External Affairs

The ‘Lone Wolves’ Are Not Really All That Alone

Mohamed Merah was one of these second-generation immigrants and his story shows how, if the overall context was complex but generally encouraging, a significant problem was nonetheless emerging.

Portent over France. Credit: Selden Vestrit/Flickr CC BY NC-ND 2.0

Portent over France. Credit: Selden Vestrit/Flickr CC BY NC-ND 2.0

The first to die was an off-duty paratrooper, shot dead from feet away outside a gym in the south-western French city of Toulouse. Then two more soldiers, both also off-duty, were killed with a handgun as they waited at an ATM in the nearby town of Montauban. Of the three victims, two were Muslims, and one was a Catholic of Algerian and eastern French origins. A week went by before the gunman struck again. This time the target was a Jewish school. Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two boys, aged six and three, were shot dead in the street. The elder of the two children, badly wounded but still alive, had been killed as he tried to crawl to his father. Eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego hesitated for an instant when told by teachers to flee, stopping to pick up her schoolbag. Surveillance footage shows how the gunman chased her, caught her by the hair, put the muzzle of one weapon to her forehead, changed it for another when it jammed, put that gun too to the girl’s temple and killed her.

Two days later, a TV channel received a call from a man who said he was part of al-Qaeda and had carried out the attacks to protest against France’s recently passed law banning full-face coverings in public places, its involvement in Afghanistan, where French troops were still deployed as part of the International Security Assistance Force, and the killing of Palestinian children by the Israeli military. The caller was Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old petty criminal who lived in Toulouse, close to where the first paratrooper had been killed. Armed police surrounded Merah’s one-bedroom ground-floor apartment in a quiet pedestrian neighbourhood. Their first attempt to enter was met by a fusillade from a handgun so intense it was thought to be automatic fire. A stand-off followed during which various attempts at negotiation were made. Finally, after thirty-six hours, at 7 a.m. on 22 March 2012, Merah emerged shooting from his flat and was killed by a sniper.

Mohamed Merah.

Mohamed Merah.

Until Merah’s ten-day rampage, France appeared to have been largely spared the violence that had been seen elsewhere in Europe. Numerically, the French Muslim population was the biggest on the Continent, estimated at around five million in 2012. No one knew the exact figure because strict laws designed to maintain the impartiality of the theoretically secular French republic in the face of religious difference forbid any collection of such data. In any case, the French Muslim population was extremely varied. The designation ‘Muslim’ included many who ate pork, had married non-Muslim partners, drank and never prayed. It also included a small but significant minority who, as in the UK, were part of the growing wave of extremist thought and activism that had coursed through the Islamic world and Europe over the previous decades.

Like other European nations, France had imported large numbers of migrant labourers from colonies in the immediate post-war period and had parked them in poorly served but cheap housing near their places of work, often on the periphery of major cities. The French experience of decolonisation had been very different from that of the British. Bitter, acrimonious and brutal, the process by which France had disengaged from North African colonies and territories left wounds that never healed. Algeria, the biggest source of Muslim immigrants, had been, at least administratively, part of France, not just a colony, and its loss was more fraught as a result: the North African nation’s struggle for independence between 1954 and1962 had been horrendously violent, with all protagonists involved in appalling human rights abuses and most convinced by the end of the conflict they had been betrayed, traduced or denied what was rightfully theirs. Barely any of this was discussed openly in France for several decades.

It was an unpromising starting point for what was always going to be a painful and hesitant process of assimilation. From the beginning, the rigid certainties of the French secularism known as ‘laïcité’, meaning the total separation of governance and religion, left little room for migrant communities to find a sustainable compromise between what was demanded of them by the state and what they sought to preserve of their original distinctive identities. La République française did indeed welcome everybody equally as brothers, as its famous slogan demanded, but only as long as they were prepared to assume its values, norms and traditions. This contrasted with the more supple pragmatism of British ‘multiculturalism’, which made fewer such demands.

