The facts of the matter are ably described by this Wikipedia article, so I won’t go into much detail about the case itself but, rather, I’ll assume you know about the shootings and so I will focus, instead, on the twin matters of whether Merah was an Al Qaeda operative and whether he had an accomplice.
As I said on the show, claiming you are linked to or part of an organisation does not, in itself, tell others that you are a member of that organisation. I can claim to be a member of the Real IRA, but unless the Real IRA comes forward and says “Yep, one of us,” then what I say about my membership of an organisation can, in some cases, mean very little.
So, whilst Merah is reported to have claimed he worked for Al Qaeda, this does not mean he actually did.
Oh, it’s true he has the right background and spent time in areas where we know Al Qaeda operatives have been trained1, so it’s not out of the question that Merah was tied to Al Qaeda in some way. However, as people often false claim or exaggerate their affiliations, it might well be the case that Merah tried to join Al Qaeda and even acted in a way he thought Al Qaeda would approve of, but this, in itself, is not proof that he was an Al Qaeda operative.
Now, I’m quite away that there are a lot (an awful lot) of hypotheticals and conditionals in the last few paragraphs (I’m hedging my bets because, as I said, he might well have been a member of that organisation), but it’s important to be just a little sceptical about these matters. It’s well attested to in the literature that people and organisations take the credit for things they didn’t do, including taking credit for the terrorist activities of other organisations. It’s also well attested that as soon as you say “X was (probably) part of group Y” people will often assume that it is the case that X was part of group Y (not the dropping of the “probably” clause). It’s also well-attested that people will assume that if someone alleges that X is part of a group, they will assume said group actually exists; one of the biggest issues I had with the media reportage on the Urewera 4 was the assumption that because the police said they were part of a criminal group, that this meant that the 4 (previously 17) were actually a group with an hierarchy, et al, rather than 4 people who happened to know one another, happened to have been at some of the same places together but may not have been in any way formally affiliated with one another.
Now, all this being said, this doesn’t say that we should ignore Merah’s reported claim; we just need to be careful in assessing such claims about Merah’s actions being in some way endorsed by Al Qaeda.
More interesting, to my mind, is the claim that Merah might have had an accomplice. On the day he holed himself up in his apartment, he also sent a video to Al Jazeera, detailing his killings. It is, apparently, very slick and well-edited, to the extent that some commentators (and it’s not clear that these commentators have even seen the video) think that Merah could not have finished the video, posted it and then sent it on to Al Jazeera without help (the kind of help, it is claimed, that must have been privy to the contents of the video).
Having not seen the video (and I do not want to see it, either), I can’t say for certain that it is the case that Merah had an accomplice, but it’s not out of the question. However, just because it’s possible that he had an accomplice, that doesn’t mean we should immediately jump to the conclusion, as some have done, that because the French police took Merah’s brother into custody that he must be the accomplice in question.
A lot of people (but surely not you, dear reader(n+1)) will take claims like “He said he worked for Al Qaeda” and “Police think he had an accomplice; look, his brother has been arrested!” at face value and say “So mote it be!” (or, if they aren’t Aleister Crowley, will say “Look, proof!”). Now, it might very well be the case that he was an Al Qaeda operative and had an accomplice, but claims that he was and had must be backed up with proof, not just mere assertions.
Obvious, really, but apparently not so obvious that everyone knows it.