Letter From Paris

France’s Islamist Powder Keg

How not to deal with jihadists.

By From the May 2012 issue

Send to Kindle

From the first intelligence surveillance to the final shootout, France’s clumsy handling of its spate of Islamic terrorism in March was a case study in how not to deal with a jihadist. With the largest Muslim community in Europe—nearly 10 percent of the population—and thousands of young Frenchmen going to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Yemen on the pretext of studying the Koran, it does not bode well for the country’s domestic tranquility. Neither does the fact that officials have long been in denial, minimizing the threat for fear of alarming the public and antagonizing an increasingly restive ethnic-Arab minority. Thus tranquillized, the French public shrugs and says pas de problème: a recent poll shows only 53 percent think the terrorist threat is dangerous, the lowest level of concern since 2001.

Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who shot three French soldiers point blank in the South of France, then slaughtered a teacher, his two young sons, and an 8-year-old girl at a Jewish school in Toulouse, said loud and clear that he was acting for al Qaeda. His coolly professional assassinations, intended to “bring France to its knees”—President Nicolas Sarkozy compared them to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.—bore the jihadist imprint right down to filming them and ensuring he died a martyr’s death seen on the world’s television screens. He signed his social network account “Mohamed Merah-Forsane Alizza,” meaning “Knights of Pride,” an outlawed France-based jihadist outfit.

Yet the government energetically pooh-poohed the idea that France was seriously threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. “These crimes were the work of a fanatic and a monster,” Nicolas Sarkozy insisted. “To look for an explanation…would be a moral fault.” He instructed the French not to blame the attacks on “our Muslim compatriots [who] had nothing to do with the crazy motivation of a terrorist.” Most of the obedient French media went along with the politically correct whitewash.

Despite his claims to the contrary, Merah was officially described as a loner with no assistance from any al Qaeda affiliate. Indeed, the favorite theory of the chattering class was that he must be a right-wing neo-Nazi. Or failing that, just your typical underprivileged, disaffected guy who had had a miserable childhood in the slums. The left-leaning Le Monde reported that he had “an angelic face, a fascinating beauty.” His 15 arrests and doing time for everything from stoning buses to violent theft and fighting with rivals? Liberals outdid themselves to show he was the psychologically disturbed victim of an unjust society. “A pathetic young man…the victim of a social order that had already doomed him, and millions of others like him, to a marginal existence, and to the non-recognition of his status as a citizen equal in rights and opportunities,” explained the Muslim apologist Tariq Ramadan, who was denied a U.S. visa for providing material support to a terrorist organization before the ACLU persuaded Hillary Clinton to lift the ban.

The failure of the French domestic intelligence agency, the DCRI, to spot Merah as a serious threat, and its subsequent efforts at self-justification, would have been comic were we not dealing with tragedy. Its chief called him a self-radicalized young man with a split personality, a lone wolf who operated below the radar. Besides, he pleaded, Merah had not followed the usual path taken by Islamist extremists. He wasn’t visibly part of any network. He even went to nightclubs instead of mosques, for heaven’s sake, so how could we know he was a jihadist? “We had absolutely no reason to believe he was commissioned by al Qaeda to carry out these attacks.” No doubt it would have helped to have a copy of his marching orders on an al Qaeda letterhead.

The DCRI chief and other officials tried to make light of a 2010 trip Merah made to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, spiritual home of the Taliban. But as information leaked out, it became clear that this poor kid, who lived on welfare payments of about $600 a month, had left tracks all over the Middle East, with somebody else obviously paying the bills. Besides Afghanistan, he later visited Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel in the space of two years. Strangely, he was reportedly arrested by Afghan police on his first trip and handed over to American forces there, who returned him to France. The FBI’s counterterrorism department put him on the no-fly list, barring entry to the U.S. The French ignored this, either through sheer sloppiness or to avoid any appearance of profiling.

