France official: Gunman had no ties to al Qaeda

Last Updated 11:20 a.m. ET

(CBS/AP) PARIS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy's spy chief says a gunman who killed three young children and a rabbi at a Jewish school only attacked the school after missing his original target — a French soldier.

Ange Mancini, Sarkozy's intelligence adviser, said on French TV that Mohamed Merah had wanted to kill a soldier he had targeted Monday in Toulouse, but arrived too late and instead besieged a nearby Jewish school.

Mancini told France-24 TV on Friday that "it wasn't the school that he wanted to attack," calling school shooting "opportunistic."

Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, was killed Thursday in a shootout after police raided the Toulouse apartment where he had been holed up for 32 hours in a standoff with authorities.

Also today, a senior official who is close to the investigation into Merah's attacks told The Associated Press there was no sign Merah had "trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists" such as al Qaeda.

The official said Merah might have made the claim because al Qaeda is a well-known "brand." The official said authorities have "absolutely no element allowing us to believe that he was commissioned by al Qaeda to carry out these attacks."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

Merah was killed in a dramatic gunfight with police Thursday after a 32-hour standoff with police. Prosecutors said he filmed himself carrying out three attacks beginning March 11, killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three French paratroopers with close-range shots to the head. Another Jewish student and another paratrooper were wounded.

Meanwhile, inhabitants evacuated from the apartment building when the siege began have been told they can go home tonight, reports CBS News correspondent Elaine Cobbe.

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French Socialist President of the Midi-Pyrenees region, Martin Malvy (center-right) and Toulouse's Mayor Pierre Cohen (center) are surrounded by journalists during a gathering of hundreds of people on the main public Capitole square in Toulouse, March 23, 2012, to pay homage to the seven victims of the gunman Mohamed Merah.

Merah had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and prosecutors said he had claimed contacts with al Qaeda and to have trained in the Pakistan militant stronghold of Waziristan.

He had been on a U.S. no-fly list since 2010.

France's prime minister and other senior figures have been fending off suggestions that anti-terrorism authorities fell down on the job in monitoring 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, who had been known to them for years.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told RTL radio Friday that authorities "at no moment" suspected Merah would be dangerous despite his long record of crime and his time in prison.

"The fact of belonging to a Salafist (ultraconservative Muslim) organization is not unto itself a crime. We must not mix religious fundamentalism and terrorism, even if naturally we well know the links that unite the two," Fillon said.

A little-known jihadist group claimed responsibility for one of the killings. The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors Internet messages, said Jund al-Khilafah, based in Kazakhstan, issued a statement saying "Yusuf of France" led an attack Monday, the day of the Jewish school shootings.

A French official said the claim appeared opportunistic and that authorities think Merah had never heard of the group.

Investigators looking for possible accomplices decided Friday to keep Merah's older brother, his mother and the brother's girlfriend in custody for another day for further questioning, the Paris prosecutor's office said.

The head of the DCRI intelligence agency was quoted in the Le Monde newspaper as saying there was little sign that Merah's family was involved. Bernard Squarcini said Merah told police that he didn't trust his brother or mother.

Police also said his mother declined to get involved in police negotiations Wednesday with her son, saying she had no influence over him.

Merah was questioned by French intelligence officers last November after his second trip to Afghanistan, and was cooperative and provided a USB key with tourist-like photos of his trip, the senior official said.

The official said when Merah was under surveillance last year, he was not seen contacting any radicals and went to nightclubs, not mosques.