The standoff between a murder suspect and French police in Toulouse, France, has stirred up a swirl of speculation about the man’s background and motives, but so far there are relatively few confirmed facts.
French officials say the suspect is a 23- or 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian decent by the name of Mohammed Merah, who had a long record as a juvenile delinquent.
He’s suspected in the killings this month of three French paratroopers of North African descent, as well as a rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters that the suspect holed up in an apartment claims to be a member of al-Qaida. He says he’s acting in revenge for the killings of Palestinian children by Israel and for French military involvement in Afghanistan.
Merah was reportedly under government surveillance before the recent spree of attacks because of his past travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as alleged membership in a banned jihadi group.
Merah’s brother has been detained, and there have been reports that he was involved in the recent purchase of a motorcycle that witnesses say was used in all three deadly shootings.
There have also been reports that Mohammed Merah served time in a prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, but escaped as part of a mass jail break in 2008. However, this and other details have not been confirmed.
The fast-moving case is a textbook example of how bits of information –confirmed or not — take on a life of their own in the early hours of a breaking news story.
Some information is coming from official French sources, such as the interior minister’s news conferences. Some is unearthed by reporters. And some unconfirmed details bounce around in the echo chamber of speculation until it appears that they are coming from multiple sources.
The case has consumed France, and could potentially have an impact on the country’s presidential election, set for April 22.
Jonathan Laurence, a professor of political science at Boston College, says that the profile of the case — with its Jewish and North Africa victims — at first suggested that the killer might be from the extreme right-wing. Some were drawing parallels to the Norwegian shooter involved in the attacks that killed dozens of people last summer in Norway.
Laurence says that many analysts thought the attacks might force French presidential candidates to modify their rhetoric, especially about the hot-button issue of Muslim immigration.
Far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen was among the candidates who suspended campaigning during the mourning for those killed.
But when attention focused on a suspect with Muslim roots, Le Pen denounced the government.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is running for re-election, and he attended a memorial for the paratroopers today, calling the killings “a terrorist execution.”
Laurence notes that Sarkozy reached out to French Muslims earlier this month, when he visited the Grand Mosque of Paris to help inaugurate a memorial for Muslim soldiers who were killed fighting for France during the First World War.
Laurence says that anti-Muslim politics may now play a bigger role in the French election, especially as candidates reach out to potential swing voters.
But he says “a kind of normalization has taken place” for Muslims in France, that could mitigate any backlash against them.
Many people may see “the common enemy here as the enemy of Frenchmen of North African decent in uniform.”
(Corey Flintoff is a correspondent for NPR’s foreign desk.)