Mohamed Merah, the Frenchman suspected of killing four Jews and three Muslim soldiers in south-western France, has been linked with armed groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan but friends say he was more interested in football and clubbing.
Merah, who has been at the centre of a police siege for more than 24 hours has claimed links with Al-Qaeda and has said he wanted to avenge Palestinian children, according to French Interior Minister Claude Gueant.
TV station France 24 received a call from a man claiming to be the shooter saying that he was angry about the banning of the Islamic veil in France as well as French involvement in Afghanistan.
He was known to police with a record of petty crime, some involving violence and he had been under police surveillance for months, or even years, after trips to Afghanistan.
But he led a largely normal life of football and night clubbing, according to friends and neighbours who had no idea that he had been in Afghanistan.
As police psychologists tried to talk him into surrendering peacefully, Merah has given the impression of calm determination and self-control:
The French paper Le Monde has said Merah had trained with Pakistani Taliban fighters in a border tribal zone before being sent into south-western Afghanistan to fight against NATO forces supporting the Kabul government.
French troops are part of that NATO operation in Afghanistan.
Gueant said the Salafist group to which Merah belonged had no official name and had never given any indication of turning to criminal activity. Police were still trying to determine whether the gunman acted alone or as part of a group.
His brother has been arrested on suspicion of helping him plan the attacks. Merah's mother, and two sisters were detained by police on Tuesday and negotiators sought their help in trying to persuade him to turn himself in to the authorities but without much apparent success. According to Gueant:
A group of four 24-year-old men who said they were friends of Merah tried to go to his apartment block on Wednesday to persuade him to surrender but were stopped at a police roadblock.
All told the Reuters news agency he had never talked to them about religion and they had no idea he had been to Afghanistan. One friend who gave his name as Kamal, a financial adviser at La Banque Postale, said he had known Merah at school and they had done soccer training together after meeting again two years ago, he went on:
Another friend, who gave the pseudonym Danny Dem, said Merah had tried to enlist in the French army but had been rejected because of his criminal record.