If the information supplied on Wednesday by French Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, is confirmed, Mohammed Merah – the man suspected of killing seven people in Toulouse and Montauban in a ten-day period – claims to be a member of an organisation linked to the Al-Qaeda network. “He claims to be a mujahedeen; to belong to Al-Qaeda; and to want to avenge Palestinian children, as well as wanting to go after the French army,” because of “its interventions abroad,” Mr Guéant said. His comments came as a RAID team [an elite unit of the French police] tried to entice the 24 year-old man, who is hunkered down in an apartment in Toulouse, to give himself up.
The only information available on the man is provided by the investigators. He is French of North African descent. He has travelled to Pakistan and to Afghanistan and “he has links with people proclaiming Salafist and jihadi roots,” according to Mr Guéant.
This type of profile is well-known to intelligence services. Since the attacks in France in the 1990s followed by the September 11 2001 attack in the United States, they have learned to detect the signs of a jihadi drift in youth from the neighbourhoods in which France’s immigrant communities are concentrated and from the mosques considered as militant. They also keep them under surveillance. Those who have travelled to the combat zones at the Afghani-Pakistan border are obviously priority surveillance targets.
What do the jihadi want?
French anti-terrorist services, which dispose of a particularly tough arsenal of legislation which, for example, allows keeping suspects in prolonged custody, are considered very efficient. In fact, France has not been subject to a terrorist attack since 1997, while, after the United States in 2001, Spain was hard hit in 2004, as was Britain in 2005.
The French, however, remain more vulnerable abroad, especially since AQMI, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has emerged in the Sahel region of Northern Africa. France’s military involvement in several theatres abroad, notably Afghanistan, combined with its ethnic and religious diversity – of all the EU countries, France has both the largest Muslim and Jewish communities – make it a choice target for the Al-Qaeda network. In spite of the death of its leader, Osama bin Laden, in May 2011, and of other leaders hunted down by the United States, the terrorist organisation, in the form of a loose network of micro-groups spread world-wide, remains a threat.
What do the jihadi want? Just to stop France from being France and Europe from being Europe in their diversity and their tradition of tolerance. These have undeniably been sorely tested since 2001. Should the Toulouse story be confirmed, the worst error that could be committed today, while the country is still grieving and under threat, would be to give in to this pressure.