(AP) French investigators focus on gunman’s brother
By RAPHAEL SATTER and JOHANNA DECORSE
The brother of an Islamist fanatic behind a deadly shooting rampage in France celebrated his martyr-like death and may have helped him, police and a lawyer said Saturday.
Counterterrorism authorities are expected to decide early Sunday whether to file preliminary charges against 30-year-old Abdelkader Merah, who has been under questioning for four days over killings in southern France that stunned the country and refocused attention on the threat of radical Muslim militants.
His brother Mohamed Merah died in a hail of gunfire Thursday after a standoff with police during which he claimed responsibility for attacks that killed three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers. Merah claimed allegiance to al-Qaida and told police he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for training.
In Pakistan, intelligence officials said Saturday that 85 French Muslims have been training with the Taliban in northwest Pakistan and are examining whether Mohamed Merah was part of this group. Merah traveled to Pakistan in 2011 and said he trained with al-Qaida in Waziristan.
The Merahs’ mother was in police custody for three days before she was released late Friday.
A lawyer for 55-year-old Zoulhika Aziri said her world had been “turned upside down.” “She is devastated,” Jean-Yves Gougnaud told reporters in the southern city of Toulouse. “At no time could she have imagined that her son was the one who did it.”
Investigators are focused now on older brother Abdelkader Merah, who was flown to Paris for further questioning Saturday along with his girlfriend, Yamina Mesbah.
Police union spokesman Christophe Crepin told reporters that detectives have already gathered evidence to suggest that Abdelkader Merah had “furnished means (and) worked as an accomplice.” Crepin refused to comment further.
Abdelkader had already come under police radar. He was questioned several years ago about alleged links to a network sending Toulouse-area youths to Iraq, but no action was brought against him at the time.
His girlfriend’s lawyer, Guy Debuissou, said that Abdelkader “celebrated” the death of his brother, who died firing his guns and jumping out a window.
The lawyer said investigators are trying to determine whether Abdelkader could have led Mohamed toward fundamentalism, and whether “Mohamed was the only one to have been under his sway or whether there are other Mohameds out there.”
The girlfriend denied any involvement in what happened, Debuissou told The Associated Press. The couple married according to Muslim custom in 2006, but did not undergo the civil ceremony required in France for a marriage to be recognized, the lawyer said.
Mohamed Merah had filmed himself carrying out attacks that began March 11 and killed three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three French paratroopers with close-range shots to the head, prosecutors say. Another Jewish student and a paratrooper were wounded, and five police officers were injured.
Key questions include how Merah was able to amass an arsenal of weapons _ including an Uzi sub-machinegun _ and rent a car, despite having no clear source of income.
French intelligence chief Ange Mancini told broadcaster BFM-TV that Merah told police during the siege that he bought the weapons for about (EURO)20,000 ($26,000), using money he acquired through break-ins and holdups.
Mancini said he believed that Merah was telling the truth about that, but suggested that forensic police would be examining the guns for clues as to where Merah got them.
Gun violence is far rarer in France than in the U.S., where laws are less restrictive. French civilians are banned from owning automatic weapons or handguns, with few exceptions, and licensing is strictly controlled.
That said, hunting is very popular in France and the country has one of the Western world’s highest levels of private gun ownership, coming in at No. 12 worldwide, according to the University of Sydney’s GunPolicy.org website. The group rates the level of French weapons smuggling as “moderate.”
Masha Macpherson and Johanna Decorse in Toulouse, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.