The recent shootings in Toulouse, which were perpetrated by French alleged former jihadi fighter Mohamed Merah, have been turned into a national tragedy in France. The Jews as usual have gone nuts over the incident (Merah had shot a rabbi and three Jewish children). The usual anti-Semitism brigade came out in force with the usual mission to persuade the world that Israel can do no wrong. EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, drew criticism in Israel over what Israeli leaders said was an attempt to make the massacre of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers engaged in ‘self-defence’ military activities in the Gaza strip equivalent to the intentional and anti-Semitism-motivated shooting of Jewish children in Toulouse. The point being that the death of Palestinian children is justified whereas the death of Jewish children is unjustifiable.
Back from planet Israel to the real world, one is immediately confronted with the fact that Merah didn’t only target Jews, he inaugurated his shooting spree with three French soldiers of ‘North African’ descent (Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Imad Ibn Ziaten, 30). I don’t know what ‘North African’ is supposed to mean here, but one of the dead soldiers is probably from Morocco as this is where he was buried.
Merah is dead. As he jumped from a first floor window after a 36-hour siege by French Special Forces (RAID), he was hit in the head by a retaliatory shot from a RAID officer. Attempts to arrest him alive have failed; therefore we will never know what he had to say. But what do Algerians in Algeria think of this affair?
To answer this question, I have quickly browsed comments left by readers on Arabic national newspapers’ websites. I assumed that Arabic newspapers are more widely read by Algerians than French ones. There seems to be four clans:
The Zionist/ Masonic conspiracy clan
This group argues that Merah is a French agent who was manipulated by French authorities and the Zionist/ Massonic lobby in order to damage Islam/ Muslims’ image and give French authorities a fresh excuse to clamp down on immigrants.
The “France is to blame” clan
This group argues that Merah is a French product and that Algeria has nothing to do with him. France should take responsibility for its citizens, no matter what ethnic origin they happen to have. After all, when Zidane was scoring goals for the French national football team, he was just ‘French’.
The ‘what you sow is what you reap’ clan
This group saw in the incident a just retribution to avenge the Palestinian children and all the savage acts undertaken by France and its Western allies in the Muslim world.
The ‘tbahdila, li zalgiriens dangi’ clan
This group decided that the blame ought to be on Algerians themselves. How could we explain that Algerians tend to be heavily represented in self-proclaimed Al Qaida terrorists? They are more represented than Palestinians themselves, the first concerned by the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict! Furthermore, French citizens from Algerian origins tend to be the most useless and more prone to violence and petty crime than other Maghreb communities. There must be something terribly wrong with Algerians.
French immigrants from Maghrebian origin have largely tended to argue defensively that this killing spree does not reflect the ‘true spirit of Islam’ and that Merah should not be taken as representative of the Algerian/ Maghrebian/ Muslim community. This has also been the official position of the French authorities.
But what do we know about Merah apart from his Algerian origins? Here is a collection of ‘facts’ that were mentioned in press reports here and there:
What friends and acquaintances of Merah say:
- He likes football, scooters and motorbikes: the first victim was killed after arranging to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter. A friend who attended the same primary school as Merah said “He likes football and motor-bikes like any other guy his age; I didn’t even know he prayed.”
- A friend of Moroccan origin, who gave the nickname Danny Dem, said Merah had tried to enlist in the French army but had been rejected. He said he had seen Merah in a nightclub in the city centre just last week. He also said that Merah didn’t drink, “but I don’t think he is any more religious than I am. I think he has just lost the plot”. The AFP confirmed that Merah “twice tried and failed to join the French army”.
- Eric Lambert, 46, whose son was an upstairs neighbor in Merah’s apartment block, described Merah as friendly and “extremely normal”, and said he had helped about 10 months ago to carry a heavy sofa upstairs.
- Friends told a Reuters reporter he had never talked to them about religion and they had no idea he had been to Afghanistan.
- Another friend, who gave his name as Kamal and said he was a financial adviser at La Banque Postale, said that “He is someone who is very discreet. He is not someone who would brag and go around and say: ‘Oh look at my new girlfriend, look how great I am.’ He is very polite and always well-behaved, he never spoke about Islam, but he did pray. But we all pray five times a day … “
- He grew up in a poor neighborhood in north Toulouse and didn’t have a dad. He had a criminal record of petty theft and violent assault but no overt signs of religious or political militancy.
- Another man, who said he was 24 and a warehouse worker but did not give his name, said he knew the family, in particular Merah’s brother. He said that Merah “was the kind of kid who got into trouble, but he was a banal young guy. Over the past two years he had changed a lot. He wasn’t into having fun, he became harder. He didn’t really go to the mosque; he seemed more likely to meet people in obscure flats.”
