Everything that has been leaked so far about Mohamed Merah, the young man responsible for the crimes committed in the Toulouse area, shows that he acted alone – even if he sought to engage in “Jihad” at the Pakistani-Afghan border. Despite the claim later made by an organization that supports Al-Qaeda of responsibility for Merah’s actions, it remains that the man of Algerian descent had a track record in France in which minor offenses mixed with heading towards “Jihad”.
These crimes have led to repercussions at the level of the French presidential campaign, and candidates have sought to make use of them in one direction or another, especially as Merah had openly declared himself to be a “Jihadist”, giving his actions a distinctive flavor and an attempt to link them to Islam, the second largest religion in France after Christianity. Furthermore, these crimes have contributed, after the killing of students at a Jewish school, to prompting the Israeli media machine to action on the issue of protecting Jews.
Perhaps Merah’s crimes would not have had such a broad impact, in France and abroad, had they not coincided with the presidential election campaign, and had he not targeted a Jewish school, after having targeted Muslim French soldiers of foreign descent.
Yet the case of Merah, whose death in turn aroused questions and criticism, remains within an inter-French framework, in effect confronting everyone in France with the sensitive issue of how one would move from a record of minor offenses to one of “Jihad”, and subsequently the issue of how “Jihad”, even for a small number of individuals, turns into a justification for committing grave crimes.
It is true that similar crimes have been committed in the past, especially those bloody bombings that have been carried out in different parts of the world, the most famous being the September 11 attacks in the United States, but these crimes fall within the framework of an overall plan and working strategy by Al-Qaeda – something within the framework of which Merah does not so far appear to have worked. In fact, his personal track record before moving to “Jihad” shows that he committed a number of minor offenses and thefts that led him to prison, and later deprived him of his dream of joining the French Army. It is only after his application in this respect was rejected that he moved to “Jihad”. And, after his return, constant surveillance by French intelligence did not reveal him to be in contact with any network or group, just as it did not show him to be unusually religious or an advocate of the “Jihad” he later claimed to be engaged in.
All of this points to the fact that “Jihad” in a case such as this merely represents a mechanism in an individual criminal track record. Opinion leaders among French Muslims have made sure to stress the necessity of distinguishing between Islam as a religion and these kinds of practices. Yet the confusion continues to stand, especially among Westerners who do not differentiate much between interpretations, fatwas and confessions. And such confusion might not be dispelled by mere passing statements made for the occasion, and then disappearing – only to resurface later in similar occasions.
Dispelling such confusion now requires us to actually confront the phenomenon, which is used to justify all sorts of crimes, not just in the West, but also in Muslim countries themselves.
Some Muslim countries have applied themselves to combating such terrorism, hunting down terrorism networks and exerting efforts at the security and political levels in order to defend against it. Yet the phenomenon persists in various forms, despite what has been said about the weakness that has afflicted Al-Qaeda after the killing of its founder, Osama Bin Laden. This confirms the need to confront it, especially in terms of the means and methods that have so far been used and have not led to effectively putting an end to it.
Merah exploited “Jihad” in Afghanistan as a means in his criminal track record and to improve his skills at killing. And we are today witnessing attempts to politically rehabilitate, with what this involves in terms of ideology, the Taliban movement – the inspiration for this kind of “Jihad”.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in the London-based al-Hayat on MArch 25, 2012