Toulouse attacks expose, and overplay, French jihadist threat
The recent attacks by Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah have put the spotlight on the threat of French Islamist terrorism. But how widespread is the phenomenon of French-born jihadists and why have they not risen up the terror ranks?
Shortly after September 11, 2001, a French-born jihadist, Zacarias Moussaoui – sometimes called “the 20th hijacker” – shot into the spotlight when US prosecutors charged him as a conspirator in the 9/11 attacks.
More than a decade later, another French-born, self-confessed jihadist, Mohamed Merah, captured international headlines during a nail-biting, 32-hour siege in Toulouse after he killed seven people – including three children – in a shooting spree in southwest France.
Merah was killed in a police commando raid in Toulouse at the end of the siege while Moussaoui was convicted and is currently serving a life sentence in a Florida prison.
In death and in life, Moussaoui and Merah share similarities in more ways than one.
Both French nationals of North African origins, Moussaoui and Merah were brought up by single mothers in southern France. Like most European-born militant Islamists, their radicalisation process involved at least one trip to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. By most accounts, the two men felt marginalized in the country of their birth.
In the shocked aftermath of the Toulouse attacks, French as well as international news organisations were quick to highlight the fact that Moussaoui and Merah were not the only ones with a shared background.
Concentric circles of Islamisation
Stirred by a plethora of Islamist contents on the Internet, some young French Muslims with bleak socio-economic prospects in the suburbs of France’s cities are being increasingly radicalised.
Their disenchantment with the French state has been stoked on the domestic front by the government’s ban on the niqab (the full Islamic veil) and the ruling party’s focus on French identity, which critics say fuels resentment against the country’s Muslim community.
On the foreign policy front, the presence of French troops in Afghanistan is a common grievance among French Islamists – as is the Palestinian issue.
Estimates of the number of French Islamist militants in global jihadist circles are hard to come by and vary depending on the source.
French authorities believe that between 20 and 30 French nationals are tied to jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. But according to CNN, a 2010 French intelligence estimate put the potential number as high as 200 or 250.
Mathieu Guidère, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University Toulouse II-Le Mirail, breaks down Islamists according to their ideological fervor into what he calls four concentric “circles” of extremism.
“The largest circle, that of radical Islamists, are against Western culture and democracy because they believe in the presence of divine law,” said Guidère, adding that these radical Islamists are not violent. He estimates that there are between 400 and 500 French Muslims worldwide in this group.
A smaller circle of Salafists are those revivalists who emphasise the salaf (ancestors), referring to the 7th century companions of the Prophet Muhammed. Guidère believes that there are between 150 and 200 Salafists of French origins.
Islamist jihadists, or the ones who take up jihad or violent action to achieve their goals, number between 10 and 20, according to Guidère’s count.
Finally, there’s the terrorist who has actually turned ideology into lethal action. Guidère believes that since the mid-1990s, there has been just one example of a French-born terrorist who has successfully applied violence, taking it past the plotting or the conspiracy to plot stage: the Toulouse gunman.
Effective security and the influence of ‘French culture’
In a country that is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community – estimates range from 3 to 5 million since the French state does not officially tally religious groups – that is not as alarming as some news reports suggest.
Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist who now works for the London-based counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, notes that, “As far as I can see, there has not been a single incident of a French national conducting a suicide attack – neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan nor Europe”.
Benotman believes there are two reasons for the absence of French-born suicide bombers. “The first definitely has to do with security,” he said. “Security is very effective in France, there’s no doubt about that. The second is the influence of French culture, I believe it’s still very powerful.”
When asked what exactly he meant by the influence of French culture, Benotman chuckled, “You know when you’re French, it’s the way you dress, the taste of food, the way you enjoy the finer things, it’s a lifestyle. This kind of influence will shape your worldview. I believe that French individuals, regardless of their ethnic group, are still under the influence of French culture, including the French values of liberty and democracy. Despite their feelings or their grievances about their situation, they are still within the context of a French culture,” he said.
Ironically, despite the well-documented identity crisis that many children of immigrant parents in the West undergo, Benotman suggests that the strong French cultural identity makes them less willing to offer themselves up on suicide missions. It probably also makes them even less disposed to the austerity of jihadist training camps.
A former commander of the now defunct, al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), Benotman had met with senior al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri before he publicly renounced violence after the 9/11 attacks.
Benotman is familiar with the rigors of jihadist training camps such as the ones in the Pakistani border region. “It’s not easy at all. They’re in a camp, you can’t do whatever you like, you have to follow orders even if you don’t like it. You think what the hell is this? Why should I listen to all this?” he explained.
French-born jihadists have not risen high up the ranks in global terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, unlike some of their fellow French-speaking comrades who were born and raised in Muslim-dominated former French colonies such as Algeria.
“I think there is a difference within the francophone sphere,” said Benotman. “The Algerians are part of francophone culture but they have a very different experience. They have come out of the 1990s jihad [in Algeria] and the terrorist campaigns there,” he said, referring to the brutal Algerian civil war between the Algerian military and government-backed security services on one side, and various Islamist groups including the GIA (Armed Islamist Group), which splintered into the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), which in turn merged with al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), on the other.
The ‘lone wolf’ as a model
In the Toulouse gunman’s case, security experts have noted that Merah was a classic example of the “lone wolf” operator who is not closely linked to an organized network, making it easier for him to slip through security radars.
Like the case of Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born US citizen who attempted the failed May 2010 Times Square attack, Merah was an individually radicalised, legal resident of a Western country who sought training in the Pakistani border region.
But Benotman is careful to note that, “Tactically they are lone wolves, but strategically, in terms of theory and philosophy, they are part of the global jihadist insurgency led by al Qaeda. This is very important,” he said. “Without this, you can do nothing.”
Following the Toulouse attacks, jihadist websites have been inundated with praise, according to Benotman, with many followers quoting Merah’s boast of bringing “France to its knees”.
Benotman however does not believe Merah’s attack will increase the profile or the respect accorded to French-born jihadist recruits. That, he noted, depends on an individual’s commitment and training. But, he adds Merah’s case could serve as a model for radicalised young men seeking the path to jihad. “That’s the danger,” said Benotman. “If you’re a French Muslim looking for a war with French society, maybe you will look to Merah as a model.”