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Official: No sign French suspect had al-Qaida ties

By Jamey Keaten

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 23 2012 8:30 a.m. MDT

People gather to pay respects to the shooting victims of Mohamed Merah in Toulouse, France, Friday March 23, 2012. France's prime minister fended off suggestions Friday that anti-terrorism authorities fell down on the job in monitoring a radical Islamist who gunned down children, paratroopers and a rabbi in a wave of killings that revolted the country. Merah, who claimed allegiance to al-Qaida died Thursday during a gunfight with police following a 32-hour standoff outside his apartment in the southwestern city of Toulouse.

Thibault Camus, Associated Press

PARIS — French authorities have no evidence that al-Qaida commissioned a French gunman to go on a killing spree that left seven people dead, or that he had any contact with terrorist groups, a senior official said Friday.

France's prime minister and other senior figures have been fending off suggestions that anti-terrorism authorities fell down on the job in monitoring 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, who had been known to them for years.

The senior official who is close to the investigation into Merah's attacks told The Associated Press there was no sign he had "trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists."

Merah was killed in a dramatic gunfight with police Thursday after a 32-hour standoff with police. Prosecutors said he filmed himself carrying out three attacks beginning March 11, killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three French paratroopers with close-range shots to the head. Another Jewish student and another paratrooper were wounded.

He had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and prosecutors said he had claimed contacts with al-Qaida 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-Qaida is a well-known "brand." The official said authorities have "absolutely no element allowing us to believe that he was commissioned by al-Qaida to carry out these attacks."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

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, issued a statement saying "Yusuf of France" led an attack Monday, the day of the Jewish school shootings.

The French official said the claim appeared opportunistic and that authorities think Merah had never heard of the group.

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.

Merah was questioned by French intelligence officers last November after his second trip to Afghanistan, and was cooperative and provided a USB key with tourist-like photos of his trip, the senior official said.

The official said when Merah was under surveillance last year, he was not seen contacting any radicals and went to nightclubs, not mosques.

Merah told negotiators during the police standoff this week that he was able to buy an impressive arsenal of weapons thanks to years of being involved in petty theft, the official said.

The picture painted by the official and the chief of the DCRI intelligence agency was of a self-radicalized young man with signs of a split personality.

For years, intelligence services have worried most of all about lone-wolf terrorist who radicalize alone and operate below the radar. Merah told police during this week's standoff that he was trained "by a single person" when he was in Waziristan, Squarcini was quoted as saying in Le Monde.

"Not in training centers, where he could have been singled out because he spoke French," Squarcini was quoted as saying.

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