Mohamed Merah and the folly of the war on terror

Following the dramatic killing of Mohamed Merah in Toulouse yesterday, there has been plenty of finger-pointing by those who believe the young gunman should have been stopped before anyone had been shot, or that the operation during which he was held under siege could have been handled better.

There is perhaps only one lesson to be drawn, but it’s a truth everyone knows but no one fully digests: we can’t predict the future.

Only once it becomes the past is the future turned into something seemingly obvious. But the idea that Merah should or could have been stopped presupposes that he knew where he was going — it turns out he didn’t.

As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Merah… initially had no plans to attack the Jewish school where he allegedly gunned down three children and a teacher, and instead had planned to target another soldier, said the head of France’s intelligence agency.

Mr. Merah spoke to police negotiators during a 33-hour standoff that ended with his death on Thursday from a police gunshot to the head. During the siege he claimed responsibility for killing seven people, including three French paratroopers, prosecutors said.

In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde to be published Saturday, French intelligence chief Bernard Squarcini said Mr. Merah told police the school attack early Monday morning was improvised.

“According to what he said during the siege, he wanted to kill another military man, but got there too late,” said Bernard Squarcini, the head of the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence. “Since he knew the area well, he improvised and attacked the Ozar Hatorah school.”

Who knows why Merah was late. Maybe he overslept. Whatever the reason, it seems his attack on the Jewish school was capricious. That he justified his brutality with the explanation that he was avenging the deaths of Palestinian children might reveal less about his ideological focus than it says about a desire to mask his violent impulsiveness.

AFP reports:

Israeli security experts on Friday heaped scathing criticism on the French police’s handling of a 32-hour siege involving a gunman who killed seven people, three of them Jewish children.

“Operational failure” was the title of an analysis in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily written by former special forces officer Lior Lotan, who now heads a counter-terrorism think-tank.

“The French security forces failed in their mission,” he wrote of their attempt to capture self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda gunman Mohamed Merah at an apartment in the southwestern French city of Toulouse.

Police from the elite RAID unit failed to make proper use of “deception and concealment” thereby letting the suspect take the initiative, he wrote of the operation which ended when Merah jumped out of a window and was shot dead as he tried to fire on police.

“This is not how a professional unit to combat terror behaves,” former commando officer Uri Bar-Lev wrote in the rival Maariv newspaper.

“But it’s not fair for us to level criticism at them. They don’t have the professionalism and the experience that we’ve accumulated in combating terror.”

Perhaps these Israelis would have been a little more cautious about trumpeting Israeli expertise had they known that Israel actually had an opportunity to stop Merah: he was arrested in Jerusalem in 2010 and then released.

Haaretz reports:

The head of the French intelligence agency DCRI said in an interview on Friday that the Toulouse shooter was arrested by Israel Police in Jerusalem in 2010, after he was found in possession of a knife.

Bernard Squarcini told the French newspaper Le Monde that Mohamed Merah… was held by police in Jerusalem during his visit to Israel in 2010, but was released shortly after his detainment.

Squarcini said that Merah visited several other Middle Eastern countries during that trip, including Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Afghanistan. He said that French intelligence tracked him and investigated to see if he is suspicious, but found that he had not been engaging in any ideological activism or religious activity.

Squarcini responded to allegations about the French intelligence services’ failures during the hunt after Merah.

When asked about French Interior Minister Claude Guean’s statements about a possible intelligence failure, Squarcini said that the minister’s words were misinterpreted. “People, including children, died in a cruel way,” he said, “and we inevitably ask the question – could we have done something different? Did we miss something? Were we fast enough?”

On Thursday, Le Monde reported that Merah was not a member of any well-known Islamic terrorist organization, but did undergo a process of radicalization. He was also added to a “no fly” list maintained by U.S. authorities some time ago, two American officials told Reuters. The officials would not disclose precisely when Merah was placed on the list.

Although someone of this name is apparently on a no-fly list, it remains to be seen whether this was the gunman. It would seem likely that the Mohamed Merah on the list was the same as the one who had escaped from a prison outside Kandahar in 2008, but Afghan authorities say this man was not French.

The New York Times reported:

The Afghan authorities said that a Mohammad Merah was arrested on Dec. 19, 2007, and convicted of planting bombs in and around the southern city of Kandahar, which is the area where the Taliban movement began.

“All I can say is that we have this guy Mohammed Merah in our records, but he’s an Afghan citizen,” said Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province. “He’s certainly not French.”

He was sent to serve his three-year sentence at the city’s Saraposa prison, said Ghulam Faruq, the chief of the detention facility, citing prison records. That is a high-security prison on Kandahar’s southern outskirts.

“We have this name in our book,” Mr. Faruq said. “He was registered in 2007 and he was brought to the prison and he was convicted for planting bombs and I.E.D.’s inside and outside Kandahar city.”

A spokesman for the government of Kandahar Province, Zalmai Ayoubi, said that the man was from Kandahar and that officials even knew his father’s name — Ahmad Shah, also a citizen of Afghanistan.

And to confuse matters even more, The Independent reports that Merah was arrested by U.S. in Afghanistan in 2008 and then sent home to France. Keep in mind that by that time Merah was only 19.

The Washington Post reports:

The French Defense Ministry said that before his jihad-related travels, Merah had tried once to enlist in the regular French army and once in the Foreign Legion. Both times he was turned down, the ministry said, because of a long record of juvenile offenses such as purse snatching and dealing in stolen goods.

Might these rejections have been instrumental in turning the teenager in a radical direction?

Francois Molins, the chief Paris prosecutor heading the investigation into Merah’s actions has an obvious question: how could the unemployed Merah afford his rented car, his two automatic rifles, his several pistols and his trips to Afghanistan?

The one person who might be able to answer these and other important questions is his 29-year-old brother, Abdelkader Merah, who was arrested on Wednesday and can be held without charge for 96 hours.

Abdelkader has already told the police that he is proud of how his brother died, that he approved of his actions and that he has no regrets.

A woman from the same neighborhood as Merah in Toulouse, told Le Télégramme that the “true mind” behind the suspect was his brother Abdelkader.

As the French police and security services continue their investigation, there might be new revelations about mistakes made and warning signs ignored, yet what will most likely remain outside scrutiny is the culpability of the political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who over the last decade effectively empowered terrorists and would-be terrorists by promoting the idea that such individuals, through an audacious violent action, could bring a nation to its knees.

Too much attention has been given to the threat of terrorism and far too little to the ways we react.

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