From Whence This Darkness?

The popular press generally treats the people we call terrorists as automatons, save the occasional nod to the moment when they were ‘radicalized.’ From where comes the darkness that drives a young man to seize an eight-year-old girl by the hair and shoot her in the head for being Jewish? Emeline Cazi’s fine profile of France’s ‘scooter killer‘- who last year murdered seven people in a two week rampage in southern France before being killed by police-provides no sure answers. There are contrasts with the case of Boston’s Tsarnaev brothers, but there are also parallels, not least of which is the vehement reaction to any attempt to understand or explain the killers.

The writing, rounded and diligent, fills the large unlined sheet of paper from edge to edge. This letter, headed “Toulouse, April 22, 2003,” and certainly written with help from a friend or perhaps one of her daughters, is that of a mother in distress.

“Your honor. I am writing this letter to bring to your attention the case of my son, Mohamed Merah. At my own request, and by your decision, my ex-husband, Mr. Mohamed Merah was given full custody of our son. Unfortunately (…) he (…) fled from his father’s place and returned to my home; he physically assaulted us, my daughter and myself, turned my apartment upside down…. His youth worker insists that he can do nothing for him, and that there is no institution appropriate for him. (…) My son’s violence has gotten to the point that I am incapable of dealing with it. On top of his aggressive behavior, his speech is ‘death.’ Your honor, I am appealing to you for help [to find]a solution that will (…) give him back a sense of structure and limits (…) -Yours very sincerely, with my highest regards (…).”

This handwritten letter is only one page among the hundreds that make up the file in the Merah case. There are also notes from youth workers, social worker reports, psychological reports. All of these documents tell the story of a family, bear witness to the climate of violence and the absence of love in which the scooter killer grew up. This absent father, of whom he is the 13th child, who returned to his country, Algeria, when he retired; this mother beaten up by her husband, terrorized by her second son Abdelkader, who did not have the energy, could not find the resources, to pull her youngest son out of the infernal spiral. The family background does not explain everything. Neither do the ghettos of the Pink City. The story of Mohamed Merah is this one: the unceasing search of a boy who could never find any anchors.

First Time Runaway at 4 Years Old

His father arrived in France in the middle of the 1960s. The country was one vast construction site. Men by the thousands crossed the Mediterranean to help with the rebuilding. Where labor was needed or was lacking, immigrants put down their bag. Mohamed Merah stopped at Bourges, at an agricultural equipment foundry. Next would be Toulouse, the cracker ovens of the Pare factory, ancestor of Heudebert Toasts. Evenings, in the migrant worker hostels, the men are homesick for their wives back home, for the little ones who are growing up without them. Mohamed Merah has seven children by his first marriage, with Fatma. Six others will follow (one daughter will not survive) from his second wife, Zoulikha, a pretty brunette, fifteen years younger, whom he married not far from Algiers one Friday in January, 1975.

Of France, Zoulikha would for a long time have no image but Toulouse’s Blagnac airport and that grid of concrete monoliths where her husband had settled in the south of Toulouse. She joined him there in the spring of 1981, carrying Abdelghani and Souad in her arms, and pregnant with another baby. Not a graduate, indeed never having been to school at all, she nevertheless was confident in finding work, perhaps doing housecleaning. Aicha was born six months later, and the family grew further the following year, with the birth of Abdelkader. The apartment was enormous, the girls and boys each with their own room. Their laughter echoed down those long buildings with their drafty corridors .

Within the family, the atmosphere is heavier. Workdays at the factory are grueling, and the monthly salary of 2,300 francs [$500] is barely sufficient. Some evenings, there is crying in the parents’ bedroom. Sometimes screams. The children are witness to violent fights. Ten years after arriving in France, Zoulikha flees the blows of her brutal husband. The divorce is finalized in 1993. In the meantime, a last baby has been born, in October of 1988. He is named after the father. Mohamed Merah is barely four years old when his parents separate. It is then that he runs away from home for the first time. “He would wait until everyone was asleep to go out onto the street by himself, in the night, to do as the older kids do,” says the psychologist for the Toulouse Appeals Court from a 2002 case. “When he was seven years old, he spoke of a man who was talking inside his head,” his mother would later tell the police.

