Mohammed Merah, a teenage loser and a petty thief who achieved instant worldwide notoriety as the latest symbol of Islamic jihad, went down in a hail of bullets early Thursday morning.

He leaves a string of unanswered questions and paradoxes in his wake.

To what degree was this beardless, hash-smoking unemployed garage mechanic actually linked to al-Qaida, as he claimed to police and reporters? To what degree was he really a self-declared jihadist, acting almost entirely on his own? An individual target, rather than part of an organized cell, is much more difficult for police in France and throughout Europe to deal with.

Another paradox, mentioned in my previous Truthdig piece, is well worth repeating because it leads to a further question: France has chosen to spend hundreds of millions of dollars sending troops to Afghanistan to support NATO and the U.S. The presumed theory being to prevent that country from remaining a breeding ground for terrorists to attack Europe and the U.S.

But it’s almost certain that Merah, like hundreds of young would-be jihadists of Muslim descent throughout Europe, was drawn to Afghanistan, exactly because French troops had joined in the invasion of that Islamic country. Which brings up another irony (and question for Merah): Why, if he was such a rabid jihadist, did Merah attempt in 2010 to enlist in the French military, specifically the Foreign Legion? For some reason — either because he was rejected straight off or got cold feet — he never wound up in uniform.

If he had, the young man who became an overnight symbol for the clash of civilizations might — with just a slight twist of fate — have joined French troops in Afghanistan battling Islamic militants.

Another question: What impact will this bloody national trauma have on the French presidential elections, the first round due next month? It’s difficult to say at this point, but many commentators think that despite attacks from the far right that Nicolas Sarkozy has not been tough enough on radical Islamists, the speedy resolution of the affair will only bolster the embattled president.

Ironically, it was a similar tense standoff in 1993 that first brought Sarkozy to the national spotlight. He was the mayor of Neuilly, a tranquil community outside Paris, when a gunman wearing a dynamite belt burst into a local school and demanded ransom to release eight hostages.

With incredible aplomb, Sarkozy talked the gunman into releasing one child and — with the TV cameras rolling — walked out of the classroom with the youngster in his arms.

After 46 hours of talks, the gunman was finally killed by police sharpshooters. The seven remaining hostages were freed unharmed. Sarkozy was launched.

The similar bloody denouement of Toulouse notwithstanding, whoever becomes France’s next president will continue to face enormous problems — and threats.

How many other Mohammed Merahs are out there?

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