Mohammed Merah, the terrorist who perpetrated the attack at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse on Monday, reportedly visited Israel in the past, according to the French daily Le Monde, a claim that Israel has denied following a preliminary investigation.
A U.S. military officer stationed in Afghanistan told a Le Monde reporter that Merah also visited Iran twice.
The officer, who is serving in the Kandahar province, said that according to the stamps in Merah’s passport, he visited several destinations in the Middle East, including Israel, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he visited the Indian consulate to obtain a visa for a visit to India.
The senior U.S. officer told Le Monde that based on an interrogation of Merah in Kandahar, he apparently tried to enter Palestinian Authority territory as well.
However, a preliminary investigation conducted by the National Immigration Authority shows that Merah never visited Israel, Israel Radio reported. The authority has reported that Merah’s name, based on how it has been published in the media, does not appear on the list of people entering Israel. The authority added that the investigation continues.
The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) has said it is also looking into the report that Merah entered Israel, but has no definitive conclusions at this time. They are also checking as to whether or not Merah, if he did, indeed, travel to Israel, did so on a forged passport and whether the purpose of his visit was to plan a terrorist attack or simply to gather information.
It should be noted that Richard Reid, who said he was a member of al-Qaida and was also known as the “shoe bomber” after attempting in 2002 to destroy an aircraft mid-flight by detonating explosives he placed in his shoes, had visited Israel before he attempted to carry out his assault on the plane.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, a U.S. intelligence official said Merah was added to a blacklist of people who were prohibited from flying on American planes, due to his participation in al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. The official said investigators were told by a French military commander serving in Afghanistan that Merah had also visited Iran twice, but French intelligence officials denied the report.
French investigators are aware of Merah’s visits to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area as well as his presence in Pakistan’s northwest Waziristan region in 2011. Merah spent time in an area considered to be controlled by the most extreme Islamic elements and also met with Taliban militants who trained him to carry out attacks such as the one he perpetrated in Toulouse. It was during this time that Merah apparently became radicalized and decided to turn to terror.
In 2011, Merah fell ill with jaundice, forcing him to return to France earlier than he had planned. His visit to Iraq was made possible by his brother, Abed al-Kadr, who is also known to French intelligence agencies for his membership in an Islamic organization operating in Toulouse and its suburbs. Merah’s brother and sister-in-law were arrested together with Merah’s mother and are considered to be religious extremists, according to Toulouse police.
In the past, Merah’s brother studied the Quran in a religious school in Cairo and was in constant contact with members of the radical Islamic Salafi movement there. According to investigators, it was Merah’s brother who established a jihadi organization in Toulouse and encouraged his brother to take action against their perceived enemies.