Mohammed Merah is the new face of al Qaeda’s operations in Western Europe and North America, self-radicalized jihadists who get training in Pakistan and then go home to carry out small but deadly attacks in their home countries. His attacks in Toulouse, France fit exactly the role model al Qaeda has been urging jihadists to follow both in its public and in secret communications.
Merah killed seven people during his eight day saga of terrorism including three French soldiers, three Jewish children and their teacher. So his targets were exactly the targets of the global jihad as defined by al Qaeda, Crusaders fighting in Afghanistan and Zionists occupying Palestine. He very deliberately sought out these targets and acted with clear understanding that they would send a message. He videoed the attacks and then someone sent the videos to the Qatar based al Jazirah television station which has agreed not to broadcast them. The source that sent the videos described them as “al Qaeda attacks France” and had mixed the gory images in with Koranic verses and music.
Al Qaeda has been urging French citizens of Algerian origin like Mehran to attack these exact targets for years. In 2006 Ayman Zawahiri, now al Qaeda’s amir, called on Algerians in France to kill “the treacherous sons of France.” Zawahiri has blamed every Frenchman since Napoleon for supporting Israel and fighting Islam. He has railed against France’s ban on head scarves, its Task Force Lafayette in Afghanistan and its provision of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. For Zawahiri and his dead predecessor, Osama bin Laden, France has always been a top target.
Merah visited Afghanistan and Pakistan twice in the last two years and claimed to have received military training in Pakistan from al Qaeda. He may have also been detained on a visit to Israel briefly and was on the American no fly list. The Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda’s close ally, has announced that it trained him last year at one of its camps. Whether those claims are true or false, Merah clearly had practice in handling small arms and had successfully acquired a small arsenal of automatic weapons which is no easy accomplishment in France. How he funded his foreign trips and arms acquisitions is a critical subject for further police work.
A secret al Qaeda document found in Berlin by German police this winter urged al Qaeda operatives in Western Europe and America to look for loners like Merah, recruit them and then task them to conduct what al Qaeda calls ‘mini-Mumbais,’ that is small scale versions of the 2008 terror assault on Mumbai, India in which ten jihadists armed with small arms terrorized a mega city for three days. The author of the secret al Qaeda document is probably Rashid Rauf a British citizen of Pakistani origin who helped plan the 2005 London metro attacks and the 2006 foiled plot to blow up ten jumbo jets leaving Heathrow for the US and Canada. Rauf may have been killed in a drone attack after planning a metro attack in New York in 2009 (although that remains unconfirmed) but his tactics are now al Qaeda’s game plan.
The American al Qaeda plotter Anwar al-Awlaki was the most prolific advocate of the lone attack tactic. He inspired the Fort Hood, Texas killer and the Christmas Day, Detroit bomber to carry out their operations. Before his death by drone in Yemen, Awlaki had urged the jihad focus on small attacks that could create terror and weaken the Crusader-Zionist enemy by a thousand cuts. Already jihadist websites are extolling the Toulouse attacks as proof of the concept.
ISIS is also keen to target Italy now because it’s one of the few major European countries it hasn’t yet struck. They’re hoping to inspire violence there so that they can say, in effect, 'we’ve already attacked your capitals in London, in Paris, and in Barcelona, and now we’ve attacked Rome. There’s nowhere we can’t reach.'
We know from some of the records we’ve seen over the years from groups like al-Qaeda that they see the United States as a harder place to get into than they do Europe.
The [Barcelona] attacks, to me, show both the strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are obviously that [the Islamic State] has an array of supporters, especially in Europe, that it can call upon to do attacks. The weakness, though, is that it has had difficulty doing more sophisticated operations.