Last March, when 23 year-old Mohamed Merah killed seven people – four of them children – in a series of three shooting incidents in southern France, the Islamist of Algerian origin was pronounced a “lone wolf” by the media and the French government. This aimless and angry young man apparently followed the now-customary path of crime and alienation leading to self-directed jihad against innocents. Think spree killer with a vaguely Salafist gloss. Once Merah went out in a 30-hour siege and a final blaze of glory it seemed difficult to determine what exactly motivated the novice terrorist.
Yet newly declassified French intelligence documents paint a very different picture of Merah, who was much more deeply embedded in the jihad movement than Paris was willing to admit in the spring. As reported in Le Parisien yesterday, while French domestic intelligence (DCRI) agreed with calling Merah a “lone wolf” they knew better – much better. The 23 pages of classified reports, going back to 2009, demonstrate that the DCRI was aware of a wide range of worrisome activities by Merah, who became a target of “special surveillance,” as was his brother, due to their close relations with the Toulouse jihad in-crowd.
December 2009: Merah pops up in surveillance of the Toulouse radical Salafis; DCRI notes that the young man, who recently emerged from prison, is conducting “religious classes” at his apartment, while talking regularly with his brother Abdelkader, a known associate of the Toulouse jihad circle, who had recently moved to Cairo to further his muj education.
November 2010: DCRI reports that Merah, now learning Arabic as a “member of an Islamo-delinquent fraternity” in Toulouse, is part of a younger generation of jihadists who have emerged from prison more radical than ever.
January 2011: DCRI reports in detail about Merah, who had recently traveled to Afghanistan and was picked up by local security forces. This report is based largely on Afghan information shared with Paris, which paints a disturbing picture of a troubled young man who claimed to have gotten to the country via Germany, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Tajikistan, saying he was a tourist. DCRI now officially considers Merah a person of concern, “with a serious delinquent past [now] in a radicalization phase.”
September 2011: DCRI report observes that, upon his return from Afghanistan, Merah quickly reintegrated with the Toulouse jihad scene and appears more radical than ever. Thus he is now considered “special target of the service,” and although Merah is reported to be headed to Pakistan shortly, French authorities do nothing to stop him.
November 2011: Once he returns from Pakistan, Merah is interviewed by the DCRI in Toulouse. Merah, who admits to spending time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, claims he returned home to sort out his legal situation. Based on his travels to known jihad-linked locations, DCRI pronounces Merah a “direct threat,” observing in the report that young men who engage in jihad tourism “can return with instructions to carry out armed actions.”
Despite this chilling prediction – practically a prophecy about what Merah would execute in a few months – the DCRI and French authorities did nothing.
As a former intelligence officer, I am always sympathetic to the people who have to monitor the bad guys – in France, as in Britain and many other countries, the number of potential terrorism targets is vast – and it’s always easy to render criticism from a comfy chair long after the events in question. That said, this appears to be a massive screw-up by French intelligence.
Regardless, these reports put paid to the notion that Merah – along with his brother, who was just as deeply involved in the jihad scene in southern France and was a good deal more complicit in the March mayhem than initially believed – was a mere “lone wolf.” In reality, the vast majority of home-grown jihad terrorism cases are more closely linked with known jihadist groups and travels than we are initially told. While occasionally a troubled young man initiates a self-starting jihad based solely on viewing ugly websites – it appears more common among Americans than Europeans – this is seldom the case in the real world. Perhaps it’s time to dispense with the shopworn “lone wolf” label altogether.