Abdelkader: the Troubled Older Brother

Zoulikha, once again going by her maiden name Aziri, does not work, living instead from the 1,000 francs [$200] in alimony paid by her husband every month. She is now on her own, raising five children in a country whose language she barely speaks. The older children leave home very soon. Those who remain are the daughter, Aicha, and the two youngest, Abdelkader and Mohamed, over whom she quickly loses any sense of authority. The boys adopt the rules of the ghetto.

Abdelkader and Mohamed Merah.
Abdelkader and Mohamed Merah.

Abdelkader is 13 years old when he is first brought before a judge. He goes out frequently, returns late in the night, and roughly confronts his mother. In the Izards neighborhood where they live at the time, the Merah brothers are known as small time thieves, park vandals, window breakers. A social worker’s report from the period notes that Zoulikha Aziri worries about her baby boy, unable to pass his first-grade courses, already placed in detention, and whose only father figure at home is his older brother.

The year 2000 is a turning point. Mohamed enters junior high at Bellefontaine, the neighborhood’s middle school. His results in the first term are quite good: 15.5 in English, 14.5 in history and geography, 12.5 in math, 13.75 in writing. In arts, he is excellent: 17. His behavior by contrast is “too often unacceptable.” Mohamed “would like his mother to give him more time and attention,” a social worker writes, “[but]he thinks she is too busy with Abdelkader to be able to take care of him.”

“Kader,” as the brother is called in the neighborhood, terrorizes her, and it is he who lays down the law at home. He gets a pitbull. She can say nothing. The dog ransacks the apartment, tears up Mohamed’s school books. Abdelkader’s bursts of rage toward his mother are “very violent.” One day when she returns home from visiting a friend, she finds Mohamed bleeding. “He had been bitten on the thigh and chest by one of his brother’s pitbulls,” a social worker’s report says. ” Mrs. Aziri tried to get an explanation from her older son. “He went into a rage and violently kicked his brother Mohamed in the back three times.”

For days, Zoulikha Aziri cannot return to her home. Mohamed stays with Souad, his older sister whose apartment will be a frequent refuge. The alarm is raised at school on May 6, 2001. Mohamed “is a particularly intelligent child (…) who is in serious danger, as is his mother,” the school principal writes to a prosecutor. “The necessity of an intervention into this family has become urgent (…) in order to restore calm. Mohamed is at risk of becoming a dangerous teenager, given his intellectual capabilities.” “The mother is being given shelter by a neighbor. Mohamed is the only one who can enter the apartment when his brother is in it. He is totally under the spell of his brother.” The day that a social worker forces the Merahs’ door, she finds a “completely devastated apartment: rugs torn out, furniture demolished. The only livable spaces were the kitchen, Mohamed’s bedroom, and that of his mother.”

And Now He Too Starts to Beat His Mother

Amidst this endless chaos, attending class becomes secondary. Mohamed’s rare appearances at school are marked by “incidents,” “death threats,” “expulsion.” The social services agencies, still observing the family, worry about this child “who lacks any structure,” “who no one looks after,” and “is growing up without any affection from anyone.” “After school, he does not know where to go (…) so in the evenings, he stays in the Bellefontaine school neighborhood, hanging out with friends.” With the summer holidays approaching, “Mohamed is suddenly going to be without any activity for two months.”

Zoulikha Aziri secretly hoped that the situation would improve when school started up again in September. Abdelkader rented an apartment. Mohamed passed into cinquieme [equivalent to Seventh Grade]. But her baby boy was now walking in the footsteps of his older brother Kader, whom he would look up to as “the closest thing to a father figure” all of his life. Like him, he spends his evenings out, only going to bed at dawn. Like him, he starts to beat his mother, whose authority he rejects. “He would beat me, he would bite me, he would empty the whole fridge out onto the floor, he would break everything (…) I could not speak to him meanly, or he would run away or insult me in front of everyone, and I would be ashamed,” Zoulikha Aziri confesses to the same psychologist at the Toulouse Appeals Court in 2002.

