French say no evidence shooter was al-Qaeda
French authorities have no evidence that al-Qaeda commissioned a French gunman to go on a killing spree that left seven people dead, or that he had any contact with organized groups, a senior French official said Friday.
The official, who is close to the investigation into the attacks by 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, said there is no sign he had "trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists."
Merah was killed in a gunfight with police Thursday after a 32-hour standoff with police. Prosecutors said he filmed himself carrying out three attacks since March 11, killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three French paratroopers with close-range shots to the head.
He had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and prosecutors said he had claimed contacts with al-Qaeda and to have trained in the Pakistan militant stronghold of Waziristan. He had been on a U.S. no-fly list since 2010.
The official said Merah might have made the claim because al-Qaeda is a well-known "brand." The official said authorities have "absolutely no element allowing us to believe that he was commissioned by al-Qaeda to carry out these attacks."
Gunman riddled with bullets, autopsy shows
An autopsy on the body of the gunman suspected of carrying out the killing spree in the city of Toulouse shows he died of two bullet wounds — but that he was hit by some 20 bullets, mainly in the arms and legs.
The judicial and police officials said that a bullet wound to the left temple and another to the abdomen of Mohamed Merah were fatal.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
A little-known jihadist group claimed responsibility for the killings, but the official said the claim appeared opportunistic and that authorities think Merah had never heard of the group.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's spy chief said Friday that Merah had told negotiators that he only attacked the Jewish school after missing his original target — a French soldier.
Ange Mancini, Sarkozy's intelligence adviser, said on French TV that Merah said he had wanted to kill a soldier Monday in Toulouse but arrived too late and instead besieged a Jewish school nearby.
Mancini told France-24 TV that "it wasn't the school that he wanted to attack," calling the school shooting "opportunistic."
That account appeared to contradict Merah's claim to negotiators that he went on his rampage to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children as well as to protest the French army's involvement in Afghanistan and a French law banning Islamic face veils.
A little-known jihadist group claimed responsibility for one of the killings. The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors internet messages, said Jund al-Khilafah, based in Kazakhstan, said "Yusuf of France" had led an attack Monday, the day of the Jewish school shootings.
The French official said the claim appeared opportunistic.
Investigators looking for possible accomplices decided Friday to keep Merah's older brother, his mother and the brother's girlfriend in custody for another day for further questioning, the Paris prosecutor's office said.
The head of the DCRI intelligence agency was quoted in the Le Monde newspaper as saying there was little sign that Merah's family was involved. Bernard Squarcini said Merah told police that he didn't trust his brother or mother. Police also said his mother declined to get involved in police negotiations Wednesday with her son, saying she had no influence over him.
Why wasn't he stopped?
France's prime minister fended off suggestions that anti-terrorism authorities fell down on the job in monitoring Merah, who had been known to them for years.
Some politicians, French media and Toulouse residents questioned why authorities didn't stop him before March 11, when he committed the first of the three deadly shooting attacks.
Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande said questions need to be asked about an eventual "failure" in counterterrorist monitoring. Other candidates did the same, and even French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said "clarity" was needed on why he wasn't arrested earlier.
French Prime Minister François Fillon told RTL radio Friday that authorities "at no moment" suspected Merah would be dangerous despite a long criminal record.
"The fact of belonging to a Salafist [ultra-conservative Muslim] organization is not unto itself a crime. We must not mix religious fundamentalism and terrorism, even if naturally we well know the links that unite the two," Fillon said.
Merah told negotiators he killed them to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army's involvement in Afghanistan as well as France's law against the Islamic face veil.
New anti-terrorism legislation
In response to the slayings, Fillon said President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government is working on new anti-terrorism legislation that would be drafted within two weeks.
Families of the victims, meanwhile, were frustrated that Merah was not taken alive.
"Imad's parents feel that the justice they were expecting was stolen from them," said lawyer Mehana Mouhou, lawyer for the family of the first paratrooper killed, Imad Ibn-Ziaten. "His mother wanted an answer to the question, 'Why did he kill my son?"'
The lawyer also questioned why hours of negotiations between police and Merah failed Wednesday. Merah repeatedly promised to surrender, then eventually changed his mind.
"They could have very well not killed him. There were no hostages. The neighbours were evacuated," Mouhou said.
Cathy Fontaine, 43, who runs a beauty salon down the street from the building in Toulouse where Merah was killed, said France should have a "zero tolerance" policy for people who seek out training in Afghanistan and potentially refuse to let them back in the country.
"An individual who goes to be trained in Afghanistan, you have to follow him," she said.