By John Irish
TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - For Mohamed Merah, the Frenchman suspected of killing four Jews and three Muslim soldiers in southwestern France, the road to radicalization ran from Toulouse to Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Merah, 24, who was holed up in a suburban Toulouse apartment on Wednesday, besieged by police commandos from the elite RAID unit, claimed affiliation with al Qaeda and said he wanted to avenge Palestinian children, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.
The suspect, a French citizen of Algerian origin, had been under surveillance by France's domestic intelligence service for several years after being identified in Afghanistan. But he led a normal life of soccer and night clubbing, according to friends and neighbors who had no idea that he had been in Afghanistan.
Merah had a police record for several minor offences, some involving violence, Gueant told reporters, "but there was no evidence that he was planning such criminal actions."
As police psychologists tried to talk him into surrendering peacefully, Merah gave the same impression of calm determination and self-control as the gunman on a scooter recorded by security cameras at the Ozer Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday.
"With the RAID negotiators, he explained a lot about his itinerary," Gueant said.
"His radicalization took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan."
During one of those trips, Merah was arrested in Kandahar and sentenced to three years in prison for planting bombs in the province but escaped in a mass Taliban jail break in 2008, the director of Kandahar prison told Reuters.
Ghulam Faruq said Merah was detained by Afghan security services on December 19, 2007. Afghan intelligence officials passed on his identity to their French counterparts, a security source said.
TRAINED WITH TALIBAN?
The daily Le Monde said Merah had trained with Pakistani Taliban fighters in a border tribal zone before being sent into southwestern Afghanistan to fight against NATO forces supporting the Kabul government.
French troops are part of that NATO operation, which may explain why the first victims of the gunman's killing spree were serving paratroopers killed in Toulouse on March 11 and Montauban on March 15.
French intelligence sources said about 30 French fighters trained by the Taliban were believed to have taken part in attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.
Gueant said the Salafist group to which Merah belonged had no official name and had never given any indication of turning to criminal activity. Police were still trying to determine whether the gunman acted alone or as part of a group.
Merah's mother, elder brother and two sisters were detained by police on Tuesday and negotiators sought their help in trying to persuade him to turn himself in to the authorities.
"His mother said she did not wish to speak to him because she did not believe she could convince him and he would be deaf to her appeals," Gueant said.
Merah's profile is typical of hundreds of second- or third-generation French immigrants from North Africa who have travelled to Afghanistan or Pakistan over the last two decades attracted by militant Islamist groups, security officials say.
Many were radicalized by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which triggered a wave of attacks on Jewish targets in France in the early 2000s, including arson attacks on synagogues. The number of anti-Semitic attacks declined last year, figures published by the Jewish community showed.
"LOST THE PLOT"
On his return to Toulouse, Merah led a normal life.
Cedric Lambert, 46, father of an upstairs neighbor, said Merah was friendly and had helped them about 10 months ago to carry a heavy sofa upstairs.
"He was extremely normal," Lambert said.
A group of four 24-year-old men of similar ethnic background who said they were friends of Merah tried to go to his apartment block on Wednesday to persuade him to surrender but were stopped at a police roadblock.
All told a Reuters reporter he had never talked to them about religion and they had no idea he had been to Afghanistan.
One friend who gave his name as Kamal, a financial adviser at La Banque Postale, said he had known Merah at school and they had done soccer training together after meeting again two years ago.
"He is someone who is very discreet. He is not someone who would brag and go around and say 'Oh look at my new girlfriend, look how great I am.' He is very polite and always well-behaved," Kamal said.
"He never spoke about Islam but he did pray. But we all pray five times a day. There's nothing strange about that."
Another friend of Moroccan origin, who gave the pseudonym Danny Dem, said Merah had tried to enlist in the French army but had been rejected. He said he had seen Merah in a city centre nightclub just last week.
Merah did not drink "but I don't think he is any more religious than I am. I think he has just lost the plot," Danny Dem said.
A third contemporary, who declined to give his name, said he went to primary school with Merah and they had remained friends.
"He likes football and motor-bikes like any other guy his age," said the man, dressed in a blue French national soccer shirt. "I didn't even know he prayed."
French police say they have arrested 914 suspected Islamist militants since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and imprisoned 224, averting several planned attacks.
(Additional reporting by Ahmad Nadem in Kandahar and Gerard Bon in Paris; writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Geert De Clercq and Peter Millership)