Small Wars Journal

Afghan Blowback in France

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 8:35am

Mohammed Merah, a young radicalized Frenchman, traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2010 and 2011.  Over an eight-day period in March 2012, he killed three military personnel, three Jewish children, and one Jewish teacher in a shooting spree that horrified and shocked the French nation.  On March 11, he shot dead Staff Sergeant Imad Ibn Ziaten in a parking lot in broad daylight. Four days later, on March 15, he killed first class private Mohammed Legouad and Lance Corporal Abel Chenouf and wounds seriously Lance Corporal Loic Lieber in a small strip mall near their barracks amidst a crowd of bystanders. On March 19, he killed three Jewish children and a Jewish teacher as they arrived at the Ozar-Hatorah school in Toulouse.  Another older student was wounded. The R.A.I.D., the French version of a SWAT police unit, killed him after a 32-hour siege.   

A Plot Inspired and Driven by Al-Qaeda?

Merah’s modus operandi was chillingly efficient and savagely barbaric.  The murderer approached his victims on a scooter, clad in black, and wearing a helmet. He opened fire on his victims at point blank range with a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, aiming precisely at their upper bodies and heads.  There was no escaping his wrath.  “I can still see the flames coming out of the barrel.  He killed the last soldier like an animal,” reported an employee of the newspaper stand nearby the automated teller where Merah shot the three soldiers.

The killer was a 24 year-old French citizen of Muslim faith.  During conversations with the police negotiator publicized by Prosecutor Michel Molins, Mehra claimed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda and trained by Al-Qaeda in Waziristan.  He further indicated that he had received guidelines from Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan to conduct terrorist attacks in France and warned that his actions were part of a larger campaign.  He also said that he had planned to continue his killing spree by killing more police officers and soldiers.  According to Michel Molins, he had already identified the individuals to be killed.  Organizational links to Al-Qaeda have yet to be proven, but intelligence officials are convinced that Merah radicalized himself watching al-Qaeda video propaganda on the Internet.    

In a telephone call to France 24 two hours before the police laid siege to his apartment, Merah claimed responsibility for all three attacks.  He said he carried out the attacks against the soldiers to protest the French law forbidding the wearing of the head-to-toe veil known as burqa and to protest French intervention in Afghanistan.  He chose to target soldiers because they are a symbol of the State, but chose the individuals randomly.  He chose to attack Jewish children supposedly to avenge his “Palestinian brothers and sisters.”  Here again, he chose Jewish targets as a symbol of Israel but targeted the individuals randomly.

New Challenges for French Counter-Terrorism

These attacks and the failure to prevent them pose the series of new unexpected challenges to the French government. 

  • The modus operandi is strikingly different from past Salafist-Jihadist attacks in France.  Handgun attacks are more reminiscent of radical Marxist Palestinian factions such as Abu Nidal or Corsican or Basque terrorist attacks.   Up until a few weeks ago, Salafist-Jihadists’ preferred mode of action consisted of planting bombs in the public square.  Merah’s M.O. is consistent with Abu Musab al Suri’s recommendation to engage in small-scale independent acts of anti-Western terror.  Moreover, Salafist-Jihadist attacks have largely been mass attacks geared at killing as many as possible regardless of their individual status in society.  Merah’s attacks are different.  He carefully chose his victims in accordance with Al-Qaeda’s definition of its enmity: French soldiers representing the crusaders who occupy Islamic lands, and Jews who represent the state of Israel.  In the past, mass attacks that killed indiscriminately made it easier for the government to mobilize all forces of society against the terrorism, as everyone could easily identify with the victimized bystander.  Selected targets might complicate the government’s task as ordinary people not belonging to the categories targeted (the vast majority of people) might feel less connected to or concerned with such attacks. 
  • According to French authorities, Mohammed Mehra is a loner, the product of an “atypical Salafist self-radicalization,” without connection to any “jihadist organization structure known to the services.”  If accurate, this is a major departure from past attacks where terrorists were part of a logistical cell affiliated to a larger movement, principally the GIA (Algerian Armed Islamic Group) that provided the resources and expertise necessary to successfully conduct the planned attacks.  The absence of a logistical cell threw the surveillance of the DRCI off as they rated Merah at low-risk of carrying out attacks because they saw no cell-related activity.  Whether there were no cells, or the cells went unidentified for too long remains to be seen.   Either way, it indicates that the painstaking work of monitoring and preventing new attacks will need to be adapted. The government is bound to propose new legislation to close what has appeared as loopholes in the current legislation.
  • Last, Merah behaved like a ‘serial killer.’  In the past, single terrorists carried out one operation, but Merah successfully conducted three attacks and told the R.A.I.D negotiator that he was planning on attacking more soldiers and police officers on the morning the police laid siege to his apartment.  Criminologists noted that Merah displayed a deeply narcissistic motivation and a pathological desire to eliminate all those whom, he believes, do not deserve to live; traits consistent with serial killers.  He acted with the cold determination and the violent savagery of serial killers.  In Monday’s attack, he pursued the frightened daughter of the school’s principal into the schoolyard as she was seeking refuge into the building, to shoot her to death. Moreover, he expressed no regrets for the deaths he caused.  Prosecutor François Molins said: “He expressed no regrets.  He only regretted not having killed more victims.  On the contrary, he boasted that he brought France down to its knees.” The confluence of terroristic and criminal motivations and tactics present new challenges for both the French government and French society.  Among those challenges: how does the government detect those individuals before they spur into action? How does society cope with an extended terroristic shooting spree? What is the impact on local socio-economic life if a shooting spree causes of local lock-down?  