As in Britain, what happened ‘over there’, in the freshly created states that the early Arab and Muslim immigrants to France had left behind, made itself felt in their new homes. Successive French administrations looked for interlocutors who might represent or influence the nation’s Muslims, but their efforts were often stymied by rivalries between Algerian, Moroccan and other communities which mirrored those between their countries of origin. Militancy in these states too inevitably had an impact in France itself. Of all the violent campaigns launched by militants across the Islamic world in the early1990s, that in Algeria was the most intense and by far the most murderous, killing perhaps between 50,000and 150,000 people over the decade. The struggle led to intermittent violence linked to Algerian militant support networks within France itself, with bombings in Paris and elsewhere as well as the evolution of a particular mixture of armed robbery and militancy which was to resurface a couple of decades later in spectacular fashion. A few hundred Frenchmen, many of them converts, made their way to training camps in Afghanistan and at least one was killed during the final battles of 2001 as the US-led offensive cleared the Taliban, temporarily, from the country.

A torched car in a Paris suburb, November 2005. Credit: Alain Bachellier/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A torched car in a Paris suburb, November 2005. Credit: Alain Bachellier/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Throughout the decade that followed, there were no bombings like those in Madrid or London, or even plots of the ambition seen elsewhere. One reason for this was the efficacy of intelligence services that had been quicker than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts in developing an understanding of the real nature of the threat posed by Islamic militancy. French agencies and investigating judges did not need to learn through investigating near misses or actual attacks that the threat was predominantly ‘home-grown’. They already knew. The experience of the 1990s, and the nature of French policing more generally, also meant French security authorities already had legal powers of arrest and detention that were far greater than those of their counterparts in other European countries. A further reason for the lack of violence in France was the success of its political class in distancing the country from the US-led war on terror, its often vocal criticism of Israel and its almost universal opposition to the war in Iraq.

The urban riots in France of 2005, though portrayed as a Muslim ‘rising’ by right-wing commentators overseas, were nothing of the sort. In weeks of reporting throughout these disturbances and hundreds of interviews with angry young Frenchmen, I never once heard Islamist rhetoric or slogans, simply the hardy perennials of urban unrest, while violence was exclusively directed at symbols of the state, such as the police and schools. Equally, though some French citizens continued to make their way to Afghanistan or Iraq to fight, and sometimes die, they were still fewer proportionate to the Muslim population of the country than citizens of other European nations.

The popularity of revivalist, if quietist and apolitical, groups such as the Tablighi Jamaat as well as a steady flow of young French Muslims to Egypt or Gulf States to study in religious schools were a serious concern, but major protests in2006 following the publication of cartoons supposedly ridiculing Mohammed were entirely peaceful. In both riots and demonstrations, France’s Muslims were showing the strength of their integration rather than exclusion. Throwing stones at police and marching across Paris were quintessentially French activities, after all. Polls in France showed apparently contradictory trends. Young French second- or third-generation Muslims were increasingly integrated in terms of drinking alcohol or marriage with non-Muslims, but were also more likely to attend mosque or wear the veil. The latter trend, however, could hardly be described as a threat to security. French officials in 2009 or 2010 were confident of their ability to handle any internal threat, and had begun looking at new dangers beyond the nation’s frontiers. One adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy told me that his principal concern was ‘classic’ state-sponsored terrorism, perhaps involving Iran.

A Syrian refugee in the Izards area of Toulouse, the residential area where Mohamed Merah grew up. Credit: Laaaaaaaaapanne

A Syrian refugee in the Izards area of Toulouse, the residential area where Mohamed Merah grew up. Credit: Tien Tran

Mohamed Merah was one of these second-generation immigrants and his story shows how, if the overall context was complex but generally encouraging, a significant problem was nonetheless emerging. Merah was born in 1988 in Toulouse to parents who had emigrated from Algeria a few years before. His childhood was not a happy one. Merah’s parents were not particularly religiously obser- vant, but if, as one family member later claimed, they ‘just wanted to integrate’ they were not without hostility to France, or at least the French, either. After the shootings Merah’s father said that he had encouraged his children to pray – by giving them extra pocket money – to ‘protect them from the bad life led by French people’. The casual prejudice against ‘Arabs’that the family encountered outside the home was mirrored by the casual prejudice against Jews inside it. Merah’s father often expressed anti-Semitic or racist views if not ‘radicalism as such’, one son later wrote, but after the authorities in Algeria cancelled an election in 1992 that the Islamists appeared set to win, thus triggering the horrific civil war of the 1990s, he began to speak ‘more politically’.

