Exactly two years ago, a young Frenchman jumped out of his apartment window in the southern French city of Toulouse firing his gun amid a hail of bullets from security officials.
The “Toulouse gunman” – as Mohamed Merah came to be known – was dead after a 32-hour siege, ending one of France’s most dramatic cases of a homegrown jihadist blowback.
On Wednesday, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and EU parliament president Martin Schulz presided over a ceremony in Toulouse commemorating the victims of Merah’s attacks. The tribute marked the second anniversary of Merah’s March 19, 2012, assault on a Toulouse Jewish school, which left three children, a rabbi and a teacher dead. Merah’s two other victims were French servicemen, who were killed at point-blank range.
Back in 2012, the Merah case sparked an intense discussion about the threat of radicalised, lone wolf attackers on a grim personal quest after reports emerged that the 23-year-old French-Algerian had travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East region before returning to France.
Fear of blowback – or returning fighters getting involved in militancy back home – has haunted Western security and intelligence circles since the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
Two years after Merah’s death, the blowback threat in France is focused on the growing number of French nationals and residents who have made their way to Syria to join jihadist groups that are increasingly dominating the battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
A spike in numbers
Accurate estimates of the number of foreign jihadists in Syria are hard to arrive at, but by all accounts, the figures have been increasing over the past few months.
In December 2013, the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) estimated that there up to 11,000 foreigners from 74 countries have gone to Syria since the uprising began in 2011.
While most of the foreign fighters were from Arab countries – particularly neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia – the ICSR estimated that 18% of these 11,000 foreign fighters came from Western European nations.
According to the report, France accounted for the highest number of European jihadists in Syria (between 63 to 412), followed by the UK (43 to 366) and Belgium (76 to 296).
Barely a month later, French President François Hollande revealed that around 700 French nationals and residents had joined the fighting in Syria in a stark increase over earlier estimates.
The number appeared to contradict an earlier estimate from the French Interior Ministry of around 250 French fighters.
In an interview with Reuters, French investigative judge Marc Trevidic said the discrepancy was between the number of French citizens known to be fighting in Syria and the larger number of people passing through France on their way to Turkey, which shares a border with Syria.
"There was an explosion when that first generation came home... As soon as they get back, they are itching to leave again," said Trevidic.
In its December 2013 report, the ICSR noted that while foreign fighters have been going to Syria since 2011, the numbers of Western jihadists increased exponentially since April 2013.
This corresponds to the time when the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah publicly committed itself to the fight to keep Assad in power, reinforcing the perception among Sunni radicals that the Syrian conflict is fundamentally sectarian, requiring a collective Sunni stance to halt the [Shiite] enemy’s advance.
With Europe's largest Muslim population, France has become a major centre for recruitment, and judicial authorities are grappling with a fresh wave of adolescent volunteers, some of whom are as young as 15 years old.
In January, a French court placed two youths – including one just under 14 – under formal investigation on suspicion of planning terror acts after they were arrested in Turkey on their way to Syria.
‘They miss Nutella’
The three-year-old Syrian conflict has also seen some changes in the profile of Western nationals and residents leaving home to wage jihad in a foreign land.
In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24 from Syria earlier this year, a 27-year-old former dental assistant from a Paris suburb explained how he made his way into northern Syria – along with his wife and her two daughters, aged 6 and 8.
“The girls are not unhappy,” said the Frenchman who uses the nom de guerre, Salahudine al-Faransi (Salahudine the French). “Their lives are in God’s hands. They are not in danger. They stay with the women and children of the other fighters away from the fighting. Actually, I hardly see them. When I go to the front, I'm away for weeks. I can’t reveal much detail, all I can say is that they miss [the chocolate-and-nut spread] Nutella.”
In his book, “Les Français Jihadistes” (The French Jihadists), FRANCE 24’s David Thomson recounted how a young Frenchman decided to get married just a few days before travelling to Syria. He barely knew his new wife, an older woman with two children, noted Thomson. He was merely introduced to the woman by “a brother” and told that she “was ready to go to Sham [Syria].”
Intelligence challenges to come
Two years after his brutal death, a series of trials, civil suits and investigations are still making their way through the French judicial system.
The Toulouse gunman’s brother, Abdelkader Merah, who has been indicted for complicity in the killings, has been held in pre-trial detention since March 2012.
Meanwhile, the parents of one of Merah’s victims have filed a complaint over the failure of the DCRI, the French domestic intelligence agency, to maintain its surveillance over Merah following his 2011 return from Pakistan.
An October 2012 internal investigation requested by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls concluded that there were "objective failures" in monitoring the young jihadist.
Merah’s jihadist foray in a foreign land occurred before the April 2013 spike in the number of European fighters heading to Syria. If Western intelligence agencies faced difficulties surveilling returning jihadists back then, the challenges in the years to come look set to increase exponentially.
Date created : 2014-03-19