Agents of France’s domestic intelligence agency, the DCRI, tracked Merah, who was besieged by police in Toulouse on Wednesday, “for several years”, according to Interior Minister Claude Guéant.
Timeline of French attacks
He had been arrested more than a dozen times for petty crime, sometimes involving violence, before becoming involved with the radical Salafist wing of Islamic fundamentalism, along with his brother, who has been arrested and is suspected of complicity with the shooting of Imad Ibn Ziaten, the soldiers in Toulouse.
Talking to negotiators during Wednesday’s siege in Toulouse, Merah claimed to be a member of Al Qaida, a claim made by a caller, who may or may not have been him, to France 24’s Ebba Kalando the previous day.
He also talked of his activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to French intelligence, he visited the region twice, in 2010 and 2011.
There he trained with the Pakistani Taliban in the semi-autonomous tribal areas and fought Nato troops in Afghanistan with the Afghan Taliban in Kandahar and Zabul provinces.
Merah was among 1,000 prisoners, 400 of them Taliban, who escaped from Sarposa prison in Kandahar in 2008 when a truck-bomb blasted open the main door, according to the city’s prison boss, Ghulam Faruq.
He had been arrested in December 2007 and jailed for three years for planting bombs.
Afghan intelligence reportedly tipped off their French counterparts about his activities in the country.
Merah was also arrested by Afghan police and handed over to the US military who “put him on the first plane headed for France”, according to prosecutor François Molins.
Molins said that he was planning more attacks, targeting two police officers and a soldier before police surrounded his flat in Toulouse on Wednesday morning.
Police said that he was expected to surrender late Wednesday evening, after an earlier claim that he would do so during the afternoon.