The housing estates where many French Muslims live had been built in a way that made integration physically as well as culturally difficult. In Paris, most were constructed beyond a six- lane ring road which had few bridges and acted as a latter-day rampart separating what is still known as the ‘intra-muros’ parts of the capital from those that are ‘extra-muros’. In Toulouse, the situation was little better. The Cité des Izards, where Merah had spent much of his childhood, is a small housing complex of around 4,000 mainly Muslim residents, distant from the city in every way. Youth unemployment in the neighbourhood touches 50%, according to some reports. Successive administrations in Toulouse have made efforts to integrate local Muslim communities, but are always going to be at a disadvantage when the most celebrated local product is cured pork and the patron saint of the city is a twelfth-century Catholic bishop.

Mohamed Merah showed no sign of any interest in extremist Islam until 2008 when, aged nineteen, he was imprisoned for snatching a bag. Previously, his main focus had been joyriding in stolen cars, girls, clubbing, horror films, video games and hip hop. Jails in France – and they are far from alone in this regard – have a well-deserved reputation for being environments favouring radicalisation. In the absence of other statistics about the faith identity of inmates, the number of halal meals ordered has long been used as a useful indication of the extreme over-representation of nominal Muslims within the prison system. Segregation of extremists and ordinary criminals is difficult in overcrowded facilities, and hard-line ideologies and strands of observance easily spread, whatever the attempts of prison imams to counter them. More potent perhaps is the debased, popular subculture of jihad with its rap, violence, half-understood theology and juvenile geopolitics. In a letter to a family member from jail in early 2009, Merah praised God and the Prophet, and said he knew ‘very, very precisely’ what his duty was when he was finally free.

A worker of foreign origin takes a break, Toulouse, France. Credit: Sarah Rochis/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A worker of foreign origin takes a break, Toulouse, France. Credit: Sarah Rochis/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When released in November 2009, Merah appeared to have slipped back into a familiar routine of violent videos, computer games and petty crime. In fact, he had changed considerably. ‘He was moralising, intolerant and didn’t hide his fascination with Holy War,’ his brother Abdel-Gani later wrote. Merah seems to have made a conscious effort to avoid any mosques or centres associated with local extremists, possibly on the advice of more experienced men he met in jail. He made one abortive bid to link up with militants in Algeria – a logical starting place given his origins but entirely impractical as anyone with a working knowledge of the situation there would have known – and then cooked up a plan to join the Foreign Legion to get sent to Afghanistan where he would turn his weapon on his fellow soldiers. This did not work out either, unsurprisingly.

In 2010, he sold a car he had bought cheaply and refurbished, and used the money to fund a long trip around the Middle East. Travelling on his Algerian rather than his French passport, his aim was to join a militant group, or at least find some kind of extremist mentor. A first attempt to reach Iraq from Syria failed, as did a second bid from Turkey, and so Merah returned to France. Several months later, he tried again. He entered Afghanistan via Tajikistan, thus avoiding applying for an Afghan visa at the embassy in Paris, and took a shared taxi south to Kabul. His plan, it appears, had been to get himself kidnapped by the Taliban, and then fight for them. This did not work out either. After a little over a week in the country, he was detained by local police near Kandahar, the south-eastern Afghan city, handed over to US military authorities and sent back home.

