Terror in Toulouse

Mohamed Merah acted as a lone wolf, which made it easier for him to avoid surveillance.

French Toulouse shooter Mohamed Merah 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/France 2 Television)
French Toulouse shooter Mohamed Merah 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/France 2 Television)
Mohamed Merah, the 24-year-old man responsible for killing seven people in the French city of Toulouse last week, was shot and killed by an elite French police unit, after a bloody 32-hour standoff at his apartment on Rue Du Sergent Vigne.
In the end, Merah sought martyrdom by ending his life in a blaze of gunfire, jumping from his bathroom window to his death with his Colt .45 handgun still firing. He boasted to advancing police that he had succeeded in bring France to its knees, and that his only regret was not being able to inflict more carnage and death.
Merah recorded his murder spree, which included the deaths of three young Jewish children who were chased down and killed at their school, on a video camera strapped around his neck. As one of his victims, a seven-year-old girl, tried to run away, he grabbed her by her hair and callously shot her in the head  before speeding away on his motorcycle.
Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news channel, had announced plans to broadcast the gruesome video but soon changed its mind after receiving a wave of protests.
In the aftermath of Merah’s death, the French police were accused of bungling the siege and failing to capture him alive. They were particularly criticized for not using sleeping gas to incapacitate Merah. French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated numerous times that he wanted Merah taken into custody so he could face trial.
An autopsy ultimately revealed that Merah died of a bullet wound to the temple from the gun of a police sharpshooter, although he was hit over 20 times across his body. He had been wearing a bulletproof jacket under his djellabah robes.
Investigators are still looking into the possibility that Merah had accomplices.  His older brother, Abdelkader Merah, has now been arrested due to his connections with Islamist militants. Their mother has also been taken into custody.
Merah grew up on an impoverished housing estate and spent time in jail for various petty crimes. After becoming radicalized at Salafist mosques and inspired by horrific videos downloaded off the Internet, he was trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan as an Islamist terrorist. Previously, he had tried to enlist in the French Army, but was rejected due to his criminal record. When he subsequently attempted to join the French Foreign Legion, he resigned after one day.
Merah has been labeled a "lone wolf" and a “do-it-yourself jihadi," because he shot victims at point-blank range, one at a time. The French domestic intelligence service (DRCI), periodically tracked Merah and interviewed him only a few months ago. During one of his trips to Afghanistan, Merah was actually captured at a roadblock and turned over to US soldiers, who eventually returned him to France. When questioned by DCRI officers, Merah claimed to have visited Pakistan and Afghanistan simply as a tourist. Surprisingly, even though US authorities had already placed Merah on its no-fly list, he was still able to avoid being put on official surveillance by the French police.
Unfortunately, lone wolf terrorists are better able to avoid the surveillance tools and methodologies that have recently been successful at undermining al-Qaeda cells and other terrorist organizations. For all intents and purposes, Merah emerged from nowhere to launch his campaign of terror in Toulouse.
France has prided itself over the years for being a secular country, based on a bedrock of universal values. The traditional expectation had been that newly arrived immigrants would ultimately assimilate these values and take their places as citizens in the French Republic. In recent years, however, France has seen its social fabric stretched and torn, causing many to question how best to address these new challenges.
The hunt for Merah so captivated France that even the presidential campaign between Sarkozy and his Socialist opponent Francois Hollande was ultimately suspended for four days.
With Merah now dead, however, the fight for the Elysee Palace has resumed again in earnest. Sarkozy built his career on campaigns centered around reducing crime and better integrating non-European immigrants into French society and culture.  He quickly tapped the vein of lingering concern over future Merahs by proposing new anti-terror laws that would make it a crime to view websites glorifying terrorism. Travelling abroad to receive terrorist training would also be outlawed. It is unclear how the Socialists will respond to the Merah legacy.
Terrorist experts must now come to terms with the growing threat posed by individuals, operating without external direction, who decide to launch low-cost attacks with readily available weapons. The horrific events in Toulouse demonstrate the risks posed by unpredictable individual militants, who cannot be traced or tracked through email trails or other interpersonal connections.
President Sarkozy has made clear his view that “terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community,” but France remains a nation shocked and confounded by the damage a solitary fanatic inflicted.  It is essential, therefore, that democracies demonstrate a commitment and readiness to protecting their citizens from attacks of this type.
With Merah’s death, his victims and the French nation have been denied his trial, conviction and ultimate punishment. Instead, Merah became a shahid, a martyr, which was probably his goal all along.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.