They did, however, put him under loose surveillance. Nearly a year after his first trip to Afghanistan, a DCRI agent in Toulouse finally called his cell number to ask him to come in for a talk. He didn’t bat an eye when Mohamed answered and said sorry, he couldn’t—he was busy in Pakistan at the time. When he finally did drop in months later, these Keystone Kops approvingly looked over the photos he brought along as proof he was there as a tourist, said something like très bien, mon ami, and let him go. (This casual relationship and other aspects of the case led to speculation that Merah was perhaps a double agent, an informer for the DCRI who was turned by al Qaeda; a lawyer hired by his father claims to have video proof that he was “manipulated” and “liquidated” by the police.)

The official French version that Merah was a lone wolf inspired by his solitary reading of the Koran looked even more foolish when it became known that he had trained for two months in North Waziristan on the Af-Pak border, likely with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group of Pakistani factions. He would have been anything but alone. Pakistani intelligence officials told the Associated Press that dozens of French Muslim militants, many with dual French-North African nationality, are training there:

The Frenchmen operate under the name Jihad-e-Islami and are being trained to use explosives and other weapons at camps near the town of Miran Shah and in the Datta Khel area, the officials said. They are led by a French commander who goes by the name Abu Tarek.

When they return to France, all it will take to waken these sleeping agents will be a call from Kandahar.

Merah certainly learned about firearms. Somehow, right under the noses of French surveillance and with financial assistance from guess who, he amassed a stash of guns, including several Colt .45 automatics with extra magazines, an automatic Sten pistol, a Colt Python revolver, a pump-action shotgun, and an Uzi submachine gun, along with ingredients for Molotov cocktails. With this arsenal he was able to intimidate and toy with a 15-man French SWAT team for all of 32 hours, wounding five and repeatedly forcing them to retreat when they tried to enter his small, three-room apartment in Toulouse.

Actually the effort to take Merah down was as amateurish as the earlier intelligence failures. When the SWAT team finally did succeed in blowing off the door and entering, they riddled him with bullets instead of taking him alive for interrogation as they were ordered to do. Much of France wondered along with Christian Prouteau, the retired chief of the gendarmerie’s elite GIGN commando unit (the SWAT team were police, not better-trained paramilitary gendarmes), who asked, “How can a top police unit botch the capture of a lone gunman? If they had pumped his apartment with tear gas, he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.” Some Israeli security experts were even harsher. Alec Ron, a former head of the Israel police commando unit, told Israeli public radio the operation was marked by “utter confusion and unprofessionalism.… It was an absolute disgrace.”

One reason for this foul-up was that Sarkozy ordered the merger of two domestic intel agencies three years ago, a fusion that has yet to gel. Another might have been political interference, in an election year, with police work. But the main problem is that France is ill equipped, psychologically and politically, to deal with a huge, unassimilated Muslim population increasingly tempted by radicalism. France poses as a beacon of human rights and égalité, which to the Gallic mind rules out affirmative action (that would be unequal) or even accepting the reality of ethnic diversity. With impeccable logic, it officially has no minorities—everyone is by definition French and therefore equal; the law prohibits statistics based on race or religion. There’s no yardstick even to begin to measure the problem.

This in turn has meant that the government, ever so careful about treading on anybody’s toes, tries to avoid any appearance of cracking down on Muslim activism that could lead to radical Islamicism. If, as Mao wrote, the guerrilla must swim in the people as a fish swims in the sea, jihadist guerrillas must find good swimming in French Muslim waters. It might get even easier for them to disappear from police view if Socialist François Hollande becomes president. He has made the ultimate politically correct campaign promise: if elected he would ask parliament to remove the word “race” from the constitution.

Whatever the outcome of this month’s election, the slaughter of the innocents in Toulouse is a wake-up call that France ignores at its considerable peril. As an adviser to Sarkozy said, sotto voce, “This is going to raise questions about our system of integration, our approach to fundamentalism, and our tolerance of certain practices here.” For sure. Meanwhile, no one knows when or where the French Islamist powder keg will blow next.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.