Mohamed Merah, Who Killed 7 in France, Embodied al Qaeda’s Lone Jihadist Campaign

Mohamed Merah, killer of 7 in France, was trained by al Qaeda and personified its latest campaign endorsing lone jihadist attacks.

Eric Cabanis, AFP / Getty Images

The Toulouse terrorist, Mohamed Merah, is the new face of al Qaeda’s operations in Western Europe and North America, self-radicalized jihadists who get training in Pakistan and then go home to carry out small but deadly attacks in their home countries. His attacks in Toulouse, France, fit exactly the role model al Qaeda has been urging jihadists to follow both in its public and in secret communications. An al Qaeda affiliate has just released new information about his links to the global jihad movement that suggest he was determined for years to become a jihadi.

Merah killed seven people during his eight-day saga of terrorism, including three French soldiers, three Jewish children, and their teacher. So his targets were exactly the targets of the global jihad as defined by al Qaeda: modern Crusaders fighting in Afghanistan and Zionists occupying Palestine. He very deliberately sought out these targets and acted with clear understanding that their deaths would send a message. He videoed the attacks and then someone sent the 25-minute video to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station, which decided not to broadcast them. The source that sent the video described them as “al Qaeda attacks France” and had mixed the gory images in with Quranic verses and music. Al Jazeera says the video was very professional in quality.

Now a prominent jihadist website has published a lengthy description of Merah’s involvement with jihadist circles in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The author calls himself Abu Qaqaa al Andalusi, using the Arabic name for Spain and referring to Merah by a nom de guerre, Yusef al Faransi, or Yusef of France. Andalusi portrays Merah not as an angry, disgruntled loser but as a man obsessed for years with joining the jihad. He first traveled to the Middle East in 2010 and visited Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, and Tajikistan before coming to Afghanistan. Merah wanted to join the Taliban in Afghanistan but instead was deported back to France after being picked up by U.S. forces. Merah was particularly angered by the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and was determined to strike back at Jewish targets.

Merah made a second trip to Pakistan in 2011, where he successfully contacted the Taliban in Islamabad. They put him in contact with a small cell of jihadist trainers who helped him develop his skills with small arms. This is when al Andalusi met Merah and had long conversations in French with him because his Arabic was poor. Originally Merah intended to carry out a “martyrdom” operation in Afghanistan and was thrilled to be given an explosive belt, but his expertise was clearly in the art of assassination. “For reasons that can’t be discussed” al Andalusi tells us it was decided that Merah should go home to France “to accomplish what he could” and to carry out his plan to give “a strong slap to the crusader France and its security apparatus.” It is implied that his trainers in Pakistan understood that Merah was too valuable a killer to waste in some suicide attack in the Hindu Kush when he could terrorize a key NATO ally at home and humiliate the French security services.

Al Qaeda has been urging French citizens of Algerian origin like Merah to attack France for years. In 2006 Ayman Zawahiri, now al Qaeda’s amir, called on Algerians in France to kill “the treacherous sons of France.” Zawahiri has blamed every Frenchman since Napoleon for supporting Israel and fighting Islam. He has railed against France’s ban on head scarves, its Task Force Lafayette in Afghanistan and its provision of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. For Zawahiri and his dead predecessor, Osama bin Laden, France has always been a top target.

The new tape is consistent with other information. Merah’s visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan have been confirmed by other sources, and he himself claimed to have received military training in Pakistan from al Qaeda. Israeli sources report he was briefly detained in Jerusalem and he was on the American no-fly list. The Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda’s close ally, has announced that it trained him last year at one of its camps. Whether all these claims are true or false, Merah clearly had practice in handling small arms and had successfully acquired a small arsenal of automatic weapons, which is no easy accomplishment in France. How he funded his foreign trips and arms acquisitions is a critical subject for further police work. He also was an avid photographer, and al Andalusi tells us he left some of his very expensive camera gear behind in Pakistan to help the jihad.

A secret al Qaeda document found in Berlin by German police this winter urged al Qaeda operatives in Western Europe and America to look for loners like Merah, recruit them, and then task them to conduct what al Qaeda calls “mini-Mumbais,” that is small-scale versions of the 2008 terror assault on Mumbai, in which 10 jihadists armed with small arms terrorized a megacity for three days. The author of the secret al Qaeda document is probably Rashid Rauf, a British citizen of Pakistani origin who helped plan the 2005 London metro attacks and the 2006 foiled plot to blow up 10 jumbo jets leaving Heathrow for the U.S. and Canada. In the captured document, Rauf encourages the lone attackers to blend in with Western society by going to night clubs, drinking, and having girlfriends. This will confuse the security services and throw them off the trail. It worked. Rauf may have been killed in a drone attack after planning a metro attack in New York in 2009 (although that remains unconfirmed), but his tactics are now al Qaeda’s game plan.

The American al Qaeda plotter Anwar al-Awlaki was the most prolific advocate of the lone-attack tactic. He inspired the Fort Hood, Texas, killer and the Christmas Day, Detroit, bomber to carry out their operations. Before his death by drone in Yemen, Awlaki had urged the jihad to focus on small attacks that could create terror and weaken the Crusader-Zionist enemy by a thousand cuts. Already jihadist websites are extolling the Toulouse attacks as proof of the concept.