The suspected gunman at the centre of an armed stand-off with police in Toulouse appears to have led two very different lives.
In one he was a quiet and well-liked moderate Muslim from Toulouse.
In another he was a trained terrorist, prone to fits of madness, who amassed a personal armoury while becoming obsessed with violence, all while being under the supposed surveillance by the French police.
French-born with Algerian origins, Mohammed Merah was described as a "calm", "respectful" and apparently moderate Muslim young man who his friends described as quiet and frail.
Working as a coachbuilder, Mohammed had the reputation of a “good worker,” always ready to fix friends’ cars as a favour.
If he ever got in a fight, he never threw the first blow, his friends claimed.
“He never talked about politics, or religion, as if he wasn’t interested by it. I used to see him from time to time at the mosque but he wasn’t very devout. He was taken overtaken by raving madness, I can’t believe it,” cried one of his friends, who wishes to remain anonymous.
“I was just out clubbing with him last week,” remembers the friend.
But in another life Merah was allegedly a trained terrorist, who had spent time in camps with extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Friends said the change happened almost overnight.
“We used to play football together when we were children. Then he grew up, he became solitary. He changed,” confided a childhood friend.
Parisian prosecutors said Merah became obsessed with violent online videos depicting beheadings and torture, owned a cache of powerful weaponry including several guns, and was fixated on killing for what he saw as the sake of his religion.
Merah was also a serial criminal, and was known by the police in Toulouse for petty crimes. The French government claims he had been under surveillance for months, if not years - which raises questions as to how he was able to evade capture for so long.
French Interior Minister, Claude Gueant, confirmed he had links with “people who claim to follow salafirm and jihadism.”
“He says to belong to al-Qaeda, and wanted to avenge Palestinian children.”
For all this the man's lawyer described him as “sweet and courteous,” but admitted that he always remained very discreet about his religious and political positions.
Little else is known about the man who is now thought to have murdered three soldiers, a rabbi and three children in cold blood over the last ten days.
According to some sources he tried to join the army, but his application was rejected because of his criminal record. In 2010, he wanted to be part of the Foreign Legion, but abandoned before being evaluated.
Right the day before the school attacks, nothing could lead his relatives to suspect the drama that was about to unfold.
“He was calm. He went around with his black Clio,” says Dany, said to be a "close friend". “It’s true that he was quite silent these last few days but no one suspected a problem.”
“He never wore a beard, never voiced any antisemitic convictions,” he adds. “If he is the culprit, what he did is unforgivable, it is contrary to all the Koran laws.”
Paris prosecutor, Francois Molins, explained that even at this late stage in France's ordeal Merah has expressed no sadness for what he has wrought.
"He glorifies himself to have put France down on its knees," added the prosecutor.
It is now thought the suspected gunman's work was not complete: He is said to have planned the murder of a serviceman and of two police officials who had identified him on Wednesday morning.
That police stopped him in time may prove some comfort for the people of Toulouse, who all appear to have been held hostage by this quiet and unassuming man.Suggest a correction