TOULOUSE (Reuters) - The man without a face, dark visor down on his motorcycle helmet, strides after a child into her schoolyard, grabs her by the hair and calmly shoots her in the head.
Cold-blooded killing gets no more glacial than the murder of 8-year-old Myriam Monsonego by a serial gunman who one witness described wearing a camera to film his victims and was called by his pursuers “meticulous”, “calculating” and “well prepared”.
And yet by the time he parked his maxi-scooter outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, Mohamed Merah, who police besieging his apartment say confessed on Wednesday to seven killings in the name of al Qaeda, had made two basic blunders that had put detectives close on his heels.
The 23-year-old, already on the watchlist of France’s DCRI homeland security agency after his return last year from trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, took care to wipe fingerprints and DNA from cartridges found at the scene of the second of the three attacks he is alleged to have conducted in eight days.
But from the moment he used his mother’s computer to lure into a trap his first victim, a French soldier who like himself was of North African heritage, Merah had handed police a vital clue that would lead them to him. They were not in time, however, to save the lives of another two soldiers, three Jewish children and rabbi - a delay now facing scrutiny in France.
When Merah responded to an advert Staff Sergeant Imad Ibn Ziaten had placed on the online classified site www.boncoin.fr, and arranged to meet him on Sunday, March 11, at a quiet spot in Toulouse, the unique serial number, or IP address, of a computer at his mother’s home was recorded. But he was just one of 575 people interested in the motorcycle offered by the online seller “Imad”, who revealed in the ad that he was a soldier.
There were few other clues to go on when Sergeant Ibn Ziaten was shot in the head, point-blank, while discussing the sale on a patch of grass near a gymnasium in Toulouse by a man who fled into the afternoon on a high-powered scooter. But cybercops were left trying to narrow down hundreds of electronic leads, until further killings would let them zero in on a prime suspect.
In what prosecutors have presented as another - surprising - lapse in an otherwise methodical approach, Merah had also allegedly all but given himself away by taking his motorbike to a mechanic before the final shooting on Monday. Yet it was only after that attack that the man realised the significance of Merah re-spraying his 500cc Yamaha T-Max from black to white.
Anxious to portray their operation as a success while Merah remained trapped but heavily armed in his apartment in the city, the authorities insisted they had done all they could as fast as they could to find him - and said they had prevented further attacks he said he had planned, on more soldiers and policemen.
While police were still trawling through the e-mail traffic of Sergeant Ibn Ziaten, the killer struck again, approaching three young paratroopers in uniform as they drew money in broad daylight from an automated teller machine in a strip mall close to their barracks in the nearby town of Montauban last Thursday.
All three were shot with the same heavy-duty, .45 calibre handgun that was used four days previously. The gunman, helmet on, again fled on a powerful scooter. He left Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private Mohamed Legouad, 23, dead and 28-year-old Loic Liber in a coma. The two men who died were also from North African families. Liber’s origins are in the Caribbean.
Suddenly, police had something more to go on, including spent cartridges and a magazine from the Colt 45 pistol used, and what looked like a pattern - targeting French soldiers from immigrant backgrounds. One line of inquiry focused on the 17th Parachute Regiment in Montauban, which had thrown three men out of its ranks in 2008 for taking part in neo-Nazi activities.
But the killer had taken care to ensure that the magazine and shell casings he left offered no fingerprints or DNA.
“At that point we launched an enormous effort, nearly 200 investigators,” Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said on Wednesday. But detectives, he said, were left poring over 20,000 personnel files and service records, trying to identify anyone who might have had a “score to settle, maybe a grudge”.
That process, and the triage of hundreds of computer records from the killing of the soldier in Toulouse, was still going on against the clock when, allegedly, Merah pulled up on a white scooter as Jewish parents and young children were gathering to the start the school day, a few minutes from where Merah lives.
That he targeted Jews, and moved calmly from one group to another, switching guns when one appeared to jam, dissolved any theory this was an attack on the army, though police were still left with two contrasting theories, of a far-right, anti-immigrant motive, or a possible Islamist group.
Events, however, moved swiftly, even as the manhunt was stepped up to a new level amid the heightened political tensions of campaigning for next month’s presidential election, where immigration and radical Islam are major talking points.
The search for Sergeant Ibn Ziaten’s bogus motorbike buyer was homing in on the Merahs’ computer, as cross-checks revealed that the Toulouse woman who owned the IP address had two sons on the anti-terrorism watchlist as members of fundamentalist Muslim group, albeit not suspected any violent intentions.
The family’s phones were bugged on judicial instructions a few hours after the slayings at the school.
The hunt for the gunman’s scooter also took a decisive turn when something Mohamed Merah said and did in the days immediately after the Montauban killings finally resurfaced in the memory of a motorcycle mechanic in Toulouse.
Visiting a Yamaha dealership where his name had been on computer files as a customer for about 10 years, he asked one of the staff whether it was possible to deactivate a GPS anti-theft tracking device fitted on the big urban bike, versions of which can retail new for about $10,000. Police now say they discovered that this scooter was actually stolen in May last year.
The mechanic said he told Merah, who appeared calm and normal, that the tracker could not be removed - and that during the conversation the young man casually mentioned that he had just repainted the bike white. It had previously been black.
A black scooter was, of course, being hunted after the killings of the soldiers. But there are thousands in Toulouse.
When, after the school massacre, detectives put out a description of a white scooter being ridden by a gunmen with the same modus operandi, garage owner Christian Dellacherie, suddenly put two and two together and called the police.
“I‘m shocked,” he said on Wednesday, reflecting a wider sense of disbelief among many who know Merah, including friends who spoke of him as not outwardly religious, an amateur soccer player, visiting night-clubs and generally blending in with the crowd of those brought up in Toulouse’s immigrant suburbs.
“He was a customer who appeared totally normal, whom we knew, and you have a hard time believing that he could have turned around and done something like this,” said Dellacherie.
The ground-floor apartment where police had him cornered after he shot back and wounded two officers who stormed his home around 3 a.m. on Wednesday also blends in to the background.
But phone tap evidence, police say, gave them grounds to launch the operation. Explosives found in a car nearby belonging to Merah’s brother, who has been arrested, reinforced the belief among prosecutors that the trail had led to the right man.
Lawyer Christian Etelin, defending Merah who police say has a record of relatively minor offences, described his client as “complex” and displaying signs of a “dual personality”.
Prosecutors say he has claimed to be on a mission for al Qaeda to avenge Palestinian children and to punish France for sending troops to Afghanistan. But it is unclear whether anything clearly linked Merah to organized militant groups.
Since he drew little attention to himself otherwise, police faced an uphill struggle in focusing in on Merah as a suspect, even as the killings continued.
Asked if the investigation could have moved more quickly, in a way that could have saved the children of Ozar Hatorah, Defence Minister Longuet was firm, however: “I don’t think so,” he said. “Not without turning France into a police state.”
(Corrects Merah’s age to 23 from 24 after police corrected their earlier statement)
Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Nicholas Vinocur and Jean Decotte; Writing by Alexandria Sage and Alastair Macdonald