Brother of French jihadist fights radicalisation

His aim is to prevent young people turning into his brother Mohamed Merah, who killed soldiers and Jewish children in a shooting rampage.

Brother of French jihadist fights radicalisation
Abdelghani Merah, who istrying to make sure no one becomes like his brother Mohamed. Photo: AFP

He is the brother of jihadist Mohamed Merah, who four years ago killed three soldiers and four Jews, but in his radicalised
family it is Abdelghani who is seen as the black sheep.

Abdelghani Merah has light brown eyes, a shaven head and a surname immediately associated with terror in France, but after losing everything because of his brother's acts he has found a calling: de-radicalising youngsters drawn to jihad.

In an interview with AFP, he says he will never forget the morning in March 2012 when he turned on the television and recognised the street where his brother lived, now crawling with security forces.

It hit him that the man who had been riding around on a scooter, shooting soldiers in the southern French city of Toulouse and nearby Montauban, and then a rabbi and three Jewish children in Toulouse a few days later, was his younger brother Mohamed.

“I rushed to the scene, in a panic. The police thought I wanted to attack them — but I wanted to help them negotiate with Mohamed,” he said.

Mohamed was killed in a firefight with the police after a stand-off lasting about 30 hours.

None of these events took Abdelghani, who is around 40, by surprise.

He accuses his Algerian parents of sowing “fertile ground” for radicalisation and anti-Semitism among his brothers and his sister Souad.

“My mother always said that Arabs are born to hate Jews. And my father thought that Palestinians were right to carry out suicide bombings and that the Israelis got what they deserved.”

In 2003 he said he warned police that “my other brother Kader was calling himself Bin Laden”.

A known Salafist, Abdelkader Merah had been under closer scrutiny by intelligence services than Mohamed and is now facing charges of complicity in his brother's attack, which he denies.

Black sheep

Abdelghani cannot quite say why he never absorbed his parents' hatred like his siblings did.

“I was quite a good goalkeeper, and sought after by reputable football clubs, maybe that is where my openness comes from,” says the man who later lost the use of one of his arms in a motorbike accident.

He endured a series of painful clashes with his family.

First he fell in love with a woman who had a Jewish grandfather, which so revolted his brother Abdelkader that he stabbed him seven times during an argument.

In another incident he secretly filmed his sister saying she was “proud” of what Mohamed had done, for a television documentary.

Abdelghani also wrote a book titled “My Brother, the Terrorist”, to denounce the climate of hatred in his family and to counter growing hero-worship of his brother by young Muslims.

“To them, I did the worst thing possible … I lost all my friends overnight,” Abdelghani said.

“I thought I was relieved after writing my book, but in fact I was depressed. My family was angrier at me than at Mohamed.

“I felt so much pain for them, they didn't realise what they were doing by idolising him like that. (To them) he didn't kill children, but Jews.”

Sinking into despair, Abdelghani broke up with his girlfriend and found himself homeless and jobless as his surname increasingly poisoned his life.

'Breaking the myth'

Then one day, Mohamed Sifaoui, the journalist who helped him write his book, invited him to a meeting in Paris on de-radicalisation where he met with the association Entr'autres (Among Others) working with youngsters drawn to jihad.

He decided to join them.

“Abdelghani brings the truth about his brother's character. He breaks the hero-worship. He shows that political religious extremism comes from within the family, like in Nazism,” said Patrick Amoyel, a professor in psychopathology and founding member of Entr'autres.

“I have something to offer, I can break the myth around Mohamed, tell youngsters that my brother was weak (and) his mind was stolen,” Abdelghani said.

As for the mothers of these lost teens: “I try to comfort them, tell them that what they are doing is essential. If Mohamed had had their love, he would never have become Mohamed Merah.

“I also warn them: if there is a Salafist in the family, you must separate him from the others, because the attacks in Brussels and Paris show clearly the role brothers can play in jihad.”

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Paris police attacker adhered to ‘radical strain of Islam’

A staffer at Paris police headquarters who stabbed four colleagues to death in a frenzied attack adhered to "a radical vision of Islam", an anti-terror prosecutor said Saturday, amid a gathering political storm over security safeguards.

Paris police attacker adhered to 'radical strain of Islam'

The 45-year-old computer expert had been in contact with members of Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, and defended “atrocities committed in the name of that religion”, Jean-Francois Ricard told reporters. 

Three police officers and an administrative worker — three men and one woman — died in the lunchtime attack on Thursday at the police headquarters, a stone's throw from the Notre-Dame cathedral in the historic heart of Paris.

READ: Paris stabbings investigated as possible terrorist attack

The assailant, named as Mickael Harpon, was shot dead by a policeman, who was a trainee at the police headquarters.

The attack sent shock waves through an embattled French police force already complaining of low morale and has raised serious concerns over security procedures.

Harpon, born on the French overseas territory of Martinique in the Caribbean, converted to Islam about 10 years ago, the prosecutor said.

He had no police record but was investigated for domestic violence in 2009.

Sources said he had worked in a section of the police service dedicated to collecting information on jihadist radicalisation.

Harpon held a high-level “defence secrets” security clearance, which authorised him to handle sensitive information of national defence importance and would have subjected him to regular, stringent security checks.

'No nervousness'

On the morning of his “extremely violent” attack, Harpon bought two knives — a 33-centimetre long kitchen knife and an oyster knife — which he kept hidden, Ricard said.

He showed “absolutely no signs of nervousness” as he circled back to police headquarters, according to CCTV footage examined by police, the prosecutor said.

The attack, from his return to the office, the killings and his death by police bullets, lasted seven minutes, Ricard said.

He first killed a 50-year old police major and a 38-year old guard who worked in the same office as Harpon and were having lunch at their desks.

He then went to another office on the same floor where he killed a 37-year old administrative worker.

Having failed to enter another office, which was locked, he went down into the courtyard where he stabbed a 39-year old policewoman who later died of her wounds.

He then injured two other people, before the trainee policeman killed him with two shots.

Shortly before the attack he had exchanged 33 text messages with his wife.

The messages exclusively concerned religion, and the attacker ended the conversation with “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”) and told her to “follow our beloved prophet Mohammed and meditate on the Koran”, according to the prosecutor.

She was being held by police on Saturday. Harpon, who supported the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, had changed his attire in recent months, shunning “all Western clothes in favour of traditional garments to visit the mosque”, Ricard added.

He also wished to no longer “have certain kinds of contact with women”.

'Storm coming'

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has described the attack as a “veritable tragedy”, will lead tributes to the victims on Tuesday, the Elysee announced on Saturday.

Sources at the Paris prosecutor's office said on Friday the case had been passed to the anti-terrorist prosecutor's office (PNAT).

After Saturday's news conference by the anti-terror prosecutor, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner came under pressure from political opponents who demanded his resignation.

They also called for an inquiry into how Harpon could have failed to attract the attention of security services in the run up to the attack.

“It's going to be hard to explain how he kept below the radar” of anti-terror units, said one police source.

“There's a storm coming,” the source said.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe meanwhile expressed his “full confidence” in Castaner. But in an interview with weekly JDD to be published Sunday, he also said that procedures for the detection of signs that anti-terror agents may themselves have been radicalised would be probed.

Paris's top policeman Didier Lallement said there was no reason to question security arrangements in police headquarters.

French police have been a recurring target of jihadist groups, such as Islamic State, behind a wave of attacks since 2015 — from large synchronised assaults to isolated knife and gun attacks.

In June, a parliamentary report on radicalisation within the public services spoke of 30 suspected cases out of the 150,000 police officers and 130,000 gendarmes in France.