How One of France’s Most Notorious Terrorists Came to Be Venerated as a Hero

March 21, 2023 | Liam Duffy
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During nine days in March 2012, Mohammed Merah killed three French soldiers in his native Toulouse and the nearby city of Montauban, before attacking a Jewish school where he murdered one adult and three children. Earlier this month, a French court convicted two men of “terrorism apologia” for posing on social media with a mock soccer jersey bearing Merah’s name and the number 7 (an apparent reference to the number of his victims). The stunt, writes Liam Duffy, is symptomatic of Merah’s status as a hero in the eyes of some Frenchmen:

Nicole Yardeni, a deputy mayor in [Toulouse], tells me that his name is sometimes viewed positively even outside of jihadist circles as “a symbol of rebellion” against society. After all, Merah is the man “who brought France to its knees,” as one local youth reminded the mother of his first victim. Even at the time of the police manhunt [for Merah] and siege [of his apartment], Facebook posts and pages honoring the gunman attracted thousands of likes, while police prevented people from laying flowers at his apartment.

Merah was no black sheep: his extended family nurtured an intense hatred of French society and Jews. His own brother, nicknamed locally after Osama Bin Laden, is thought to have joined the jihad in Iraq. His sister Souad was active in militant Salafist networks. She was part of an independent school established to raise model Muslims as defined by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood—whose ideas had cross-pollinated in the densely populated housing estates. Souad, who declared she was “proud, proud, proud” of her brother for massacring Jews, would—like so many of Merah’s associates—eventually join Islamic State. Meanwhile, Merah’s stepbrother was the only Frenchman formally accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the Yazidi genocide.

Merah’s impact on the jihadist movement and European counterterrorism was profound, but so was his impact on Toulouse. I briefly moved to the city in the aftermath of the rampage, and the attack seemed to loom over its residents. It also weighed heavily on Toulouse’s Jewish community, as Yardeni, who headed a Jewish organization before joining the mayor’s office, estimates that hundreds of families took the . . . decision to leave.

Among those inspired by the attacks, notes Duffy, was one Mehdi Nemmouche, who eagerly followed them on television from a jail cell while they were happening, and would later fight with Islamic State in Syria before returning to Europe to kill four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels.

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