The Toulouse shootings are macabre and tragic, but in the end a banal and fading version of extremism.
- By Justin Vaïsse <p> Justin Vaïsse is director of research at the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe. He is, with Hans Kundnani of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the lead co-author of the European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2012. </p>
The recent terrorist shootings in France are notable only for their gruesome details. On March 19, Mohamed Merah stopped in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse and shot a rabbi and three children, even chasing a little girl and grabbing her by the hair to lodge a bullet in her head. Four days earlier, he had murdered two French paratroopers of Arab origin at gunpoint and injured a third, of Caribbean origin — continuing a spree that began with the killing of another paratrooper four days earlier. Had he not been identified by the police on March 20, he would have been on his way to kill policemen in Toulouse the next day.
On March 22, the gruesome story came to its inevitable conclusion when French security forces stormed Merah’s apartment, and the man leapt out his window, guns ablaze, and fell to his death.
But let’s not jump to conclusions: The shootings reveal exactly nothing new about global terrorism nor French society — they simply confirm that even the strongest anti-terrorism apparatuses have lapses. Although often targeted, France had seen no major attack materialize on its soil since 1996 (it has suffered, however, various terrorist attacks abroad). And there should be no crowing about a new wave of xenophobia or race crime: Anti-Semitism in France has steadily declined in recent decades, and anti-Semitic acts, which had brutally increased in the first half of the 2000s, have subsided.
The sociological profile of Mohamed Merah is a sad copy of that of his jihadist predecessors of decades past, from Herve Djamel Loiseau to Zacarias Moussaoui: It includes social relegation, identity troubles, and a feeling of injustice, mixed with petty crime, Islamist radicalization (not in a regular French mosque but while serving time in prison), then travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are not deeply religious men, but rather actors crazed by a desire to take destiny into their own hands and live a more fulfilling life by appointing themselves defenders of victimized Muslims.
While claiming to act in the name of al Qaeda — the extent of his ties to the network is still unclear, and it appears he acted alone in France — Merah articulated the usual jihadist justifications for his actions: the French military presence in Afghanistan, the headscarf and burqa bans, and the occupation of Palestine. But as late as 2010, he was still trying to enlist in the French armed forces, and was rejected by the Foreign Legion. Other details of his killings (he apparently caught his killings on video by a camera attached to his gear) hint at how similar his profile is to deranged serial killers or teenagers engaging in shooting sprees.
Such terrorist attacks by "lone wolves" are very hard to prevent, and others will occur in the United States, as in Europe. At the very moment when they seem to proliferate, however, the context which produced them is fading away. It is not just that al Qaeda was already discredited when Osama bin Laden was killed and that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to a close. More importantly, the Arab Spring has disorganized the terrorist networks, bringing a handful of Westerners to the training camps of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it has reintegrated most Islamists — even the Salafists — into the political game, thereby isolating the jihadists further. It has also shown a different path to popular empowerment and dignity.
Toulouse, in other words, appears like the annual update to a bound encyclopedia subscription — an insert to an era that is already passing.