By JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — Mohamed Merah grew up in one of the toughest housing projects of Toulouse, with his mother, two brothers and two sisters. At age five, his parents split up — and he took that hard. As a youth he turned to petty crime, landing in prison twice.
How the young man described by one top official as a "little failure" went on to carry out France's biggest terror spree since the mid-1990s is provoking anguished questions in one of the West's most-seasoned terrorism-fighting nations.
Merah's weeklong motorcycle shooting rampage killed three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi, horrifying France and raising fears that al-Qaida had struck again in Europe. The 23-year-old himself bragged of affiliation to the terror network, but officials say no evidence has turned up of such ties.
In some ways, Merah came across as an ordinary, if troubled, youth.
A one-time auto body shop worker, Merah liked cars and motorcycles — and enjoyed spinning out in vacant-lot "rodeos" with any car that he got his hands on, said a French official close to the investigation. Merah partied and was seen dancing at a nightclub days before his first suspected shooting, on March 11.
Behind the run-of-the-mill image hid "a second personality," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.
Bernard Squarcini, the head of the French police counterterrorism agency, told Le Monde newspaper that Merah had shown "psychiatric issues" in the past that may have contributed to his rampage.
What tipped the balance, Merah's former lawyer said, was his anger over what he saw as an unjust prison sentence and a failed effort to join the military.
"That laid the groundwork from which he threw himself into this religious fanaticism, in a spirit of vengeance" against the French state, lawyer Christian Etelin said.
While Merah enjoyed nightlife, the Frenchman of Algerian descent also moved in a crowd of ultraconservative Muslims. During the police standoff that ended Thursday with him being shot dead, Merah said he'd grown more radical in prison, often reading the Quran alone.
Unlike his fellow Salafis, however, Merah was not considered much of a thinker and displayed few outward signs of religious extremism, officials say.
"He was seen more as a little failure from the projects," Ange Mancini, President Nicolas Sarkozy's top intelligence adviser, told France-24 TV on Friday.
Sarkozy told French radio that Merah went "from the most ordinary criminal delinquency, starting as a minor, to the most brutal terrorism with no warning, with no transition."
In seeking possible accomplices, authorities have focused on Merah's older brother, 30-year-old Abdelkader Merah, who is in custody and was handed preliminary charges for complicity in murder and terrorism Sunday for allegedly helping hatch the plot — claims the brother denies, according to his defense lawyer.
The older Merah reportedly became Mohamed's mentor after their father returned to Algeria and the children went in and out of foster care.
Abdelkader, too, was known to authorities: He was implicated but never charged in an investigation in 2007 of a recruiting network for jihadists to fight in Iraq. In recent years, he traveled often to Egypt — for sometimes months at a time — to attend Quranic schools.
French police had known about Mohamed Merah since at least 2005 — when he was convicted as a minor for receiving stolen property. It was the first of what would be a total of 15 convictions: eight while a juvenile, and seven for misdemeanors as an adult, said Elisabeth Allannic, a spokeswoman with the Paris prosecutors office. He was sent to prison for 18 months for aggravated theft in January 2008, she said.
But France's highly reputed counterterrorism officials first learned about him in November 2010, when he turned up in southern Afghanistan — caught at a random roadway checkpoint by Afghan police and handed over to the U.S. military, which alerted French military intelligence.
That came at the tail end of a meandering road trip across the Middle East — Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, even Israel — before he traveled to Egypt, where he met up with his brother in Cairo, the French official told The AP.