In the neighborhood where Mohamed Merah grew up, and was
last seen joking with friends days after he had killed three French soldiers in
a pair of shootings, the message to outsiders is clear: he was one of our own,
no matter what he did.
The self-styled Islamist terrorist tore a wound in
France's fragile sense of community when he gunned down the soldiers, sons of
North African immigrant families like his own, and then a rabbi and three Jewish
children - all in the name of al-Qaida.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy put his re-election campaign on hold to call for
unity. Tens of thousands of people marched silently in memory of the
But in Les Izards, the 1960s housing project where Merah, 23,
felt most at home, the reaction to his rampage has been one of anxious defiance
of outsiders trying to peer into what seems like a closed world, cut off from
elegant downtown Toulouse by its poverty, by crime and, locals say, by racial
"I'm going to tell you one thing: he was a kid
from this neighborhood and we support his family no matter what people
say on TV," said
one middle-aged mother of Algerian origin who said she had known Merah
was a child in Les Izards.
Typical of others in the area of low-rise
blocks and tidy squares a 15-minute metro ride north of the city center, she did
not want to be named when speaking up for the man who was, briefly, public enemy
No. 1: "He was one of ours," she said. "And we will never be sure of what really
happened." Merah's brother charged with complicity
Abdelkader Merah, 29, the gunman's older brother, has been
charged with complicity in murder and theft and involvement in terrorism. An
austere figure and a more overtly devout Muslim than his sibling, who rarely
prayed at the mosque, officials suspect Abdelkader may have exerted a strong
influence on Mohamed since their father returned to Algeria in 2006 or
"He was difficult to approach, much more austere and distant than
Merah - the sort who did not look women in the eye," said Patricia, a mother of
Italian and Algerian background who had known Mohamed Merah since he was 14 and
said she was close to his brother's wife.
Police also suspect that a
third man may also have been involved. But in Les Izards, where a movement is
under way to mount a demonstration in support of the imprisoned Abdelkader
Merah, many simply find the idea of an organized plot by the Merahs and others
absurd. Some mutter of official conspiracy.Merah was not always very religious
was a playful teenager, zooming between Les Izards' apartment blocks on his
motor scooter, no different from many others. A lover of cars and soccer, he
went to nightclubs with friends and left school at 16 to work as a panel-beater.
Though his travels heightened his interest in Islam, he prayed only infrequently
and rarely went to mosque.
"I don't condone what he did, but I can only
talk about the Mohamed I knew, who was a kid like all those over there," said
Patricia, who like many found it simply hard to compute the crimes to which
police said Merah confessed before being killed.
"When I last saw
was with his friends by the tobacco shop," she said. "He played with my
gave him two euros to buy candy at the bakery." Few of the young men of
the neighborhood would open up to outsiders. Among those who did, some
conspiracy theories more convincing than that one of their own could be a
who amassed an arsenal of guns and targeted his victims carefully: "All
is a setup to get people to vote for Sarkozy," said Hamed, a boy in his
teens riding a bicycle through the village-like warren of apartment
Among people who knew Merah and who do accept the police version
of events, including his lawyer, the most common explanation is not a calculated
terrorist operation but a fit of rage brought on by a mix of trauma over
"horrible" things seen during his travels and disappointment over his breakup
with a girl to whom he was engaged in a religious ceremony in
Patricia said that Merah may have been upset about the breakup
with his fiancee, a woman from a nearby neighborhood, which coincided with his
serving a month in jail in February for driving without a license.
arrested at 17, Merah had a number of run-ins with police as a teenager for
stone-throwing and shoplifting, before being sentenced to 18 months in jail in
2007 for a robbery.
Lawyer Christian Etelin, who had represented Merah
since he was 16, described the week-long series of gun attacks as entirely the
product of an internal mental disturbance: "It was an episode of paranoid
schizophrenia during which he completely disconnected from reality," Etelin
said. "He was a fragile kid. I don't believe he was an Islamist."
Merah's troubles may have built up recently, with some friends also saying that
he had even tried to join the army and was depressed by rejection - adding a
further speculative angle to attempts to understand his shooting at soldiers. In
2009, a clinical psychologist, Alain Penin, examined Merah after a suicide
attempt in prison and found the then 20-year-old "anxious" and "introverted" but
not "psychologically disturbed".
At the root of problems, Penin told
French media, Merah had dealt poorly with his parents' divorce when he was five
years old and developed a withdrawn personality after his father, Benalel Merah,
left France for Algeria in 2006 or 2007.
His departure after serving a
prison sentence in France for cannabis trafficking had an impact on Mohamed, who
often referred to his father in conversation and came to rely more on his older
brother for emotional support in his absence.Social issues and their effect on Merah
over Merah's killing spree gives way to soul-searching, concern for many in
France is shifting to how the gritty, impoverished suburbs provide a breeding
ground for angry and fragile youths like Merah to turn to radical
Finger-pointing at Islam by Sarkozy, whose
five-year term has seen the full-face veil banned in France, and by his
far-right rival Marine Le Pen, has not helped calm tensions, said Jean-Paul
Makongo, who works for the Toulouse local authorities on promoting diversity.
Instead, some of France's leaders have challenged the youth of Les Izards to
"The thought process is this: since you have discriminated
against me, I'm going to do the same to you," Makongo said of the way the
youngsters in the suburbs were reacting.
Several residents of Les Izards,
in illustrating that sense of confrontation with the French state, alleged that
on the day Merah was killed, police cars drove through the neighborhood honking
car horns in the manner of jubilant sports fans.
"If we don't want to
produce more Mohamed Merahs," Makongo warned, "We are going to have to work a
lot harder to reach these kids through dialogue - and find them jobs."