Brother of terrorist walks length of France in anti-extremism campaign
Abdelghani Merah, the elder brother of Mohamed Merah who murdered seven people in southwestern France in 2012, walks along the country's major N7 road on February 16, 2017 as part of a personal campaign to combat extremism. Philippe Desmazes / AFP Photo
NICE // The brother of one of France’s most notorious terrorists is walking almost the length of the country as part of a personal campaign to combat indoctrination, extremism and hatred.
Inspired by "the march of the Beurs", a celebrated anti-racism trek in 1983, and by his own love of France, Abdelghani Merah will have covered more than 1,200 kilometres in nearly six weeks by the time he reaches Paris on March 19.
With a bottle of water by his side and a duvet in his back pack – and coping with a disabled arm – the 40-year-old marches between 25 and 40 exhausting kilometres a day and has occasionally had to sleep in the open since leaving Marseilles on February 8.
"I remain totally determined," he said. "My message is simple: let us all unite to stop predators stealing the hearts and spirits of our young people as happened to my brother. Let us denounce jihadism, racism and anti-Semitism."
In 2012, Abdelghani’s younger brother Mohamed murdered 7 people, including 3 Jewish children, in a series of attacks in Toulouse and Montauban, southern France.
The 23-year-old was killed by police in a shoot-out.
Although the crimes were admitted in statements from Jund Al Khalifa, an Algerian affiliate of Al Qaeda that later pledged allegiance to ISIL, it is still unclear whether Mohamed Merah was formally linked to any group or acted alone under various radical influences.
Abdelghani enraged some members of his family by writing My Brother, The Terrorist, a book about his brother’s drift into violence and also a response to any young French Muslims who might regard Mohamed as a hero.
He blames Mohamed’s indoctrination on the influence of another brother, Abdelkader, 34, who is currently awaiting trial for alleged complicity, as well as an "atmosphere of racism and hatred" in which he grew up.
Abdelghani also co-operated with a television channel in secretly filming a conversation in which their sister Souad spoke of feeling proud of Mohamed’s murders. She now lives in Algeria.
"Some Muslim elements consider me a traitor for speaking out against my own family," said Abdelghani, who was born in Algeria and has yet to complete the process of obtaining French nationality.
For that reason, during his walk he went close to – but did not enter – the Minguettes, a Muslim-majority area of high-rise apartment blocks in the town of Venissieux, near Lyons, where the 1983 anti-racism march was organised and which is now widely seen as a hotbed of militancy.
Abdelghani said he avoided the district, not out of fear but because any media coverage of a possibly hostile reception would undermine the aims of his march.
Father Christian Delorme, a Catholic priest who helped to organise the 1983 march and has devoted much of his vocational life to promoting Muslim-Christian rapprochement, said Abdelghani was right to be concerned.
"He is a beautiful person," he told The National. "And it really is a miracle he was able to escape the fundamentalist and murderous folly of his family.
"He lives a life of great insecurity and has very limited means. He trained as a gardener but has been unable to do this work since losing the use of one arm in a motorcycle accident.
"All the same, he possesses extraordinary strength. But he has set himself a very difficult project," Father Christian added. "Many young Muslims are resentful at their lack of recognition within French society and full of hatred. In some ways, a cultural jihadism has taken hold even if not all those in its grip would resort to terrorist acts."
Abdelghani, who lives in Nice, usually stays overnight in accommodation offered by well-wishers or provided by three anti-extremism associations which are supporting him.
"I have encountered enormous solidarity and generosity along the way," he said. "If people want to talk to me about my brother’s abominable actions I am always willing to do so. I am full of shame for what he did.
"But many people are more interested in my objective of fighting extremism. Often, they offer me food, shelter, even money."
In the Burgundy village of Ladoix-Serrigny, a former local councillor, Laurent Murat, said he had read about Abdelghani’s walk in newspapers and then spotted him on the road "completely by chance" while out shopping.
He took him home for lunch. "I could see that even at the heart of a family such as his, there can be hope," Mr Murat told a local newspaper, Le Bien Public. "It was a chance to give my own children a beautiful lesson in life."
Abdelghani had his own minor brush with the law in his youth but says he will never "spit on a country that has fed and educated me ... I want the French to know I love France and believe 95 per cent of the French to be good people".
He said Mohamed was kind and helpful before being turned into "a monster" under the influence of others, including those his brother met while in jail for petty criminality.
"There is not a day when I do not think of his victims," Abdelghani added.