The scooter assassin, Mohamed Merah, insisted on writing his own bloody script to the end. After a 32-hour siege, the man who threatened to bring France “to its knees” died in a hail of police bullets yesterday while jumping from a window firing an automatic weapon.
It was confirmed that the 23-year-old French citizen, of Algerian origin, made chilling videos of his three attacks in the Toulouse area in the past fortnight, using a miniature camera draped around his neck. Footage recovered from his flat by police shows him executing, at point-blank range, three Jewish children and a teacher on Monday and three off-duty soldiers in two attacks earlier this month.
His own death yesterday morning – defying patient efforts by the authorities to capture him alive – might have been taken from the last reel of a Hollywood movie. More than 300 shots were fired in the space of five minutes, mostly by Merah. One officer was shot in the foot and two were injured by the impact of Merah's bullets on their body armour.
France breathed a sigh of relief at the end of Merah's reign of terror but his death left many questions unanswered. Was he working alone or following instructions from al-Qa'ida, as a statement by a splinter group linked to the radical Islamist terror network claimed yesterday? Should the authorities have tracked him earlier?
Both he and his brother, Abdelkader Merah, 29, who is under arrest, were known to belong to a small radical Islamist group in Toulouse. When Mohamed Merah returned from a three-month trip to the Pakistani-Afghan border last year, he was questioned by French security agents. He insisted he was a tourist, not a terrorist, and was released. An American counter-terrorism official said last night that since 2010 Merah had been on a list of suspects banned from flying to the US.
President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a series of new laws yesterday to clamp down on terrorism. They were immediately compared by French lawyers and civil rights activists to the draconian homeland security measures introduced by President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. The new laws will make it illegal to consult websites which glorify or justify terrorism and for French citizens to attend Islamist training camps abroad.
Although President Sarkozy called for "national unity", his political party and election campaign have already tried to wring electoral advantage from the killings. Security and crime have played little part in the presidential election campaign until now. With a month to go before the first round, on 22 April, senior figures in Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, have abruptly started to accuse the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, of being soft on crime and national security.
Political commentators said Mr Sarkozy had scored political bonus points by making dignified appearances as the "father of the nation" at memorial services for victims. Senior officials in Mr Hollande's team accept that there will be a "before and after Toulouse" and that a new presidential campaign is beginning.
The struggling far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, also tried to exploit the murders to regain lost ground yesterday. She said Merah's killing spree proved what she had been saying for years: that poor, multiracial districts had been taken over by a kind of "Islamist fascism". Her claim was rejected by all other parties and by Muslim groups, who said that the vast majority of the five million French people of Muslim background have been as horrified by the attacks as other citizens.
Mohamed Merah, a small-time criminal and car-body repairman who turned to radical Islam four years ago, was traced to his tiny council flat in a calm suburb of Toulouse in the early hours of Wednesday morning. He fought off an initial attempt to arrest him by the elite police squad Raid, wounding two officers. Three other attempts to storm the flat on Wednesday were defeated. For the whole of the rest of the day, police negotiators tried to persuade Merah to surrender. He made, and broke, several promises to do so before finally announcing late on Wednesday night that he intended to "die with a gun in my hand".
Through the night, the gunman made no sound and showed no signs of life. Stun grenades were hurled at his flat to keep him awake. All street lights in the neighbourhood were turned off. Explosives were used by police to blast open his door and shutters.
Yesterday morning, the Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, said that two shots had been heard from inside the building. He hinted that Merah might have committed suicide. Finally, after a 32-hour stand-off, a small Raid unit entered the flat at 11.30am yesterday, checking each room in advance with a robot camera. When the camera was sent into the bathroom, Merah burst out with an automatic weapon in each hand.
The sounds of a gun battle shook the whole district for five minutes. Mr Guéant later told journalists waiting behind barriers that Merah had "thrown himself from a window, still firing". The Paris public prosecutor, François Molins, said Merah had tried to escape by jumping from the building. He was dead on the ground with a police bullet in his head.
Under Siege: Timeline
11.40pm, 21 March (France time) Explosions are heard near the block of flats where Mohamed Merah is hiding. Minutes later, the deputy mayor of Toulouse is reported to have confirmed that an assault on Merah's apartment was under way.
12.36am, yesterday The French Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, denies reports of an assault, saying the blasts were meant only to intimidate the 23-year-old.
3.30am Police are reported to have blown a hole in the wall of Merah's apartment.
9.00am Mr Guéant says the police have lost contact with Merah.
11.00am An assault on Merah's apartment is reported to be under way.
11.20am Police move inside the flat. Minutes later, it is reported that the suspect is in the bathroom of his flat.
12.02pm A police union official confirms that the gunman suspected of killing seven people is dead. It emerges that he was shot as he jumped from a window.
Q&A: Toulouse serial killer
Q Was Mohamed Merah acting alone?
A Probably not, according to French investigators. His older brother, Abdelkader Merah, 29, is believed to have played some role in inspiring, or planning, the crimes. As for the al-Qa'ida connection – claimed by Merah, and again by a splinter group yesterday – investigators are dubious. He and his brother appear to have been "home-made" Islamist extremists.
Q Does he represent a new kind of "lone-wolf" Islamist terrorism?
A This is the fear of security services – and not only in France. Up to 300 "Europeans" are believed to be receiving indoctrination or training at any one time in al-Qa'ida and Taliban strongholds in Waziristan in north-west Pakistan. A handful of them are said to be French. Most are British- or German-born Muslims of Pakistani or Turkish origin.
Q Should French authorities have tracked Merah earlier?
A This awkward question is already being asked in France. French security had been watching the Merah brothers since at least 2008. Mohamed had been spotted by Spanish security at extreme Islamist gatherings in Catalonia. He made a brutal attempt to recruit a teenage acquaintance in Toulouse last year. The boy's mother says that police ignored her when she complained.
Mohamed Merah was sent back to France by American military authorities in Afghanistan in 2010. He was questioned by French security when he returned from Waziristan in 2011. He insisted that he had travelled as a tourist and even showed his holiday snaps. No action was taken.
Q Was the investigation into the killings slow or botched?
A French investigators have congratulated themselves on identifying Merah. But questions were asked in the French press yesterday on why they took so long.
Merah was linked to the killings partly because of an email he sent making a rendezvous with his first victim on 11 March. French detectives finally traced the IP address of the computer that sent the email on 19 March, soon after the slaughter at the Jewish school in Toulouse. The newspaper Libération quoted experts yesterday who said that such a check should take, at most, two days. In other words, Merah might have been identified before his second attack and certainly before his third.
Q Who, if anyone, will reap the political gain?
A President Nicolas Sarkozy's camp can scarcely conceal their delight at the turn of events. Security, crime and terrorism are perfect issues for the President; they are not good issues for his Socialist challenger, François Hollande. The far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, hopes that fear of Islamism – and Islam – will also help her floundering campaign.