France grapples with the causes and consequences of extremist murder spree
Mohamed Merah died yesterday before noon. He was holding a sub-machine gun when he fell from the window of his apartment with a bullet in his head. Today the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail reports that even before his body hit the sidewalk, many serious questions had arisen about the degree to which he had acted alone when he methodically murdered seven people over nine days in southwestern France.
While French prosecutors have depicted Merah as a lone, psychologically disturbed person, many questions about him remain open, such as how the 23-year-old petty criminal from Toulouse could have put the money together to acquire his considerable weapons arsenal, including hard-to-get machine guns, sub-machine guns, and the vehicle used during his attacks. Reports have also surfaced that he may have been in contact with a wider range of radical individuals and organizations even though he was not a formal member of any group.
In France there is general concern that other young Arabs, pushed economically to the fringes of society, could also radicalize either in French prisons or through online contacts. This concern pushed French President Nicolas Sarkozy to announce on Thursday that should he win the elections on 22 April, he will seek to pass a law making any contact with Islamic radicals illegal.
"Extreme Islam will be quelled by a law that will be adopted after the elections," Sarkozy said at a press conference shortly after the announcement of Merah's death. "Whoever visits a website glorifying hatred and violence will be punished by this law." Sarkozy said persons who travel abroad to undergo extremist training would also be punished.
In the meantime, French officials are grappling with how to explain the fact that they never noticed Merah's increasingly radical behavior. For example, in an incident two years ago, Merah waved a sword at people on the street and shouted: "I am with al-Qaeda!" Officials have repeated their conviction that Merah acted alone.
Speaking yesterday afternoon, Parisian Prosecutor François Molins said Merah was a lone gunman who radicalized in his own particular way. While in juvenile prison, he took in the bases of a vague set of convictions revolving around a fundamentalist faith in the return of an Islamic caliphate known as Salafism.
"We know he radicalized during his prison stay," Molins said, adding that this knowledge helps answer the urgent question of why French authorities did not notice him on his travels to the Afghan-Palestinian border despite his long criminal record. "He didn't follow the usual route of using contacts of groups known to the authorities," Molins said, "he went his own way."
French authorities have confirmed to journalists that for several years Merah's name was on a US list of terrorism-related persons not permitted to fly on American aircraft. He got on that list after being deported from Afghanistan and was transported by NATO representatives back to France.
However, reports of even deeper relationships between Merah and extremists have also surfaced. Representatives of intelligence services who spoke with the French newspaper Le Monde have claimed that Merah's passport showed he had traveled to Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Syria.
According to police, Merah's travel to Iraq might have been organized by his brother Abdelkader, who is considered an experienced Islamist who radicalized at an Islamic school in Cairo. However, there are only a few indications that Merah himself had any very deep contacts any radical organizations. His visits to the Pakistani border area of Waziristan, where he claimed to have undergone training, were very brief and prefunctory. His trip in 2011 ended early when he caught hepatitis A. Persons working with Pakistani espionage have told journalists that they had no information about him, even though foreign militants usually do not get through with being noticed.
Merah seems to have been more politically resentful than religiously devoted. It seems he gave way to his anger after his return to France. He fits the profile of many jihadis, or militants of "Islamic holy war". It is generally presumed that those who are most devoted to their faith only rarely become terrorists.