French suspect showed no sign of militant leanings

THOMAS ADAMSON Associated Press Published:

PARIS (AP) -- Just a few weeks ago, Mohamed Merah partied at a nightclub, and an acquaintance noticed nothing out of the ordinary about the former car body shop worker who another friend said liked to talk about "cars, bikes, girls and sport."

On Wednesday, they both stood stunned near a huge police cordon in a blue-collar neighborhood in the southwestern city of Toulouse where negotiators were trying to get Merah to surrender.

The 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent was holed up in his apartment after exchanging gunfire with police and suspected of killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three paratroopers in a wave of attacks in southern France.

Prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters that Merah was a self-taught Salafi who had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan. He also had a long criminal record, the prosecutor said, adding that the suspected gunman's brother had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq.

But according to acquaintance, Mehdi Nedder, nothing about Merah's social life in Toulouse before the French attacks made him stand out as a radical bent on sowing terror -- or even that he had radical leanings.

Nedder, 31, described Merah as a "normal young man."

"Three weeks ago he was in at a nightclub," Nedder said in an interview. "And this morning I hear we're talking about al-Qaida. How can you change like that in three weeks?"

A friend of Merah's who would only identify himself by his first name, Kamel, recalled playing soccer with him as the two grew up in Toulouse.

"(He) was respectful and generous," said Kamel, 24. "We never spoke about weapons, religion or politics, but cars, bikes, girls and sport."

Police brought Mehdi's mother to the standoff scene to try to get her to negotiate Wednesday with her son, but she declined, saying she had no control over him, French authorities said.

As a teenager, Merah got caught up in petty crime, some of it involving violence, said his lawyer, Christian Etelin. But Etelin told BFM TV the recent wave of deadly shooting attacks didn't fit the profile of the suspect he first represented in 2004.

"He was a polite and courteous boy" who used to work in a body shop, Etelin said.

However, Etelin also said he was aware that Merah had been monitored by authorities after he made a visit to Afghanistan two years ago.

Western officials have been concerned for years about Muslim militants with European citizenship visiting northwestern Pakistan, possibly training for missions that could include terror attacks in Europe. In 2010 alone, dozens were believed to be there.

French authorities did not say whether they were aware that Merah had been training with militants before the attacks in France that began March 11 -- or if they learned of the training after they closed in on him.

A person of the same name was arrested in southern Afghanistan five years ago and escaped from his prison cell in Kandahar province in a 2008 mass Taliban jailbreak, according to Kandahar provincial spokesman Ahmad Jawed Faisal. However, Faisal says their records also show that Merah was an Afghan citizen from Kandahar province.

In neighboring Germany, which regularly tracks extremists who head to Afghanistan or Pakistan for paramilitary training, a senior intelligence official said that he had never seen Merah's name come up. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

American officials have been kept in close contact with French authorities as the killings of soldiers and Wednesday's standoff evolved, and are now "working to determine what the suspect's ties to al-Qaida might be," a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

British officials want to know whether Merah "had any links that could present threats to (Britain's) national security," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job.

"Another question will be if he was simply affiliated with a group, or whether someone in a group was giving him specific instructions," the British offical said. "At this stage, that doesn't appear to be the case but it's still in early days."

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Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, David Rising and Paisley Dodds contributed from Washington, Berlin and London.