How a 2012 attack ushered in an era of terror for France

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

PARIS (AP) — Soon after Mohammed Merah’s life ended in a torrent of explosions and bullets, the mother of his first victim swore she would devote her life to ensuring that no other parents would suffer as she had.

But since the 2012 assault on a Jewish school and soldiers left seven people dead, France has endured a seemingly endless series of attacks and near-misses from extremists with the same background. Merah was the model they hoped to imitate and surpass.

Beginning with that attack, Islamic extremists — most of them homegrown — have killed nearly 250 people in France, far more than anywhere else in Western Europe. The death toll might have increased on Sunday when two women were killed in a knife attack in Marseille by a man whose motives were not yet known.

“I said, ’Watch out, there are Merahs everywhere! You have to do something,’” said Latifa Ibn Ziaten, whose son, Imad, was a French paratrooper when Merah shot and killed him on March 11, 2012. “But, unfortunately, no one heard me at first. I think they believed it was just a mother’s grief.”

Within eight days, Merah attacked other French soldiers and a Jewish school in Toulouse. In all, he killed seven people, including three children in France’s first Islamic extremist attack in 17 years.

“France entered a new era. Beginning in 2012, we entered an age of terrorism, where before we believed ourselves protected. It was a turning point in French history,” Mathieu Guidere, a professor of Islamic studies in Paris and author of “Islamic Fundamentalism.”

Merah, who had gone to Pakistan and trained with al-Qaida-linked extremists, died after a 32-hour televised standoff with France’s police special forces. He was 23 and had already been in and out of prison for petty crimes. His older brother, Abdelkader Merah, and an acquaintance will stand trial Monday, charged with complicity in terrorism.

Guidere said the Merah brothers’ choice of targets made an impression on a simmering generation of nascent French extremists.

“In attacking, in killing at the same time soldiers and Jewish citizens, he smashed two taboos and opened the path psychologically for those who came after, who saw a model in him and who said to themselves they could do the same thing, if not worse,” he said.

Worse came quickly.

In May 2014, a Frenchman who fought alongside Islamic extremists in the Middle East returned to Europe to gun down visitors at a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four. According to Didier Francois, a former hostage who recognized Mehdi Nemmouche after the extremist’s arrest, he had “an obsession to imitate or surpass Merah.”

In 2015 and 2016, more French extremists followed suit, either sent by the Islamic State group directly or inspired by its directives to inflict pain and hatred.

“At the time, even if the Merah attack should have been an alert, the attacks in Paris stupefied us. We suddenly discovered that we were a terrorist target and that the risk was everywhere,” Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said this week.

Since then, France has more than doubled down on security and, next week, votes on a law that would make permanent many of the measures imposed as part of a state of emergency that began Nov. 13, 2015, when a group of mostly French and Belgian Islamic State fighters killed 130 people with bombs and gunfire in Paris. About 7,000 soldiers, most armed with automatic weapons, are deployed across the country in what the military calls Operation Sentinel.

Other countries also entered the crosshairs of their own homegrown extremists, including Belgium, Britain and Spain. But none suffered as much bloodshed as France, and no other European country has seen as many young people leave to join the Islamic State and other extremist fighters in Iraq and Syria, including Merah’s own sister and his half brother.

Through it all, Ibn Ziaten visited schools and prisons, bringing her son’s service beret and speaking to those at risk of traveling the same path to extremism as his killer.

Merah’s brother, Abdelkader, was in prison, out of sight of the victims of the 2012 attack. On Monday, Ibn Ziaten will face him for the first time.

“This trial has to shed light, be clear, that the truth come out, that justice be done, and that it become a part of history. Because he is the one who set off all these terrorist attacks in France, it was Merah,” she said.

Abdelkader Merah is accused of playing an active role in radicalizing his brother and in plotting the attacks. During the standoff with police, Mohammed Merah said he acted alone, according to a transcript obtained by the French newspaper Liberation a few months afterward. According to court documents obtained by The Associated Press, Mohammed Merah wrote in a 2009 letter to Abdelkader from prison: “When I get out, I will know very very precisely what is left for me to do.”

Mohammed rode a scooter stolen by Abdelkader to the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and, in a span of 38 seconds, gunned down a father and his two young sons, as well as an 8-year-old girl. Ibn Ziaten believes the jailed Abdelkader Merah knows far more than he has admitted about the meticulously planned and videotaped attacks.

“I hope I will be allowed to take the stand, to say what I think,” Ibn Ziaten said.

“These are things that I expect from him: I expect him to speak and that he look at me,” she added. “Not a smile. It’s not the smile that will disconcert me. Not at all. Or his eyes that will make me afraid. Because I’m not afraid of him.”