PARIS — Mohammed Merah, French law enforcement officials said, started his career as an Islamic terrorist on March 11 by shooting a French soldier of Muslim origin in the head at close range after telling him, "You kill my brothers, so I am killing you."
Merah, a 24-year-old French national of Algerian heritage, ended his career — and his life — at 11:30 a.m. Thursday by bursting out of the bathroom where he was hiding and opening fire with a vintage Colt .45 pistol on a squad of highly trained commandos who had pushed into his Toulouse apartment after a 31-hour siege.
In the interval between March 11 and Thursday's violent end, Merah had made France tremble with his cold-blooded killings, riding up on a motor scooter and methodically opening fire on unsuspecting people in the southwestern French cities of Toulouse and Montauban. According to what he told police negotiators, his motive was to avenge Israel's killing of Palestinian children, France's military involvement in Afghanistan and a year-old French law banning full-face Muslim veils.
The death of Merah left unsettling questions about potential lapses by intelligence services, and the lives they may have cost. Merah, who was born in a Toulouse suburb, was one of the several million French-born Muslims who sometimes appear to feel out of place in their own country.
Investigators said they were uncertain at what point he homed in on the jihadist message. But they had traced him traveling to Afghanistan in 2010 and again to the Afghan-Pakistani border the following year for what he described to police as military training. Since then, he had been on a watch list maintained by the Interior Ministry, officials said.
Merah was also on the list of known or suspected terrorists prohibited from flying to the United States and had been since 2010, the Associated Press reported, quoting unnamed U.S. counterterrorism officials.
The French Defense Ministry said that before his jihad-related travels, Merah had tried once to enlist in the regular French army and once in the Foreign Legion. Both times he was turned down, the ministry said, because of a long record of juvenile offenses such as purse snatching and dealing in stolen goods.
The authorities said they had hoped to take Merah alive, seeking information about homegrown terrorists and his path to Islamic radicalism.
And French president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a new law Thursday criminalizing those who visit extremist websites, a proposal that immediately alarmed journalists and legal experts.