The horrific chain of seven slayings in Toulouse, France, that has stunned that country could have been lifted directly from a television thriller. In fact, this whole terrible affair has been a nightmare scenario that for decades has haunted authorities in France, Europe and the United States.
And the nightmare is far from over.
Mohammed Merah, a 24-year-old French man of Algerian origin, a few years ago gets involved with a Salafist network in France. According to the little that is known so far, Merah then heads off to Afghanistan where he links up with al-Qaida. In 2007, he is arrested for planting bombs and jailed for three years by the Afghans, but he escapes in a Taliban-led breakout. He is picked up by Pakistani authorities in 2010 and released.
Merah returns to Toulouse where his family lives and bides his time. Then last week with the most deadly aplomb, he kills three French soldiers and four days later rides his stolen motorcycle to the entrance of a Jewish school near his home and methodically shoots down a rabbi and three students.
And, in the age of YouTube and the Internet, to ensure that his gruesome act will someday be witnessed by all, around his neck he wears a video camera.
Islamic leaders in France have made clear how horrified they are that anyone—including Merah himself—would attempt to link his vicious acts with Islam. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for national solidarity. The leader of the Jewish community in Toulouse has declared himself “immensely relieved” by the news that the suspected killer has been caught.
But the crisis highlighted by Merah is far from over.
The problem, of course, is that Merah is just one of 5 to 6 million people of Muslim descent living in France. A large number reside in shabby banlieues of the country’s major cities, where housing is dilapidated, unemployment high and bitterness rampant.
Meanwhile, the current political storm—about public street prayer, permitting new mosques, banning burkas and controlling halal butchers—that has roiled France has ensured that many Muslims feel even more marginalized.
There is also a considerable burden of history. Incredibly, last night—around the same time that police were planning how to apprehend Merah in Toulouse—my wife and I were watching a gripping movie on French TV depicting the courage of a young Algerian girl brutally tortured by French troops as her country fought a bloody struggle for independence. (Was Merah watching the same flick?)
But what counts far more than colonial history to young French Muslims is the fact that France chose to join NATO and the United States in invading Afghanistan. Thus, Merah’s calculated targeting last week of the French soldiers. Ironically, the three were also of North African origin, but in his Salafist eyes that probably made their “treachery” even more condemnable.
The ghastly, methodical slaughter of the rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren four days later was—Merah has already told the French police—revenge for the Palestinian children killed by the Israeli army in Gaza.
(Did he realize that, in fact, the four people he killed at the Jewish school were all Israelis?)
The bottom line is that there is no way that knowing these facts anyone can credibly write off these events as another despicable case of anti-Semitism—the same kind of deeply embedded racial hatred that has come down through the ages; the virulence that fueled the Holocaust and the dispatch with which French police rounded up Jews for the Nazis during World War II.
Merah’s anti-Semitism was probably not driven as much by ancient loathing but more by the actions of Israel over the past few decades—the expulsion of the Palestinians, the rampant expansion of West Bank settlements, the invasions of Lebanon, the massive attacks on Gaza, take your pick.
To prove the point, the various upsurges of anti-Semitic attacks in France have corresponded precisely with each upsurge in the bloody conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians.
Whether Israel’s defenders feel the country’s actions are justified or not is almost beside the point: Those actions are regarded as outrageous in the eyes of millions of European Muslims, who watch the graphic coverage on TV and the Internet of all these grisly events including the regular statements of Jewish leaders in France and elsewhere that they fully support Israel’s actions.
As outspoken Israeli commentator Uri Avnery, one of the most acerbic critics of his country’s policies, has pointed out, the irony is that Israel, created as a haven from anti-Semitism for Jews around the world, has instead by its actions become the greatest promoter of anti-Semitism around the world.
So, what to do?
Beef up anti-terrorism efforts even further? It turns out that Merah was already on a “watch list” in the Toulouse region of some 600 people, including Islamic radicals and right-wing bigots. This is how the police, through some keen detective work, finally managed to run him down. He was on that list because Pakistani police had notified French authorities after spotting the young man in 2010.
We can be assured that anti-terrorist units in France and across Europe have infiltrated Salafist groups and have their own watch lists. So why not take action?
Because if there were indeed 600 names in Toulouse, then across France and Europe, we’re talking thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of such people. There is no way to keep them all under round-the-clock surveillance.
Then expel them all. French citizens? Arrest them.
On what grounds? On whose evidence?
Of course, anything is possible as we’ve seen in the U.S. since 9/11, and we can be sure in the current superheated political climate in France, we’ll hear the most extreme demands.
You can also be sure that any massive crackdown will only further increase the alienation of young Muslims.
And, in the end, there will almost certainly be plenty of bloody-minded young men and women who will slip through the net.
How about dealing with the root problem? Launch massive programs—housing, schools, jobs, etc.—to really integrate deprived Muslim communities in France and throughout Europe. In fact, Sarkozy has been making an important effort to provide better housing, but a few years of effort cannot overcome decades of prejudice and neglect.
In my view, a much more immediate way of at least alleviating the issue would be for France to pull out of Afghanistan. The adventure has cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars, and some 84 dead soldiers, including four recently killed by an Afghan soldier they were supposedly training. The Afghan campaign has been a disaster for all concerned. The U.S. is headed for the doors, seeking only a seemly way to exit. The French could show the way.
You can be sure, however, that there will be many who will cite the Toulouse killings to argue just the opposite: The fact that Merah may have received some terrorist training in Afghanistan is proof of the threat that jihadis operating there still pose to Europe. Thus, the imperative need to persevere until the Taliban and their allies are defeated, the threat totally liquidated.
But the problem is that, as the past decade has brutally demonstrated despite a huge investment in treasure and blood by the U.S. and its allies, such a military victory is not in the cards. The only way out is some kind of deal with the Taliban and their allies—a deal whereby they take a share of power with the understanding that any attempt to turn their country again into a training ground for terrorists targeting Europe or the U.S. will be dealt with by drones and special forces, not massive troop interventions.
Indeed, there is a strong argument that the American and NATO presence in the Muslim world has done more to ignite the outrage of young Muslims elsewhere than any ragtag training camps. Why would Merah have gone to Afghanistan if it were not for the presence of French troops in that Muslim country?
Which brings us to Israel and Iran.
Some militant Israelis—and their backers in the U.S.—will use the Toulouse attacks to bolster the case for bombing Iran. The argument: Just imagine if that al-Qaida killer in Toulouse and others like him throughout Europe and the U.S. had access not just to a .45-caliber pistol and a Kalashnikov, but to a nuclear weapon furnished by Iran.
One would hope, however, that the Toulouse attack would give Israeli hawks pause. In assessing the risks of bombing Iran, Israeli intelligence analysts have been speculating about the kind of retaliation their country might face.
It’s clear now that not just Israeli citizens would be at risk.
In fact, compared with the 191 people killed and 1,800 wounded when al-Qaida-inspired terrorists bombed the railway in Madrid in 2004, and the 52 people killed and 700 injured in coordinated suicide attacks on the London Underground in July 2005, France so far has had it easy.
Imagine the incredible mayhem if one day terrorists like Mohammed Merah decided to target The Chunnel linking Paris and London.
AP / Remy de la Mauviniere
A makeshift shrine has been set up at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, France, where a gunman killed four people Monday. A father and his two sons were among the dead. The sign reads “in expression of our sympathy, the inhabitants of the area.”