Nine months later, in August 2011, Merah was back in South Asia, flying this time from Paris to Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore, close to the Indian border. The city had long been a favourite destination for young men seeking an entry into Islamic militancy and a centre of extremist activism. One of the best-known local groups, based in a sprawling complex just south of the city, was Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which had carried out the 2008 attacks on luxury hotels, a Jewish centre, a tourist cafe and commuters in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. Another was Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HUM). The two groups, which had their origins in the long conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, both had significant training facilities and a history of recruiting foreigners. Elements of both had become significantly closer to al-Qaeda and similar international or transnational groups based in Pakistan since 2001.

It is possible that Merah made contact with someone from one of these two organisations who dispatched him 180 miles across country to Islamabad, the capital, with an introduction to a mosque in the capital well known for its extremist sympathies. This has never been confirmed, but whatever happened, Merah did reach Islamabad, did send emails home from a hotel very close to the radical mosque and was, within days of arriving in the Pakistani capital, on his way towards the tribal zones along Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan, which had been the biggest single centre for Islamic militant activity anywhere in the world for more than thirty years.

Sunset at Muridke, home to the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Credit: BlackZero/Flickr

Sunset at Muridke, home to the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Credit: BlackZero/Flickr

Quite who trained Merah in a house somewhere near Miranshah, a rough-edged town in the tribal agency of north Waziristan, in September 2011 also remains unclear. Literally dozens of different militant groups operate in and around the settlement. These include al-Qaeda and organisations such as the ‘Haqqani network’, named after the veteran extremist cleric Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is its head, as well as a range of lesser-known outfits from central Asia, south- western China and beyond. Here, too, were the Pakistani Taliban, the rough coalition of groups drawn from local Pashtun tribes, and factions of almost all those various organisations that Pakistan’s security services had tried to use as proxies over the previous decades, in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. There were also, still, some foreign volunteers, from Europe and elsewhere. It was far from unusual for a young European Muslim to turn up with a sketchy recommendation looking to fulfil his personal ambitions of jihad. ‘They asked me if I wanted to join the Afghan Taliban, or the Pakistan Taliban or . . . al-Qaeda. They told me I should join al-Qaeda because I spoke Arabic,’ Merah told the police during the final stand-off.

Merah was made to wait for more than a week by his contacts while they verified his bona fides and later said he saw ‘French, Chinese, Tajiks, Afghans, Pakistanis, Americans, Germans and Spaniards’ while waiting to be cleared for training. When he was finally accepted, his hosts suggested a number of possible ways in which he could contribute to the cause. But Merah had his own ideas. He refused a suicide operation in the US, pointing out that as a convicted criminal he would have trouble getting visas, and made it clear he was unenthusiastic about returning to France simply to await further orders that would come at some unspecified future date. He was keener on assassinating a senior journalist or a diplomat but ruled out bombs in his homeland because the necessary ingredients were very difficult to obtain.

Finally, his own suggestion to go out shooting soldiers or policemen, with a handgun rather than an assault rifle, which he would not be able to procure at home, was accepted. He bought a weapon, received two or three days’ training in its use from a local man associated with a Taliban faction, and then, after gifting the group his camcorder, left for Islamabad and eventually reached France in November. Four months later, he procured several handguns, ammunition and a flak jacket from criminal contacts, stole a scooter, bought a helmet and started killing. Following his death, a group calling itself Jund ul-Khalifat (the Army of the Caliphate) claimed responsibility for his attacks, saying that they had trained ‘Abu Youssef al-Fransi’ in Waziristan. French officials initially scoffed at the claim but now believe it, identifying the group as that of a well-known Tunisian-born Belgian militant called Moez Garsallaoui who, since reaching Waziristan in 2007, had been a key contact for European volunteers and implicated in a number of attacks targeting the West. Garsallaoui was killed by a drone strike in October 2012.

