In France, a new type of lone wolf threat
April 9th, 2012
06:21 PM ET

In France, a new type of lone wolf threat

Editor's note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming "We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain's Suburban Mujahedeen" (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

Analysis from Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN

Mohammed Merah's death has done little to clarify what motivated him to carry out his terrorist act.

The assassination of a series of North African French soldiers, followed by the cold-blooded shooting of Jewish children as they went to school, all show evidence of a mind twisted by hate that was motivated by Islamist ideas:  The soldiers had the audacity to be members of an army fighting against Islam while the children had the misfortune of being born into the wrong religious family.

But what is most disquieting about this is that it is unclear that anyone told him to carry out his specific act. While it now seems clear that he was living within a radical milieu and had tried to go and fight jihad abroad, he seems to have chosen to carry out his act by himself.  This is the action of a terrorist operating by himself, a lone wolf; one who has so firmly imbued his ideology that he no longer feels the need to receive orders to act upon, but is able to self-activate. Screaming about being linked to al Qaeda as he battled police, Merah clearly thought of himself as a mujahedeen for their cause.

What we do know of Merah so far is that he was in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region twice. Which group he sought out specifically is unclear.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed to have trained numerous Frenchmen, while Jund-al-Khalifah, a primarily Kazakh terror group, made a somewhat dubious claim of responsibility. He had possibly also fought in Iraq - at least one family member was involved in running a network sending fighters to the country. Back in France, he appears to have visited other radicals in prison and existed on the fringes of French radical group Forsane Alizza. But it is not clear that any of these organizations actively directed him into action.

This is not the first time that we have seen individuals of this sort on the European jihadist scene. Back in the early morning of January 1, 2010, Mohamed Geele came crashing through the front door of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard's house in Aarhus, Denmark.  He had shaved and perfumed himself in the manner of a fighter expecting to die in the course of his action and used Google Earth to find the cartoonist's home. Westergaard was able to hide before Geele got to him, and Danish police swiftly arrived and apprehended him after a brief shootout.

He was later identified as being a key member of a Scandinavian support network that was helping send money and fighters to Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab ("the youth") and was spotted alongside another Somali-Dane who blew himself up in Mogadishu.  A few months before carrying out his attack, Geele had been repatriated after he was apprehended by Kenyan police on suspicion of being part of a plot to attack visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

But while Geele was clearly connected to the group, there is no particular evidence that it told him to act. When subsequently asked about the attack, Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahmud Raage said, "We appreciate the incident in which a Muslim Somali boy attacked the devil who abused our prophet" before going on to seemingly admit they knew of Geele, saying, "there could be some people who might say that boy was related to Shabaab."  From information released during his trial, it seemed as though Geele was a radicalized young man who, once back in Denmark, fell back into his old ideologies and decided that it was his duty to punish the cartoonist.

While the whole story about Merah has not yet been told, there is a pattern like Geele's that is possible to identify: Young men enraptured by the lure of jihad become involved in international terrorism, and then find themselves adrift and decide to act by themselves, following the outlines of what they considered to be a correct targeting package.  Like Geele, Merah seems to have been known within a community of radicals and was a known entity to local intelligence agencies.  Unlike Geele (who in court claimed it would be easy for him to get a gun), Merah seems to have been able to accumulate quite an arsenal.  And also unlike his Danish predecessor, he was able to carry out grim killings before he was caught. He was also planning on broadcasting his act posthumously, having created a video that he had sent to news organizations - though it is unclear whether Merah or someone else sent it.

Merah is also clearly quite distinct from some others who have been called lone wolf Islamist terrorists recently.  He is different from British student Roshonara Choudhry, who tried to stab an member of Parliament for his support of the Iraq War.  He is also different from Arid Uka, the 21-year-old Kosovar living in Germany who shot two American servicemen as they waited at Frankfurt Airport in revenge for what he believed American soldiers were doing in Afghanistan.  In both of those cases, the individuals involved were not particularly connected to any radical group (except through the Internet), but chose to carry out their acts of political violence by themselves, aiming at targets they thought would be justified.

Merah is clearly a more dangerous proposition; not only since he was more successful, but also because to some degree he seems to have been able to operate using effective operational security.  Clearly, French intelligence will have some explaining to do about how someone it was attentive to was able to accumulate such an arsenal, and also about how he was able to stay on the loose.  Whether this is the product of a more trained or a more dedicated mind is unclear, but what it does show is that intelligence services need to be more attentive to people who they may have considered peripheral figures on terrorist networks.  Previously, they would have been able to focus on the core, and leave the more fragmentary elements of the network on a looser leash.  But with the growing instance of individuals like Merah and Geele, and their increasing lethality, it will have to be reconsidered which individuals are of concern.

