Fast Company

Cyber Cops Stop Mohammed Merah, Scour Web For Missing Murder Videos

Mohammed Merah, the French terrorist responsible for attacks on Jewish schools and paratroopers, is dead. Here's how authorities used modern techniques such as IP address forensics and digital surveillance to track him down.

Mohammed Merah, the 24-year-old Frenchman responsible for an Al Qaeda-inspired shooting spree that left seven dead, was killed by police after a day-long siege this morning. Before authorities tracked him down, Merah carried out multiple attacks on a French Jewish school and three paratroopers of North African and Caribbean origin. Modern times being what they are, Merah was primarily caught by cyberdetectives who tracked his online activities.

During the siege, Merah reportedly proclaimed allegiance to Al Qaeda.

Merah was caught because he used his family computer to arrange the first paratrooper's death. The terrorist pretended he wanted to buy the soldier's motorcycle; when the soldier met him, he was shot to death (shades of American Craigslist robberies!). The victim, paratrooper Imad Ibn Ziaten, was trying to sell a Suzuki Bandit. In the advert, Ziaten noted that he was a soldier and provided his first name--which identified him as a Frenchman of Arabic or Muslim heritage. Ziaten made plans to meet with Merah on a Sunday afternoon; upon meeting, he was shot in the head at close range--a M.O. that repeated itself in all the killings that followed. Media sources including CNN, France 24, and Le Monde variously report that the computer belonged to either his mother or brother.

Merah was caught because he used his family computer to arrange the first paratrooper's death.

According to Le Monde's Yves Bordenave, French cyber police found that 580 users viewed the original motorcycle advertisement. The police obtained IP addresses for these users and attempted to geolocate them, focusing on unspecified districts in the city. Users on the smaller, geotargeted list then became the focus of investigation. Merah became the primary suspect after they viewed emails between him and Ibn Ziaten.

Interestingly, French authorities appear to have been monitoring Merah's family's IP address and Internet activity even before he was a suspect. On France24, a public prosecutor working on the case said that the IP address had been monitored two days before Ibn Ziaten's death, but that further checks still needed to be made. Merah's brother and girlfriend were also taken into custody; the brother is also known locally for sympathy for Islamist causes. Reuters reports that Merah was not particularly religious and was primarily angry at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and NATO's presence in Afghanistan. However, the New York Times' Dan Bilefsky and Maia de la Baume indicate that Merah was radicalized in prison.

For French speakers, a short profile (including amateur video) of Merah from French public broadcaster France 2 is shown below.

About 30 French guerillas trained by the Taliban are believed by French intelligence to have participated in attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Later on, Merah visited a Toulouse scooter shop where he requested staff remove an anti-theft GPS tracker device from his Yamaha T MAX 550cc scooter and repaint the vehicle a different color. An employee at the shop discreetly tipped off police. In that classic line beloved by criminals everywhere, Merah told the garage staff that the GPS device-tracked scooter belonged to “a friend.” It has not been confirmed whether Merah stole the scooter or not.

In a post-modern tech twist, Merah is believed to have filmed his murder spree. Survivors at the Ozer Hatorah school in Toulouse reported the gunman appeared to be filming the attack. According to French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, Merah wore “a kind of filming apparatus” on his chest; the country's police (and a horde of amateur crimesolvers) are currently combing the Internet to see if video was posted online.

Other observers believe Merah may have even made a martyrdom video. Ben Venzke of American jihadi video disseminator IntelCenter claims that “if the French gunman Mohammed Merah met with senior al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and was given a mission to conduct attacks in France, as he has claimed, he would have likely recorded a video message while there as occurred with [terrorists] Mohammed Sidique Khan and Faisal Shahzad.”

Merah has apparently been under surveillance since making two trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan; according to The Daily Beast's Tracy McNicoll, French intelligence interrogated Merah in November 2011 about his activities in those countries. Merah provided photographs he took and claimed he visited the countries for “tourism.” Guéant also added that the decision to put Merah under surveillance was also influenced by him “already [having] committed certain infractions, some with violence.” French authorities stated he was arrested 15 times as a youth.

Shortly before French authorities raided Merah's apartment, the gunman called into French news network France 24 to explain himself and his motives. Senior editor Ebba Kalondo, who took the call, is featured in the (French-language) clip below talking about her conversation with Merah. During the 11-minute call, Merah told Kalondo that he filmed all seven killings and planned to post them to the Internet. He then addded, “I will go to prison with my head held high or die with a smile. Nothing else.”

Reportedly, Merah previously attempted to join the French military but was turned down. It is not known at press time whether he acted alone or as part of a group.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

[Image: Flickr user Jason]

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