Even during the stand-off that led to his death, Merah was being described as a ‘classic lone wolf’. Bernard Squarcini, head of the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI), told reporters that the attacker had no link to any established network or group, and had ‘self-radicalised’. Merah incarnated the new operational techniques of al-Qaeda, Squarcini said, based on a ‘lone-wolf strategy’. The minister of the interior, Claude Guéant, supported the claim, arguing that ‘lone wolves’ were ‘redoubtable adversaries’. Merah himself told negotiators: ‘Everything I did, I did of my own free will, without any influence by anyone who said to me one day “do this, do that”. I did it all alone. I organised it all alone. No one was with me.’

However, if Merah did his killing alone, and was in that sense a lone actor, the evidence that Merah did indeed connect with a militant outfit while in Pakistan is incontrovertible. Merah had regularly contacted his family by phone and email, which is what allowed US and French agencies to reconstitute much of his journey. The details he gave to police negotiators during the siege were also corroborated by the investigations of French and other secret services.

But both Merah and the French authorities had good reasons to claim that he acted without any outside assistance. The killer himself did not want to share any of the credit for what he no doubt viewed as one of the few accomplishments in his entire life of which, by his own twisted logic, he could be proud. For the authorities, the idea that the 23-year-old gunman who had evaded the dragnet for nearly two weeks and killed seven people was a ‘lone wolf’ helped explain their failures. The public appeared to understand the difficulty of detecting a random attacker, the proverbial needle in a haystack, but were much less forgiving when an attack appeared to be the work of a major group which was deemed to have outwitted the security forces. This was important in the highly politicised context of a presidential election campaign which saw Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent right-winger whose credentials were largely based on a reputation for assuring the security of his countrymen, against a lacklustre Socialist opponent who nonetheless was winning the economic debate.

Of course Merah was not a lone wolf, whatever narrative he or security officials tried to construct. In some ways, he was a throwback to an earlier period, when so many militants made their way to Pakistan and then returned to attack in Europe. His repeated efforts to reach an established group, and get training, underlines the ongoing importance of the tribal areas of Pakistan and other similar enclaves, if only as a psychological focus, to aspirant violent extremists. It is striking how Merah pursued his goal of finding a mentor and a group with a determination he had rarely showed in his years in Toulouse.

But the importance of the links he eventually established in Pakistan can be exaggerated too. Firstly, Merah’s training was extremely cursory. There is little that can be taught in two days beyond basic weapons handling, which is all his training amounted to. He did not need to travel 4,000 miles to spend a few hours in a room practising how to hold and disassemble a handgun. This is in stark contrast to the months of instruction and psychological conditioning offered to European volunteers five or ten years earlier. Secondly, Merah only managed to contact a semi-autonomous group which was not formally part of al-Qaeda, not the actual hard core.

Finally, a focus on Merah’s operational ties to a network or established group overseas obscures something far more telling in his development as a violent extremist and, by extension, about the nature of the threat men like him pose today. For the principal environments in which Merah was exposed to extremist ideas were very far from the dusty hills along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan and considerably less picturesque. They were prison, and the homes of his family members. The key figures who appear to have been of huge influence were not extremist leaders in Toulouse who ‘brainwashed’ Merah, or online clerics who uploaded fiery lectures which convinced him of the need to act, or seniorfigures in distant militant outfits who ordered him to act. They were his cell- mates, and his family.

Prisons have played a prominent role in almost all of the militants’ careers focused on thus far. From the major leaders such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Jordan, Ayman al-Zawahiri in Egypt, Nasir al-Wuhayshi in Yemen through to less significant figures such as the gang members in the Maldives or the killers of Lee Rigby, incarceration has played an obvious and important role in the process of radicalisation. Security officials around the world have long wrestled with the dilemma of whether to disperse hardened veteran extremists and thus risk allowing them to spread their views to ‘ordinary criminals’, or to concentrate them and risk creating a de facto cell of senior militants behind bars. Yet prison remains an anom- alous environment removed, by definition, from the everyday life of a nation’s citizens. The family, on the other hand, is everyday life in its most essential form. In this respect, the twofigures who stand out in the story of Mohamed Merah are his older brother, Abdelkader, and his sister, Souad.