The question becomes how such individuals can be effectively focused on and how intelligence services can distinguish them from the large community of individuals that exist on the periphery of known terrorist networks but who never move into action.  While much has been made of the French tendency toward human rather than electronic intelligence as a potential reason why Merah was able to seemingly accumulate his armory and was able to stay below the radar for so long, it is unclear that greater electronic information would have necessarily uncovered him.

Within the United States, where electronic intelligence is the foundation of counter-terrorism work, individuals have managed to proceed quite far staying beneath the eyes of electronic watchers. Whatever the case, the key lesson is that it is increasingly becoming the norm that individuals less central to terrorist networks are going to move to the heart of terrorist operations. Figuring out how to distinguish them from the noise surrounding them is going to be a challenge for the next few years.


Filed under: Al Qaeda • Living With Terror • Lone wolf • Terrorism
soundoff (17 Responses)
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    May 1, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
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  5. dallastexas75205

    This ended the way these should all end. Just shoot these idiots and minimize their ability to ever communicate agagin. Giving them a trial only provides the platform. Just kill them quick.

    April 24, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  6. Skorpio

    Muslim clerics are the main instigators of the violence, discrimination and terrorism around the world. These rats transform an ordinary person into an irrational beast capable of committing the worse atrocities. If this Islamic pus can be eliminated, the world would be freer, happier, safer and without discrimination.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:19 am | Reply
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    April 18, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Reply
  8. Randall Todd Royer

    You do understand this attack has everything to do with America. The enemy and ideology is the same in France as it is here in the States.

    The main difference is Tactics. The brotherhood in America is quite aware they are getting everything want and more in America, by our own hand. If "by our own hand" does not ring any bells – ask someone.

    I am playing devils advocate here.

    April 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  9. scott

    I,m laughing at you Nickd...people who fly get searched...dont like being searched...welcome to drive your car. I bet Osamas grand ma would like to have flown without being searched...and as for your rabid hatred of the security officer,he was doing his job,being polite and probably trying to make the best out of a bad situation.....while you saw your chance to play the victim.

    April 10, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  10. debra g

    Maybe if we didnt have a part Muslim by faith wacko idiot for a president that seems to think we can keep in peace with a religion that teaches to KILL Jews .. if we could remove HIM ( Obamma the fake id carrier ) and back stabber , then we might be able to get somewhere , but NO ! he thinks hes john lennon and can create peace in hostile enviroment along with Hiliary Geeesh!
    How is America ever suppose to be proud and free from terror when you Welcome and shake hands with and appologize for burning the koran ? yet they are burning the American flag in our Faces !
    as they did in 911 dancing and happily as 3000 died that day in planes and jumped to their deaths or burned with the rubble
    im sick so sick of this its not a blessed country anymore
    it Soddom and Gamorrah , from same sex , to allowing aborted fetus for testing of Pepsi – co products
    you tell me
    WHERE IS GOD IN ALL THIS THE HAVE TURNED THEIR FACES FROM THEM
    AND JUDGMENT WILL FALL on USA for this SIN its SICKENING !!
    but then God sent angels to Soddam and Gamorrah to see if just 7 were found in the whole city before he rained FIRE and BRIMSTONE on it !

    unless SHE ( america ) turns back to GOD shes headed for things worse than 911
    its the silence................ BEFORE THE STORM >>

    April 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
    • deathstalker187

      You do understand this happened in Frace and has nothing to do with America??

      April 10, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
    • scott

      Ladies and gentlemen...I give you a Rick Santorum supporter!!!!!!!

      April 10, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  11. debra g

    Ok that killer is dead he chose his life to murder in cold blood little children and a innocent Rabi
    im sick of lookiing at his face !
    and so are those who see it at a reminder of what he did !
    So get it off the post will you ??
    you people are sick !!
    let those try and recover and heal .

    GOD has taken care of that person
    his fate is in hell where he belongs !
    i dont have sympathy for him one bit either and either does the rest of us !

    April 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Reply
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    April 10, 2012 at 7:38 am | Reply
  13. NickD

    Okay we have established that these young Muslim men are willing to be lone wolves. So far it has always been Muslim men. Can we please start searching muslim men at airports for awhile, at least until this group of people quit waging their holy war against the west? Why was my wheelchair bound mother forced to rise from her chair and take three terrifying steps, each possibly being the final step that causes a fall to permanently incapacitate her while young men were allowed to breeze through with barely a glance? I watched this travesty unfold and could barely contain the the rage i felt toward the security officer that smiled in delight at my mothers terror. The trip was supposed to be a joyful anniversary gift.

    Little old ladies in wheel chairs, babies and toddlers are not a threat to our airlines. these young men are. It may be inconvenient but until this chapter in world history is past, we have to get realistic about what we are doing to stop these murderers while protecting our freedoms at home.
    Every time we force an old woman to stagger forth from her wheel chair to be searched we have humiliated our entire nation. And our enemies guffaw with laughter.

    April 9, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply

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