French officials find no evidence that killer had links to al-Qaida

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There is no evidence that gunman Mohamed Merah had links with al-Qaida or other terror groups, a French official has said as investigators continue their bid to establish if he worked alone.

The official, who is close to the investigation into Merah’s killing spree, said there is no sign he had “trained or been in contact with organised groups or jihadists”.

France’s prime minister and other senior figures have been fending off suggestions anti-terrorism authorities failed in the task of monitoring merah, who had been known to them for years.

Merah, 23, had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and had claimed he had been in contact with al-Qaida.

But the official, speaking anonymously, said he might have made the claim because al-Qaida is a well-known “brand.” Authorities have “absolutely no element allowing us to believe he was commissioned by al-Qaida to carry out these attacks”, he added.

Merah was killed in a dramatic gunfight with police on Thursday after a 32-hour siege at his apartment in Toulouse.

During the stand-off, he directed officers where to find explicit videos of the murders of seven people, three paratroopers, and a rabbi and three young children who were gunned down at a Jewish school on Monday.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s spy chief said yesterday the attack on the school was “opportunistic” and only came about after Merah missed his original target — another French soldier.

Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, had been under surveillance for years and his travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan were known to French intelligence, leading to questions over why he was not stopped earlier.

“One can ask the question whether there was a failure or not,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told a radio interviewer. “We need to bring some clarity to this.”

Officials have confirmed he was questioned by French intelligence officers last November after his second trip to Afghanistan, and was cooperative and provided a USB key with tourist-like photos of his trip.

When Merah was under surveillance last year, he was not seen contacting any radicals and went to nightclubs, not mosques.

Merah told negotiators during the police standoff this week that he was able to buy an impressive arsenal of weapons thanks to years of petty theft.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said: “The fact of belonging to a Salafist (ultraconservative Muslim) organization is not unto itself a crime. We must not mix religious fundamentalism and terrorism, even if naturally we well know the links that unite the two.”