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Assessing the Toulouse killings

29 March 2012

Assessing the Toulouse killings

Portrait of Lorenzo Vidino, copyright CSS
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Lorenzo Vidino

In light of the Toulouse killings, Lorenzo Vidino assesses the nature of the jihadist terrorist threat in Europe.

By Lorenzo Vidino for Center for Security Studies (CSS)

As the dust settles on the case of Mohammed Merah, the self-admitted killer of members of the French military and the Jewish community in the Toulouse area, many questions remain regarding this specific case and the nature of the jihadist terrorist threat to Europe. How does an apparently unremarkable individual, like most described Merah, radicalize? Did he act alone? Why wasn’t he picked up by French authorities before going on a killing spree? And how many Merahs roam the streets of Europe?

At the moment we can answer most of these questions only partially, as more information on his case needs to be dug up. Yet it is fair to say that there is nothing in Merah’s background that makes him more or less likely than anybody else to be a terrorist. Studies have shown that there is no such a thing as a common terrorist profile and that terrorists come from all kinds of personal, professional, and educational walks of life. If Merah grew up as a petty criminal in the gritty banlieues of Toulouse, many other terrorists arrested in recent years throughout Europe were university students or well integrated professionals. Rather, what seems to be a key factor is direct contact with already radicalized individuals. In Merah’s case his older brother seems to have played an important role, allegedly introducing him to jihadist ideology and favoring his trips to Afghanistan and other countries known for militant activities.

Authorities are now evaluating the importance of these trips and wondering whether Merah was a lone wolf or an organic part of some terrorist structure. A definitive answer to this question is premature, but it must be said that, from an operational point of view, the panorama of jihadist networks operating in Europe is very diverse and can be visualized as a continuum. At one extreme, we find what are commonly referred to as “homegrown groups”: small clusters of mostly European-born radicals with no ties to external groups that act in absolute operational independence. At the opposite side of the spectrum, we see compartmentalized cells contained in a well-structured network and subjected to a hierarchical structure.

In between these two extremes there is a whole spectrum of realities, positioned according to the level of autonomy of the group. The most recurring model seems to be that of the July 7, 2005, London bombers: a small group of young men, most of whom were born and raised in Europe, who know each other either from the mosque or from the neighborhood, and who become radicalized in Europe. Some of these locally groomed jihadist wannabes travel abroad to gain from various al Qaeda-affiliated groups the necessary expertise that will make the group jump from an amateurish cluster of friends to a full-fledged terrorist cell. It appears that Merah could be located around there: while he seems to have acted independently when he started to kill, he did possess several ties to al Qaeda-affiliated networks that apparently provided him with some degree of training.

So why didn’t French authorities, who apparently knew of Merah’s extensive contacts to the jihadi underworld, arrest him? The task of French and other European intelligence agencies in these cases is extremely difficult. In free societies espousing radical ideas and having ties with militants is not a crime per se and authorities cannot arrest those who do so. Moreover, intelligence agencies have only limited resources and can closely monitor only a restricted number of people. Evidently Merah was not assessed to pose a severe threat, a decision that is too easy to judge as mistaken ex post facto. There is no question that an internal probe within French intelligence will take place to determine if mistakes were made, but identifying and tracking potential security risks is not an easy job.

So how many potential terrorists live in Europe? Nobody knows for sure and even intelligence agencies can only speculate. Authorities monitor small populations of militants, their numbers varying from country to country. French authorities, for example, estimate that some 80 Frenchmen have recently trained with jihadist outfits in Pakistan. British intelligence has spoken of 2.000 individuals who pose a threat to national security. And even in Switzerland authorities monitor small clusters of radicalized individuals, some of which have left Europe for terrorist training.

Despite the threat they pose, it must be noted that these individuals represent a miniscule and fringe cross section of any European country’s Muslim community. Most importantly, throughout Europe Muslims are increasingly condemning the actions and ideas of such individuals. Their words and those of French authorities, who have been quick at urging the French public not to stigmatize the entire Muslim community for the actions of one individual, are the best response to Merah’s heinous acts.  


Lorenzo Vidino Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich.

Editor's note:

This article first appeared in Le Temps

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Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported

Comments

Michel Sutton | Zurich | 29 March 2012

Sorry, but this analysis is not even apologist, it's just thin. Merah didn't only espouse radical ideas, he acted upon them, had been arrested on multiple occasions, had served time in an Afghan prison etc&etc. Sure, intel and policing is a hard job, but is that an excuse for failing to do one's job?

The "best response" is to reassure Muslims? Why is that your top priority? Would the best response be for France not be to improve its intelligence channels in order to prevent something like this from happening again?