At first sight it would be Abdelkader who would seem to have had the most significant influence. Taciturn, introverted, Abdelkader had been interested in extremist Islam since the late 1990s, when he had spent months in Algeria. Calmer than the excitable Mohammed, his was a more intellectual commitment to extremist Islam, though he allegedly stabbed another brother who refused to give up his Jewish girlfriend. Abdelkader, a jobbing house painter, travelled in 2006 to Cairo to study at an Islamic institute favoured by Western converts which had just reopened after being closed by local authorities on suspicion of fostering extremism. He was known to police in Toulouse as ‘salafiste’ even before being linked in 2007 to a network sending recruits to fight with what was then the Islamic State in Iraq. Vast amounts of jihadi and anti-Semitic texts were found on his computer, seized after the 2012 killings.

Though there is no hard evidence that Abdelkader knew of his younger brother’s plans, Merah had told him that he wanted to ‘avenge himself on the miscreant unbelievers’, according to seized letters and the two men ate together the night before the attack on the Jewish school. French officials described him as ‘at the origin of the radicalisation of his brother, supporting him logistically in his criminal enterprise and perhaps inspiring his actions’. Abdelkader denied any involvement and appears to have decided against active participation in violence himself.

But the older brother was not the only influence. Another was the older sister, Souad, described as the ‘pillar of the family’. Like Merah himself, Souad, who was thirty-four at the time of the shoot- ings, had shown no interest in religion, extreme or otherwise, until her early twenties. Former friends described a young woman who wore short skirts and bikinis and had boyfriends. She lived, most of the time, with a local petty drug dealer, with whom she married and had two children. But a series of events – her father’s incar- ceration for drug dealing in 1999, the jailing of her husband, a depression and a difficult pregnancy – appear to have led Souad towards rigorous and intolerant beliefs and practices. She divorced her husband and married a man known to local police for his extreme views. Music was banned from their home as un-Islamic, unhappy children were told ‘a holy warrior doesn’t cry’ and withdrawn from school, all watched ‘mujahideen videos’ for hours.

Souad too trav- elled to Cairo to study Koranic texts at the same institute as Abdelkader. Merah joined her there for some time in 2010 or early 2011. She helpedfinance his overseas voyages, gave him tapes of religious songs, told him to grow a beard and expressed her admira- tion for his acts after his death. ‘I am proud of [him]. He fought right to the end. I think well of bin Laden. Mohamed had the courage to act. I am proud, proud, proud … Jews, all those who massacre Muslims, I detest them.’

A final influence were local friends, friends of friends and contacts of Merah within a broader community of what police called ‘salafistes’ in and around Toulouse. These included several individuals who had already travelled to war zones in the Middle East, and others who would do so in the future. There is no suggestion that Merah himself was explicitly encouraged to kill by any of these people, nor by his sister or older brother, but at the traditional mourning reception after his death, there was celebration. ‘Be proud,’ those coming to pay their respects told the gunman’s mother, remarried since 2010 to an active extremist whose own son was in prison for trying to reach Iraq. ‘Your son brought France to its knees.’

So to say Mohamed Merah was a lone wolf, who had undergone a process of ‘self-radicalisation’, is deeply misleading on two counts. There is the fact that he managed to establish contact with a group allied to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but more important, clear evidence that he had been steeped in a subculture of extremism for almost a decade before his killings, one that had been steadily growing in France for years. It might well have been technically accurate to describe this man, who could chase, catch and kill a child single-handed, as a ‘lone actor’, but in acquiring the motivation and capability to do such a thing he was anything but alone.


Jason Burke The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy London: Random House, 2015

Jason Burke The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy London: Random House, 2015

Jason Burke is the South Asia correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer.

He is the author of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy.

His earlier book Al Qaeda is regarded as one of the most perceptive and original books on Islamic terrorism.

Currently based in New Delhi, he covers a wide range of social, political, and cultural topics across South Asia and is a regular commentator on television and radio.

This article is an extract from Burke’s The New Threat.