PARIS – The 32-hour standoff that began when authorities surrounded the apartment where terrorist Mohammed Merah was holed up in Toulouse came to a dramatic conclusion on Thursday, March 22, one that's sure to leave a mark on France, and its politics, for some time.
After police tracked down the killer of seven people -- including three small children -- they made repeated attempts to detain and negotiate with him. But after a long night in which authorities exploded noise bombs to keep a 23-year-old self-proclaimed al Qaeda supporter from resting, they moved in just prior to 11:30 a.m.
During the four-minute operation that followed, French police fired around 300 bullets and detonated an array of explosives. Cautious cops poked a camera to look into each room before entering -- until they reached the bathroom, according to Interior Minister Claude Guéant. "When the camera was introduced into the bathroom, the killer came out...guns firing, and jumped out the window, still shooting," Guéant told journalists in Toulouse.
Other authorities clarified that Merah was wearing a bulletproof vest, that he got off around 30 shots at the police -- injuring three, one seriously -- and that he made it onto a balcony where, as his guns blazed, a police marksman shot him in the head. (While the public prosecutor François Molins told reporters in Toulouse that Merah "jumped" off the balcony, it now seems clear that the bullet may have facilitated his decision.) Police found the young man's limp body on the ground, with his Colt .45 pistol nearby.
Merah's demise put an end to a saga that has shaken a nation already anxious about its sputtering economy and a nerve-wracking election campaign in which economic and xenophobic populism risks becoming the norm. But the 10-day rampage of the "motor scooter killer" was like nothing France has ever seen. The French have become sadly accustomed to hostage crises, radical and anti-Semitic bombings, and assassinations in recent decades, but a Natural Born Killers-style murder tour by motor scooter was something else. In a country where guns are relatively rare, a single man executed three French paratroopers of North African descent, seriously wounded a black soldier, and engaged in a callous assault on a Jewish school in Toulouse before going down firing. For most French people, this could only take place in America -- or in a Hollywood film.
Adding to that sense is the now-verified revelation that Merah filmed his gruesome escapades with a GoPro camera strapped to his chest. Molins described the footage as "very explicit," recounting that -- during the murder of one of the paratroopers -- Merah told his victim, "You kill my brothers. I kill you."
His "brothers," Merah suggested to authorities during the initial period of the standoff when he was speaking to them on a cell phone, apparently included the children of Palestine, and jihadist fighters in various parts of the world, like Afghanistan, where the French military is active. (He justified murdering the children at the Jewish school by claiming it as retaliation for Palestinian children killed in raids by the Israeli military.)
While Merah's death brought relief across France, it added new layers to the horror and uncertainty that he created. There will be no interrogation of the killer, no clear public explanation of his motives, and only a posthumous evaluation of his mental state.