France police investigate whether Toulouse gunman was ‘lone wolf’


French investigators Thursday were trying to establish whether a gunman killed by police after a 32-hour siege had accomplices still at large or was a lone assassin acting out his own bitter agenda.

They also want to determine how Mohamed Merah, 23, amassed an arsenal of weapons while reportedly under surveillance by France’s intelligence services after he spent time with Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Merah, who police say confessed to gunning down seven people in a nine-day rampage and told them he was linked to a fringe Al Qaeda group, died late Thursday morning with a shot to the head after battling the French equivalent of a SWAT team.

The heavily armed suspect had been holed up in an apartment in Toulouse in southwestern France since about 3 a.m Wednesday. Police said Merah had promised to surrender after admitting killing a rabbi and three children younger than 10 Monday at a Jewish school in the city and three French paratroopers in two earlier attacks.

As night fell, however, the talkative gunman, who had been communicating with police using a walkie-talkie, fell silent.

Police said they were under instructions to take Merah alive if possible. On Thursday morning, after 12 hours of silence and no sign of life from the apartment, they feared he had committed suicide. In fact, he was in the bathroom hiding from cameras and heat-seeking devices.

When dozens of police stormed the apartment, Merah, wearing body armor, burst out and fired at them with two automatic weapons. He reached a balcony window and jumped, still firing at police. By the time he hit the ground he was dead, shot in the head by one of hundreds of officers and sharpshooters who had surrounded the building.

Police said they recovered a bag that contained a video camera used to film the earlier killings. They also said Merah had a collection of guns, including a Colt .45 and two automatic weapons.

Investigators at first described Merah as a “lone wolf” after he told them he had carried out the killings by himself. Police, however, were holding his older brother Abdelkader and were questioning his mother.

On Thursday, several Al Qaeda-affiliated groups claimed responsibility for Merah’s crimes. One said it had renamed him Youssef the Frenchman in tribute to his killings.

The French newspaper Le Monde reported that Merah was arrested in southern Afghanistan in November 2010 and quoted an unnamed high-ranking U.S. official there as saying that the young man’s passport showed he had traveled to Israel, Iraq and Jordan.

Investigators are perplexed about how Merah, who was unemployed, financed his trips abroad and paid for his weapons.

Prosecutor Francois Molins said authorities were “looking for any accomplices who may have encouraged him to commit these acts or given him the means to do so.”

He said the camera, which authorities said Merah strapped around his neck during the three shootings, showed the extreme violence used in the attacks. In the first, the prosecutor said, Merah met an off-duty paratrooper by posing as a prospective buyer of his motorbike.

“We see him, during this meeting with the motorbike seller asking whether he was a soldier, then shooting him twice saying, ‘You kill my brothers, I kill you,’” Molins said.

After the second shooting, Merah could be heard shouting, “God is great,” as he drove off on his motorbike. The video shows the attack at the Jewish school, where Merah chased a young girl onto the campus and shot her in the head at point-blank range.

At a news conference after Merah was killed, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced legislation to make it illegal to look at Internet websites vaunting terrorism or visit countries for the purpose of terrorist training.

Willsher is a special correspondent.