The attack in France this past week at the hands of the terrorist Mohammed Merah is reawakening Europe to the realities of radicalization. This event should not be viewed as the beginning of a complex new terror campaign domestically but should be seen as an infrequent reality of war with terror groups. The majority of attempted domestic attacks have been unsuccessful for a number of reasons, and most people who are successfully recruited end up going to conflict areas in order to train and act out their new sense of ideology rather than stay in their country. A quick overview of some aspects of the radicalization process will reveal that there is no trend towards coordinated attacks or rampant radicalization in the West.
With regards to the Mohammed Merah case, it should be noted that it appears he was not radicalized via the Internet, but rather “His radicalisation took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Merah fits the profile of a more capable terrorist, rather than an at-risk youth wrapped up with bad people, because of his ability to travel and his connections with other radicals outside of the Internet. A French Intelligence Director was quoted as saying that “he had traveled in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and even Israel. He said that in Israel, the police detained him briefly after finding a knife on him.” His older brother, Abdelkader Merah, was questioned about his connection to a network that sent area youths to Iraq several years ago. Besides this, an al-Qaeda linked terror group, Jund al-Khilafa, has claimed responsibility for Merah’s work, saying,
“On Tuesday, 19 March, one of the knights of Islam, our brother Yusuf al-Firansi [the French] . . . went out in an operation that shook the foundations of Zio-Crusaderdom in the whole world and filled the hearts of the enemies of Allah with fear . . . we claim our responsibility for these blessed operations.”
However, this claim that Merah was part of the organization could be false. It probably is just a case of opportunism by the jihadist group. The Jund al-Khilafa is almost entirely comprised of Kazakhs, and the statement was not accepted by all jihadist groups:
“Interestingly enough, SITE noted that the Shumukh al-Islam forum, which is linked to al Qaeda and is a primary means of distribution for al Qaeda and other jihadist materials, pulled the statement from its website. The communique offered no evidence to substantiate the claim of responsibility but was posted by the same user who posted prior messages from the group.”
Although many western jihadists become radicalized initially because of the Internet, most that take action move on to areas where they can embrace their new lifestyle in such places as Somalia, Yemen, or the Afghanistan-Pakistan area.
“The Internet, however, has not enabled al Qaeda, despite its high volume of sophisticated communications, to provoke a global intifada. Its websites and chat rooms outnumber its Western recruits. Its on-line exhortations to Americans have produced a very meager return–an army of on-line jihadists, but only a tiny cohort of terrorists in the real world. And while the Internet offers would-be terrorists a continuing tutorial on tactics and improvised weapons, again thus far, this has not yet significantly improved terrorist skills.”
This should not be misinterpreted to mean that the use of the Internet by the Jihadists should be ignored. It does draw some recruits, and it could be transforming the structure of Jihadist groups from a Middle East-centered hierarchy to one that is increasingly including Western-raised and -educated leadership: “Some studies even suggest that jihadi propagandists may be diverging from and eclipsing the original terrorist operators that made al-Qa’ida and the jihadi movement famous in the first place (p. 17).” Notable American terrorist figures within the last few years include Anwar al-Awlaki, the prominent American propagandist and a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, and also Omar Hammami, an American who is a key figure in the Somalian al-Shabaab movement: “Hammami serves as a military tactician, recruitment strategist and financial manager for al-Shabaab. Hammami has commanded guerilla forces in combat, organized attacks and plotted strategy with al-Qa’ida.”
Somalia most prominently highlights the problem of radicalization among Americans:
“More than 50 Somali-Americans are thought to have been recruited in the US to train and fight with Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia. . . . Americans are known to hold senior positions in Shabaab and al Qaeda’s network in Somalia. Scores of Americans are also known to serve as foot soldiers for Shabaab.”
It should be noted that this problem isn’t the result of a disposition among Somali-Americans towards radicalization, but rather the missed signs of active Somali radical groups recruiting across the U.S. around 2008-09. A September 2010 report states that,
“Of the 57 Americans whose ethnicities are known who have been charged or convicted of Islamist terrorism crimes in the United States or elsewhere since January 2009, 21 percent (12) are Caucasian-Americans, 18 percent (10) are Arab-Americans, 14 percent (8) are South Asian-Americans, 9 percent (5) are African-Americans, 4 percent (2) are Hispanic-Americans and 2 percent (1) are Caribbean-American. The single largest bloc are Somali-Americans at 31 percent, a number that reflects the recent crackdown by federal authorities on support networks for Americans traveling to Somalia to fight with Shabab.”
Likewise, it shouldn’t be assumed that those that join the radicals are all poor or uneducated. The same report cites two examples:
“Faisal Shahzad . . . had a degree in computing and an MBA . . . he was gainfully employed. He had a wife and two children and . . . seemed to be living the suburban American dream . . . Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab–the Christmas Day would-be bomber—similarly defied the conventional wisdom about the stereotypical suicide terrorist. He was a graduate of University College, London, one of Britain’s best universities, and is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and former government official. Not only did he hold a degree in engineering from a very good university, but he was cosmopolitan: Having lived abroad, he was at ease traversing the globe without arousing suspicion (p. 15).”
The incident in Toulouse, France should not be taken as a sign of a new radicalization trend but rather a sign indicative of the status quo. It was unfortunate that the French authorities missed all of the signs, but in a war on this scale, some attacks will occur. The attacker fits the profile of many Western recruits, following similar paths that, if gone unchecked, will result in innocent deaths. This is a fresh reminder of the ongoing struggle against violent Jihad, and government authorities should use this to redouble efforts towards stopping terrorist recruitment efforts.