Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Toulouse gunman lone wolf?

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Following the tragic shootings in Toulouse last week that resulted in the deaths of a Rabbi, three children and three soldiers by a Frenchman of Algerian dissent Mohammed Merah, many in the media have been quick to paint Merah as a ‘lone wolf' and his actions as an isolated incident, the actions of one crazed individual, with no wider implications.

A Sydney Morning Herald article was entitled, "Lone wolf killer slipped under the radar". In addition, the Age and Canberra Times have reported the news story that the gunman's links to al Qaeda are in doubt. Meanwhile, there has also been little media discussion/reflection on the dangers of antisemitism and the growth of jidhadi networks operating in the West including the indoctrination that can occur in prisons - where petty criminal Merah reportedly converted to radical Islamic beliefs.

In the Wall Street Journal Brandeis University Professor Jytte Klausen, (republished in the Australian) makes a strong case that Merah was not a ‘lone wolf', but rather was deeply involved in Jihadi networks. Klausen writes:

"...Merah was practically a prince in French jihadist circles. His mother is married to the father of Sabri Essid, a leading member of the Toulouse radical milieu who was captured in Syria in 2006. Essid and another Frenchman were running an al Qaeda safe house in Syria for fighters going to Iraq. In a 2009 trial that came to be known in the press as "Brothers for Iraq," they and six others were convicted in France of conspiracy for terrorist purposes. Essid was sentenced in 2009 to five years imprisonment.
Family contacts could have been instrumental in setting up Merah's jihadist contacts and facilitating his travels to South Asia. Le Monde reports that the Pakistani Taliban and the Uzbek Islamic Movement trained Merah to become a killer. In 2010, he was captured in Afghanistan (reportedly by Afghan forces) and handed over to the French government, yet French media report that he was able to return to Northwest Pakistan in 2011.
The French police have confirmed that Merah was under periodic surveillance in recent months. That he slipped through and was able to carry out his attacks will become a source of criticism and self-recrimination on the part of the generally efficient French police. It certainly suggests that he had help from a network....
He signed that last tweet ‘Mohamed Merah-Forsane Alizza.' Forsane Alizza, or ‘Knights of Glory,' is a France-based jihadist media organization that was banned in January by French authorities after they discovered members preparing to train in armed combat..."

In addition to describing Merah as a ‘lone wolf', some commentators have sought to portray Merah and other Muslims as "victims" of French society. For example, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University Tariq Ramadan wrote an article posted on the ABC Religion and Ethics Website that stated:

"the story of Mohamed Merah holds up a mirror to the face of France: he ends up a Jihadi without real conviction, after having been a citizen deprived of true dignity... Mohamed Merah is, in other words, rather like an overgrown adolescent - unemployed, at a loose end, soft-hearted but also disturbed and incoherent...He... killed Jews, Christians and Muslims without distinction...
Politically, he was a young man adrift, imbued neither with the values of Islam, nor driven by racism and anti-Semitism. Young, disoriented, he shot at targets whose prominence and meaning seem to have been chosen based on little more than their visibility..."

Not driven by ‘racism and anti-semitism'? He killed "Jews, Christians and Muslims without distrinction" and chose his targets based on "little more than their visibility?" Ramadan clearly ignores that Merah deliberately targeted Jewish children - in a school which was impossible to find unless you were actively looking for it, and at a time and in a manner which strongly suggests he had cased it carefully beforehand, as Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz has noted.

‘Soft hearted'? Ramadan again ignores the chilling eye witness reports that Merah chased eight year old Miriam Monsonego where he grabbed her by the hair and shot her in the head, after killing Rabbi Yonatan Sandler and his two sons Gavriel 4 and Aryeh 6.

Ramadan said that he was not trying to excuse Merah's actions but it is very clear that he was trying to shift responsibility for the attack away from Merah and onto French society as a whole, and away from the fact that Merah was driven by political-ideological views - views which Ramadan largely shares and, it must be presumed, wishes to protect from the disrepute actions like Merah's bring them into.

Middle East commentator Barry Rubin has also discussed the dangers of painting Merah as a ‘victim'. He writes in the Jerusalem Post:

"If the terrorist is a Muslim, however, his own explanations - citing dominant interpretations of Islam and the goal of furthering an Islamist revolution - are ignored. Instead, he or they are presented as confused, psychologically disturbed individuals; victims of discrimination; or, in short, anything other than ideologically motivated revolutionaries.

Perhaps the leading ‘professional' apologist for France in this context is Justin Vaisse. In an article in Foreign Policy, ‘The ‘New Normal' in France?' he claims that Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse terrorist, was sort of a Sad Sack character merely seeking to take his fate into his own hands and to emerge as the defender of oppressed Muslims in France. In other words, he's sort of a combination of a self-help fanatic and a crime-fighting superhero.
As for France itself, anti-Semitism is supposedly declining. There's no problem, and few major attacks on Jews. Everything is just fine. No need to make changes; no need to demand that Muslims teach tolerance and fight against extremists in their own ranks; no need to provide more protection for Jewish institutions. And no need for a real soul-searching about the constant demonization of Israel in the French media and, at times, schools..."

The tragic loss of life at the hands of Merah demand that anti-Jewish hatred and jidhadi networks that feed such hatred are acknowledged and combatted - rather than glossed over or dimissed as mere isolated incidents - if such attacks are to be kept from happening again and again.

Sharyn Mittelman


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