Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Terrorism in France: the motorcycle connection

For the last few days, France has been transfixed by an attack on Jewish school, in which a terrorist on a scooter rode up, and shot a rabbi and several kids. Security camera footage showed the killer chasing one girl down and grabbing her by the hair. When his 9mm handgun jammed, he put that gun down and drew his backup piece, a .45 and shot the child in the head.

Within a very short time, investigators had linked this crime to two other murders, the first of which took place a little over a week earlier. In both of those cases, the shooter was also scooter-borne, and dressed similarly (black leather, full-face lid.) Suspicions that the killer was, in all cases, the same person were strengthened by ballistics evidence.

A few months ago, I wrote about a motorcycle-riding (Mossad agent?) assassin targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. I'm not sure if the French killer, a 24 year old French citizen of Algerian descent named Mohammed Merah, was simply using his own and only personal vehicles on his one-man jihad, or whether he'd specifically chosen that mode of transport for all the same reasons we dig scooters ourselves - mobility in congested traffic, tight turning radius, etc...

Scooters and motorcycles were really central to cracking the Merah case. The first victim, a French paratrooper, was killed by someone (Merah) who arrived to look at a Suzuki Bandit the soldier was selling on the French equivalent of Craigslist. (Bandit 1200s, and other big naked/standard bikes are very popular in France, where there's a huge culture of hopping them up and customizing them.) Witnesses identified the killer as riding a Yamaha T-Max scooter.

There was speculation that the first killing was racially motivated, as the soldier was also of North African descent, and he was a member of a unit that had been in the news a while back, because a few soldiers in that unit had been discharged when it was discovered they were part of a right-wing neo-Nazi movement.

Three more soldiers were shot (two of whom died) while using an ATM, and witnesses again described the scooter, French cops were desperate to solve the crime, and started to throw some resources at it. They didn't act fast enough to prevent the worst tragedy, which was still to come.

Witnesses couldn't agree on the color of the scooter between the two incidents, which made cops suspect that someone might have repainted it. Sure enough, a local Yamaha dealer told investigators that someone had been in his shop asking about doing just that.

Meanwhile, cops were digging into the servers of the web provider where the first victim had advertised his bike, and identified 500+ computers that had clicked on that link.

As I write this, Merah is holed up in an apartment in Toulouse - a ratty industrial city in the south of France that, by and large, has seen better days. He's surrounded by a French SWAT team, and I'm sure that all of France is hanging on the TV, waiting for the denouement of this series of crimes, each of which was a sort of escalation of awfulness.

But once it's over, you can be sure that France will begin to wonder, as the U.S. did after 9-11, whether they shouldn't have caught Merah sooner.

When the cops looked at all the Internet Resource Locators of the computers that had looked at that first Suzuki Bandit ad, they highlighted one - a computer owned by Merah's mom. This should have been a real "sainte merde"(holy shit) moment, because Merah was a known terrorist who'd been arrested for planting roadside bombs targeting Canadian troops in Af-ghastly-stan. (Canadians? I'm especially mad now. Where's my hockey stick?)

He was one of the guys who escaped in that massive jail break about a year ago, after the Taliban engineered a tunnel (into, not out of!) a prison in the town of Ohfuckitsbad. OK, maybe it was on the outskirts of Kandahar.

But seriously... How did Mehar get back into France? Where did he get (several) guns? And once the cops had an accurate description of the scooter, how on earth did he move even a block on it without being picked up? Don't be surprised when it emerges that French cops failed to connect the dots because Mehar was a jihadist and they had their hearts set on catching a right-wing terrorist whose killings were motivated by ethnic, not religious hatred. Or if it turns out that they actually knew where Mehar was before the Jewish school shootings, but were hoping that he'd lead them to co-conspirators.

One thing that should surprise you, though, will be if GoPro (the official camera of AMA Pro Racing) starts running ads that it's the official camera of psycho-serial killers...

I guess it's a small cause for cheer that, at least, the French cops found Merah before he could upload all his murder videos to jihadist web sites, where they'd add insult to injury and possibly inspire others. Or would they have had that effect?.. Ironically three of the four soldiers Merah shot -- he'd targeted soldiers because of France's participation in the Afghan conflict -- were of North African origin and whether they were practicing Muslims or not, definitely had that religious background. And even most radical jihadists would be aghast at the images of small children being grabbed and shot at point blank range.

I wish I had a snappy ending for this post, but I don't. Good news to follow, I hope...

1 comment:

  1. When I wrote that Merah had escaped from an Afghan prison, I was in error. There was an escapee with the same name, but it (probably?) wasn't the Frenchman.

    The 'real' Merah did, however, travel to Afghanistan where he was picked up in a road block, and turned over the U.S. authorities. He was put on a plane back to France. That was probably the right thing to do, but it highlights the complexity of the legal issues surrounding arrests, detentions, etc, in the 'war on terror.'