Political Controversy and Announced Reforms

However unusual the circumstances of the attacks and the profile of Mohammed Merah, the failure to prevent him and the length of time (eight days) it took to identify and neutralize him prompted unusually vocal criticisms of the Intelligence Services and calls for reforms.

Amidst a tough presidential campaign, opposition leaders openly wondered whether the Intelligence Directorate (DCRI) did all that was necessary in a timely manner.The fact that Merah was identified as a potential suspect after the first attack but left to his own device until after the murderous spree at the Ozar hatorah school eight days later remains a key point of criticism.François Hollande, the candidate for the Socialist Party, suggested that a full review of all counter-terrorism laws and structures might be in order.Subsequently, the socialist group in the Senate requested that the chiefs from the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (Erard de Corbin de Mangoux) and from the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (Bernard Squarcini) appear before a Senate panel.Meanwhile, the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen lambasted the government for being too soft on radical Islamists.

In response to the political firestorm, the government has adopted a four-prong approach.First, it publicly defended the State’s services, praising the actions of both the DCRI and the police.Second, the government quelled the Socialist request for a hearing of the two Intelligence chief, accusing the Socialist Party of playing politics ahead of the elections.Third, the government announced a new anti-terrorism legislation aimed at criminalizing radical Islamist Internet surfing and as well as traveling to insurrectionary countries.  A government spokesman announced a draft law for the end of April.  Lastly, the government cracked down on presumed radical Islamist groups in two nationwide operations. So far, 13 militants are under arrest.  These operations indicate that the government may be attempting to neutralize not only groups that act violently, but also those who advocate the use of violence. 

It is likely that serious internal reassessment of how to detect radicalized individuals is already underway as the French government does not want a repeat of the Merah episode.More serious legislative initiative and/or organizational reorganization will probably have to wait after the Presidential Elections in May 2012.




Tue, 04/10/2012 - 11:14am

In reply to by JasonT


You raise completely valid points. The exact nature of Merah's connection to Al-Qaeda as an organization remains to be sorted out. It is unclear how much we - the general public at large - will actually learn, but surely the DCRI will. The theory of the lone wolf helps the government mitigate the failure to detect him. In short, he was not detected prior to the attacks because he was "undetectable" (if I may say). It remains to be seen whether this was actually accurate. His brother was a well-known radical and he spent some lengthy period of time in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the process described by Sageman could have happened.

The fact remains that even if he is a nut-bag as you put it, the fact that he felt Al-Qaeda's rhetoric/propaganda was justification enough for his killing spree is very worrisome. From the state point of view, it is absolutely necessary to make sure that such incidents do not happen again.


While commenting on this article is risky because from as an outsider one does not have the detailed information to base an argument on facts.

Yet it comes across as if Mohammed Merah's killing spree has more to do with the actions of a terrorist wannabe looking to connect his actions to the most obvious Islamic cause going - al Qaeda. It is easy to jump from a trip to Pakistan/Afghanistan to carrying out terror on behalf of al Qaeda. No doubt many have made this trip. But we know that it is not as simple as rocking up to the door and signing up. We know that David Hicks attempts were more often than not met with complete scepticism and he was never really trusted. Seen as a misguided fool. Therefore the assessment of Merha as "a loner, the product of an “atypical Salafist self-radicalization,” without connection to any “jihadist organization structure known to the services," could be correct. Or he could simply be a nut-bag looking to hang his actions to a cause and for the French Government this is convenient line to run.

The analysis described by Sageman (2010) where the bonds of family and friends are more important for radicalisation than distant figures of al-Qaeda is significant for questioning whether al-Qaeda had much to do with Merah at all. Sageman also argues these radicalisation processes have as much do with group dynamics, reinforcing the strong behavioural pull of peer esteem and respect.

What is perhaps just as atypical is the French Government's reaction by trying to close loopholes in legistlation such as making it a criminal offense to travel to insurrectionary countries - how on earth this can be policed and what countries France will deem to be insurrectionary?

A good anecdote to thinking about whether this legislativ reaction could be effective is to look back on what unravelled after the London Underground attacks in 2005. Shortly after the London Underground bombings on 7 July 2005 it was revealed that the bombers were well educated, long-term UK residents and citizens. One of the most notorious terrorist coordinators for al-Qaida was in fact Younis Tsouli, AKA Irhaby 007.

When British police bashed down his West London bedroom door in late 2005, they found a goofy-looking, long haired 22-year-old student. He was still hunched over his computer working on a website called “YouBombit”. His father was staggered at how his son could be involved with international terrorism, since he never left his bedroom.

What is just as worrying is the dearth of empirical research on home grown terrorism. There may well have been arrests, plenty of academic papers produced but apart from Martin Innes, there has been little field based research on this area.

Peter J. Munson

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 2:50pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

I believe that the commenting problem has been fixed, but let us know if you continue to have problems.