The idea of placing him in foster care arrives – “three months from now, it will probably already be too late,” a psychologist warns. Youth workers consider this solution with caution: Mohamed would see it as a new abandonment. Another alarm from the school speeds things up. A Friday morning in January, 2002, Zoulikha Aziri arrives with bruises on her face and bite marks on her arms. Her son had beaten her all night.

Foster Care Center

Two weeks earlier, he had already beaten her with a broomstick and with rocks in the face. Mohamed is placed in emergency foster care. The following week, when the boy hears his mother hesitating about whether to take him back that coming Saturday, he goes into a black rage and threatens to kill himself. “The judge said that I could go home that weekend. My mother said something to me and it made me angry,” he explains to the policemen who questioned him about the punch he landed on the face of a social worker (…).”I am also angry because I am in the foster care center all the time. I just can’t take being in centers.”

It is hell for the youth workers in the foster center where Mohamed is placed. “He verbally abuses and insults the girls (…) who ask to be protected from him and ask [permission]to lock the doors to their rooms,” writes the head of department. “Every day we have to step in because he has damaged something, had a fight with somebody, or attacked someone.” An adult is needed full-time to take care of this child, though he refuses to submit to the “authority of adults,” for whose affection he nevertheless constantly demands. One day while on a ski trip in Hautes Pyrenees, he climbs on the roof of the resort. He is going to end it all, he says. The youth workers have stopped counting the suicide attempts and his run-aways, “which always end up at his mother’s place, from which he is brought back either by the police or on his own.”

This attempt at placing him in the foster care center, which will be followed by many others, will have no effect. In the dozens of reports piled up by the juvenile judge in Toulouse, we read the distress of the professionals. They describe a family in distress, an out-of-control young man who throws planter boxes into the halls of the foster care centers, attacks the girls who smoke.

This teenager, moved by a feeling of “all-powerfulness” is at the same time “a large child who is always asking for help from the youth workers,” who at the age of 14 has the teeth of a homeless man, “does not seem to have learned the basic skills of feeding himself, staying at the table, keeping himself clean, sleeping at night.” The only one of any worth to him: Luna, his brother’s female pitbull, for whom he builds a nest. “My life is shit; I am always in foster care centers; I have no school,” he summarizes in a single sentence.

“He Could Ride a Scooter Like Nobody’s Business”

Mohamed Merah.
Mohamed Merah.

So what to do then? What to do with this child who is “intelligent and extremely responsive,” “constantly on the alert and agitated,” “anxious,” who has “extreme difficulty acknowledging adults”? Is there at least a solution? Take him away from the neighborhood, from the family? Invariably he goes back. The parents are powerless. He terrorizes his mother, who has her own problems to deal with. Her landlord is threatening to expel her, a daughter has attempted suicide, her other two boys, the older ones, cannot stand one another. Out of a rage, Abdelkader stabbed his elder brother, who spent several days in a coma.

As for the father, he gets out of prison after three years: drug trafficking. Yes, he does ask to have Mohamed stay with him as soon as he has found an apartment; but he will give up on that after a few months, overwhelmed by this kid who does not obey, and who harasses him for a scooter, for new basketball shoes. “You dirty drug dealer (…) you’re not my father, leave me alone, I don’t give a damn about you,” his sons spits in return.

This long litany of storms and cyclones knows only a few moments of calm. He had almost turned 16. Mohamed has never hidden his passion for engines and for two-wheelers. “He could take apart a scooter like nobody’s business,” says one colleague, and he takes on a few internships at body shops. “All of his internships went very well,” his social worker notes. Mohamed even “feels very at ease (…) in the working world,” where compliments come more often than criticisms.

And so here he is, with a Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnel. “Mohamed is gifted and hard-working (…) the boss is quite effusive about him, talks about a good apprentice who has everything it takes to succeed.” Another body-shop owner takes him on for a year and a half. But then his past catches up with him suddenly. When he turns eighteen, all of the accumulated months of suspended sentences (for thefts, for driving without a license, for numerous assaults) are transformed into a real prison sentence when he is found guilty of pushing around and robbing an old woman. Eighteen months for stealing a purse- Mohamed rages at what he calls an injustice. The following winter he will be hospitalized for two weeks after trying to hang himself with his sheet on Christmas day.

