceived slights into a crude and violent ideology of the oppressed, the stage was set for greater tragedy. He unsuccessfully tried to join the French Foreign Legion but eventually found his haphazard training in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Allegedly picked up in Afghanistan in 2010 — during what has been reported as a routine ISAF patrol — U.S. authorities may have returned him to France, where his travels came to the attention of DCRI. Even before his privately financed excursion to the Pashtun tribal lands he had already become known as an “atypical, self-radicalized Salafist” because of his involvement, according to Le Monde, in the local Toulouse jihadist culture.

Merah’s murderous rampage began with the death of a French paratrooper (1st Parachute Logistics Regiment) on Sunday, March 11th (some press reports say Saturday, March 10th) in Toulouse. He then killed two members of the 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment on March 15th in Montauban. These men, all of North African descent (one of the wounded from the Toulouse attack was from the French West Indies), were serving in what Islamists believe to be a foreign military service and, by doing so, became lucrative jihadist targets. Merah ended his spree on March 19th by killing Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two sons, five-year old Arieh, three-year old Gabriel, and eight-year old Myriam Monsengo in front of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse. In an especially sick twist, Merah gunned down his victims with a strapped-on camera to capture the bloody details. His weapon for all the murders may have been a .45 caliber handgun. Other reports claim it was a 9mm. In either case he rode a stolen motor scooter to the scene and, wearing a helmet with visor, walked up and coldly shot his victims in the head.

Some initial press reports were quick to note that the murderer could have been a neo-Nazi, with motives similar to those of Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik. However, just as in Breivik’s case, premature speculation (the initial reports on the Norwegian murders were that the criminals could have been jihadists) was wrong.

The French police were able to link Merah’s shootings through ballistic tests and were eventually able to isolate and discover the gunman’s identity through technical means. They cornered him in his apartment in Toulouse’s Cote Pavee district.

Ignorant Recriminations and Righteous Indignation
Likely weary of fruitless negotiations with the now barricaded and increasingly desperate Merah, a special team from the French National Police’s elite Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion (RAID) stormed the apartment on Thursday, March 22nd. They covered their entry with flash and smoke grenades. As they searched the apartment room by room, Merah decided to fight and by some accounts stormed out of the bathroom firing his gun. More than 300 rounds were exchanged. Two RAID officers were wounded in the melee and Merah, still combat effective, jumped out of a window, apparently armed, where police snipers ended the killing.

With his death comes the inevitable charges of police incompetence and investigative failures. Should the police have been able to discover Merah’s identity more quickly after the first killing? Should he have been in custody because of his radicalization? Should the police have kept a closer watch on his activities? Unfortunately, the bravery of the RAID officers will soon be overshadowed with politically righteous indignation over perceived police failures. Christian Prouteau, a founder of the Groupment d’intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale, the National Gendarmerie’s special operations group formed in response to the Munich Olympic massacre, has already strongly criticized RAID’s actions at the scene.

Merah’s radicalization process rightly ended with a police sniper’s bullet. Unfortunately, with Merah’s death the police may have a more difficult time identifying and locating possible accomplices. Despite this setback his death should be seen as a victory against terrorists of all types. Understandably, however—like most victories over terrorism — this success has come at the expense of the death of innocents.

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