Molins said Merah went to Afghanistan for the first time about eight years ago to receive military training and was captured by Afghan government police. After being turned over to the U.S. military, Molins said, he was put on a plane back to France. He traveled to Afghanistan a second time several years ago but fell ill and had to return.
Because of the trips, the Interior Ministry’s Central Directorate for Domestic Intelligence had been tracking Merah for several years, Molins said. This was a key element that led police to his Toulouse apartment, the prosecutor added.
The first French soldier who was killed, on March 11 in Toulouse, was shot in the head at close range by someone who had answered his Internet ad to sell a motorcycle. Police computer specialists found that one response to the ad had come from a computer belonging to Merah’s mother, whose name was also in the directorate’s computers.
Another tip came from a dealer of the kind of Yamaha motor scooter that was used in all three attacks. One of the Merah brothers visited the dealership last week to ask for advice on how to remove a tracking device commonly installed on the scooters to trace them if they are stolen.
As soon as the dealer reported the visit, police homed in on the tracking device, which led them to the scooter parked near Merah’s apartment building.
Molins said it remains unclear to what degree Merah was acting as part of a group. Merah’s devoutly Islamic brother, Abdelkader, was taken into custody for questioning, he said, along with his mother and Abdelkader’s girlfriend, but any involvement by them in the shootings is being investigated.
The hunt for Merah came to a climax as the three schoolchildren and the Hebrew teacher who were killed outside a Toulouse school on Monday were buried in Jerusalem. All four were dual Israeli-French nationals. In a display of France’s concern, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe accompanied the four bodies from France to Israel and attended the services.
A short time later, Sarkozy presided over the ceremony in Montauban honoring the three soldiers. The first, Imad Ibn Ziaten, 30, was killed as he bargained over his motorcycle in Toulouse. The two others, Abel Chennouf, 25, and Mohamed Legouade, 23, were shot at close range four days later in Montauban, 10 miles to the north, as they took money from an automated teller machine. Another was badly wounded, Sarkozy said, and is in a coma.