Rebaptized Abu Yusuf

Mohamed Merah Senior thought of religion as “a means to protect his children from the bad life lived by the French, and some Algerians,” he told Paris Match. Despite that, the money his father promised him to do the daily prayers, the younger Mohamed Merah would for a long time avoid praying. We know nothing of what passed while he was in prison. But when he comes out, he is an adult, and he wears the traditional robe and grows out his beard and hair. His reading habits change, and the people he hangs out with too. They are more radical. He who was always being described by psychologists as “lacking sufficient anchors for his life”: has he found in the practice of rigorist Islam what he was missing? Nothing is ever that simple.

Mohamed Merah hung around “with extremists,” his mother confirms to policemen, but his older sister Souad says his relationship with ‘the bearded guys’ did not last: his character was too “unstable” and “capricious.” Mohamed Merah takes off the robe, falls in with his old neighborhood buddies again. Secretly , he rebaptizes himself Abu Yusuf, in reference to the Quranic Sura that [talks about]“the ordeals of prison,” Abdelkader Merah says; and curiously he henceforth refuses to touch cellphones.

One day he disappears. In the neighborhood, everyone thinks he is visiting his father in Algeria. To his mother he says that he has enlisted in the Foreign Legion. Souad has her doubts when, upon his return, he tells her he has “seen tigers.” There are no tigers in Algeria. In reality, Mohamed Merah has crossed Syria and Jordan, met up with his brother Kader in Cairo, where officially he is studying classical Arabic. With pride, he shows him his pictures of Baghdad. Next on his journey: Sudan or Somalia?

Did Mohamed plan everything in advance that when, on his return from Pakistan he religiously married young Hizia, 17 years old, her face hidden behind a niqab? It was the 15th of December, 2011. Together, they settled in at Mohamed Merah’s place, where they would watch The Simpsons or play Call of Duty on their Playstation. Like others, Hizia believed her husband’s story of his “touristic travels.” Her words to the policemen spoke volumes: “he talked a lot, and he needed people to listen to him. He needed love, and I often compared him to a baby”. She understood nothing when on Jan. 2 [2012] he abruptly dropped her off at her parents’ and asked for a divorce.

The Dream of Going Out Like Jacques Mesrine

To put an end to his “shit life,” Mohamed Merah dreamed of a spectacular death. Going out like Jacques Mesrine, whose book La Derniere Cavale [The Last Breakout] was found in the killer’s living room, next to a pile of books about Islam. Incidentally it is probably no coincidence that for his crimes he chose a Colt .45, the pistol that never left Public Enemy Number One’s side [Mesrine]. The videos of Merah’s crimes, which he carefully edited before sending to Al Jazeera, the lists of newsrooms to contact that he compiled (BFM, iTele), found on his desk: signatures of a meticulous preparation.

Thursday the 15th of March, he invites his sister Aicha and his brother Abdelkader to share a pizza and a drink. He is unusually affectionate; “his way of saying goodbye to us,” his brother Abdelkader Merah interprets today. That same day, four days after the first murder in Toulouse, two soldiers were killed at Montaubon, another seriously injured. The following Monday, he will execute four people and wound a fifth in front of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse.

The 21st of March, while her brother, dug in at his own apartment, welcomes the SWAT men with bursts of gunfire, Souad Merah takes a call from the police, asking her to talk to him. Abdelghani Merah was already there. A bad premonition had induced him to wake up his sister Aicha at 5 am. She “prayed that he was wrong.” For herself, Mohamed Merah’s mother only learned of her son’s death from the policemen, when she herself was arrested. His brother Kader asked the policemen how many bullets he had “taken.”

Finally, the father: he was in Algeria, to which he had returned in 2004. The last of his boys, Mohamed, had sent him letters begging him to come back to France, but what he wanted was to rediscover the country that he had quit too young. When he learned that this mad scooter killer who was terrorizing France was none other than his own boy, Mohamed Merah Senior rushed out to buy himself a satellite TV, and until the final SWAT assault, his eyes never left the television screen.

Emeline Cazi Translated from French by International Boulevard