President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday that a radical Frenchman who claimed to have gunned down Jewish children and paratroopers apparently was not part of a terrorist network, painting the violence as an isolated attack by an unhinged "monster."
Mohamed Merah said to police before being killed last week that he had links to al-Qaida, traveled to Afghanistan and received weapons training in the militant-riddled Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan. But authorities have questioned some of Merah's claims.
"There is no (terror) cell," Sarkozy, who is campaigning for a second term, said on France-Bleu radio Monday. "To our knowledge, there is no network."
He described Merah as a "lone wolf" and expressed concern about "the processes of self-radicalization of lone individuals."
Sarkozy suggested France shouldn't draw too many conclusions from the killings, which took the lives of three children, a rabbi and three paratroopers in southwestern France in just over a week. Police say Merah claimed responsibility for the killings.
French investigators are looking into whether Mohamed's brother, Abdelkader, was an accomplice to the killings, and whether anyone else might have been involved. Preliminary charges for complicity in murder and terrorism have been filed against Abdelkader, though no evidence has emerged that he took part directly in the shooting.
In recent years, French authorities have dismantled several networks of extremist Muslims sending French youth to Afghanistan and Iraq to train or fight.
News emerged Monday that French police in December detained a radical preacher suspected of planning to lead dozens of young Muslims from the southern city of Nice to Afghanistan.
A French official said that Omar Diaby, a 37-year-old Senegalese man, was meeting up with two followers on Dec. 9 when he was stopped by police for an ID check that upended his plans. The official identified him as a preacher, but he did not appear to have any formal affiliation with a mosque.
The official said Diaby remains behind bars as police investigate his role in the suspected network and in trafficking in stolen car parts. The official, who is familiar with the investigation, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal the information.
There was no confirmation of any link to the Merah case.
Sarkozy, who is facing a tough re-election campaign this spring, dismissed the far-right's use of Merah's attacks to call for tougher immigration laws. Merah had family connections to Algeria but was born in France.
Sarkozy has veered to the right to garner votes, talking a tough line on immigration and the place of Islam in France.
But he criticized one of his opponents Monday, National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, for conflating the immigration problem and the work of Merah, whom the president called a "monster."
"We can't equate Mohamed Merah, born in France, French, with the children of immigrants who arrive by boat," Sarkozy said on France-Info radio. "This Mohamed Merah, if you'll excuse me, was a monster."
While Sarkozy rejected the link between the spree and immigration, he added that he stands by his calls to tighten border controls, saying that France can't afford to provide benefits to illegal immigrants and a flood of arrivals is overwhelming the country's means for assimilating newcomers.
This weekend Le Pen ramped up her rhetoric, promising to drastically reduce the number of immigrants coming to France's shores and warning that more attacks await France if it does not shut its doors.
"How many Mohamed Merahs are in the planes and on the boats that arrive each day in France filled with immigrants? How many Mohamed Merahs are among the non-assimilated immigrants?" she shouted to cheers at a rally in western France on Sunday.
Later, she promised to bring "radical Islam to its knees." The cry echoed Merah's own claim that he had brought France to its knees.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.