Violence, crime, anti-Semitism and seething resentment of France: the toxic family life that shaped the notorious French jihadist Mohamed Merah has been vividly exposed in court this week.
Merah was killed by police in 2012 after gunning down seven people including three Jewish schoolchildren in southwest France, an attack that marked the start of a wave of Islamist violence.
His brother Abdelkader has been on trial since the start of October for alleged complicity, leading the prosecution to call witnesses to describe the dysfunctional family from the inside.
As France faces a continual search for answers as to why hundreds of its young people have turned towards violent Islamic extremism, the revelations provide some clues.
“It was the mother who was the first one to call me a ‘dirty Jew’ when I was 16 years old,” Anne Chenevat, who had a Jewish grandfather and knew the five Merah children and their mother from the mid-1990s, told the court on Tuesday.
Chenevat, now 39, had a son with the eldest of the Merah boys, Abdelghani. She described an atmosphere of casual racism and increasing hostility from the French-born siblings of Algerian origin.
“Abdelkader would speak to Abdelghani about me as ‘your dirty Jew’ or ‘your dirty French girl’ to provoke him,” Chenevat added.
– Family ‘chaos’ –
Of the five Merah children who grew up on gritty multi-ethnic housing estates around the city of Toulouse, three turned to radical Islam — Mohamed, the youngest, along with Abdelkader and their sister Souad.
A turning point in all their lives appears to have been the messy divorce of their parents in 1993, which Abdelkader described as “the Second World War”.
His father, an Algerian who emigrated in the 1960s in search of work in postwar France, was a labourer before rising to a position in a construction materials company.
Despite his father’s five-year term in prison for drug possession and allegations of domestic violence, Abdelkader described a “perfect family” before the divorce.
“After it was chaos,” the heavily bearded Salafist told the court.
He and Mohamed became typical delinquents involved in fighting, thieving and drug-taking, with interest in football but not religion, and little education. Both would end up in social care at various times.
Abdelkader was a bully with an aggressive pitbull who went to prison for stabbing Abdelghani, who developed a drink problem. But he was also a role model for the younger Mohamed.
Mohamed was identified as disturbed and needing additional help at school from the age of seven, a situation made worse by frequent changes of address which meant he swapped schools almost every year.
“It was a dysfunctional family. The father had left when he was five and the mother, on social benefits, didn’t want to look after him,” a psychologist who examined Mohamed as a teenager told the court on October 11.
– Radical preacher –
Abdelkader has admitted celebrating the September 2001 attacks on the United States and was dubbed “Bin Bin” by locals because of his admiration for Osama bin Laden. Mohamed, in turn, became known as “Little Bin Bin”.
As well as hating Jews and Americans, the court has also heard how the Merahs resented white French society which they saw as excluding North African immigrants from the best jobs and housing.
Gradually, Abdelkader, Mohamed and Souad turned to radical Islam, chastising their other sister Aicha for drinking wine, referring to “kafirs” (non-believers) and railing against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
The three were drawn into a network around imam Olivier Corel, some of whose followers, including the notorious Clain brothers, later left to join the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq.
While Abdelkader first appeared on the radar of local anti-terror intelligence services in 2006, Mohamed’s radicalisation is believed to have taken place in prison in 2008.
– ‘Allah takes revenge’ –
Handed an 18-month jail term for theft at the age of 18, Mohamed attempted suicide behind bars but appears to have found solace in religious CDs and books given to him by Abdelkader.
He left prison bitter about his treatment. “I know exactly what I am going to do when I get out,” he wrote in a letter to Abdelkader seen by police. “I hope Allah takes revenge on these kafirs.”
A series of foreign trips followed to Algeria, Syria, Libya, Turkey and Egypt.
In 2011, he travelled to the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan and completed his ambition of joining a jihadist group, the Qaeda-affiliated Jund al-Khalifa.
Returning to France, he was interviewed by intelligence services but explained his trips as tourism — one of several times that French authorities failed to identify him as a severe threat.
– The jihadist path? –
The trial, which ends in early November, has underlined how Mohamed shared characteristics common to other French jihadists since: a poor, loveless upbringing in a broken family and a confused identity.
His journey from a drug-smoking criminal to ascetic and murderous fundamentalist is now a familiar tale.
And yet the Merah family also demonstrates how nothing is pre-determined.
Aicha left home at 17 and is now a hairdresser attempting to lead a normal life. “I don’t believe in God,” the 36-year-old told the court, dressed in western clothes and baring her wavy, long hair.
Abdelghani cut his ties to his brothers and this year completed a march around France on foot preaching a message of tolerance and raising awareness about the dangers of radical imams.
His son, who was shown decapitation videos by Mohamed as a boy, is preparing to take exams to enter one of France’s prestigious business schools.