- His lawyer, Christian Etelin, described him as “by no means rigid or fanatical”, and said he could never imagine him committing crimes of such “hardness and extremity … If you could say anything, it was that he was polite and courteous … quite sweet actually”. But he said there was nevertheless a darker side to Merah, who was imprisoned at 18 for snatching a bag in the entrance hall of a bank. “Unlike a lot of others who grew up alongside him in that area in the north of the city, he was not involved in drugs. His thing was petty theft,” Etelin said.
This is strange when we consider ‘official’ claims that Merah had been under surveillance since returning from Afghanistan. But it might be that the auto-radicalization process took place in the recent past and friends had not had a chance to notice. It happened in Algeria in the 90s. Nowadays it is even easier as a number of Jihadi websites recruit militants online. Also being overtly religious isn’t a reliable signal for radicalization. It must however be said that it is not unusual for murderers and serial killers to be described as ‘sweet’, ‘charming’ and ‘extremely normal’/ ‘banal’. This is what makes these things all the more scary and disturbing.
What French authorities say:
- The prosecutor, Francois Molins, said that Merah had been to Afghanistan twice and trained in Pakistan’s Waziristan, a militant stronghold. He said Merah’s brother had been implicated in a network that sent militant fighters to Iraq.
- Merah was found to have quite a good arsenal of weapons and, given that he was under surveillance, it’s not clear how this could have escaped the attention of the authorities.
- Le Monde reported that he went twice to Pakistan, once in 2010 and again 2011, to speak with groups of fighters based in the tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan. It further claimed that he trained alongside Pakistani Taliban, foreign jihadis and members of the Haqqani network and that he even crossed the border into Afghanistan as part of groups sent to fight NATO troops.
- Another claim emerged during the armed siege of Merah’s apartment block to the effect that, in 2008, Merah escaped in a mass jailbreak in Kandahar, where he had been arrested for bomb making the previous year. The claim has apparently been denied by Afghan security sources on their Twitter account, but Jawed Faisal, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial government, said: “I can’t confirm it was the same person but there was someone in Kandahar prison with the name Mohammed Merah, who was famous as ‘the French guy’”.
- Merah is said to be an adherent of Salafism. Police found weapons and explosives in his brother’s car, also an adherent to Salafism.
- French Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, describing how Merah’s mother had declined to help police by speaking to her besieged son, said that “His mother said she did not wish to speak to him because she did not believe she could convince him and he would be deaf to her appeals,..”. Guéant said Merah had “explained a lot about his agenda” to police negotiators. “His radicalization took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Evidence on at least some of alleged activities of Merah in Afghanistan appears to be sketchy. However, it is very likely that a person named Mohamed Merah had made at least one trip to Afghanistan from 2007 onwards. How Merah managed to have so many weapons whilst being under surveillance is yet to be explained.
What Merah said to police negotiators and France 24
In reported conversations with French police negotiators and Ebba Kalondo, editor-in-chief of France 24, whom Merah allegedly called at 1:00 AM during the siege, Merah is claimed to have explained that it was on his visits to Afghanistan that he joined Al Qaida. He said that he wanted to take revenge for the deaths of Palestinian children; he was against the headscarf ban and was fighting against the French participation in NATO operations in Afghanistan. Kalondo said that Merah was calm, spoke in good French punctuated with Arabic expressions and said all the murders had been filmed and the videos would be posted online. The call lasted 10 minutes, where Merah allegedly announced further terrorist plans in Paris, Lyon and Marseille and revealed details that were only known to him and the police (eg. number of bullets fired, types of guns used…etc.). It has also been reported that Merah has said that he is proud to have ‘brought France down on its knees’.
France seems to have a big internal problem with its immigrants community, many of whom (especially those of Algerian origin), appear to have a curious love-to-hate relationship with it. Very reminiscent of the one Algerian Algerians seem to have with their former colonizer.
Impact on upcoming French presidential election
It is not clear how this incident will affect the upcoming French presidential election. Analysts say that security is likely to become a major issue in the campaign, which has been dominated by the economy and immigration issues up till now. Internet regulation might also crop up at some point as it has become a non negligeable source of radicalization material. Socialist candidate Francois Hollande has been leading in polls and some go as far as accusing the Sarkozy administration of having staged this ‘coup’ in order for Sarkozy to come out of it as a national hero. Did Sarkozy need Toulouse in order not to lose? Only time will tell.
In any case, Muslims will be the most affected by this, as Islamophobia is said to be on the rise in France and right-wing parties have been gaining popularity in recent years. However, this is not specific to France, there appears to be a wave of Islamophobia in most Western media. A good place to sample this is the Daily Wail. Here is what it has to say about this case.