A revolutionary moment in France after Toulouse shootings? They should emulate Britain post-7/7
This could be a 7/7 moment for France in that it could initiate a major political, cultural and social debate about the role and integration of Muslims in France, and extremism in French society
The ruthless and abominable nature of the Toulouse shootings shocked France, Europe and the entire world. The manner in which young children were hunted down and shot at close range at a Jewish school still haunts the minds of those who read the media reports.
Initial speculation pointed to a group of unhinged neo-Nazi fanatics; after all both neo-Nazi’s and Jihadists are increasingly sharing the same targets. However, this initial speculation was proven wrong when a key suspect contacted France 24 claiming to have filmed the killings with a view to posting the footage online.
The killer turned out to be Mohammad Merah, a 23 year old who had a lengthy criminal record, was a regular at the local night clubs and had been rejected by the army. Merah claimed that he had links with al-Qaeda and was motivated by the banning of the face veil, the conflict in Israel/Palestine and the presence of French troops in Afghanistan.
Whilst the shootings do bear the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda inspired operation, I don’t think Merah was being directed by the terrorist network. Al-Qaeda, has for a while, been encouraging lone-wolf terrorism rather than the traditional group attacks.
Lone-wolf terrorist attacks are planned and executed anonymously by individuals who are inspired by al-Qaeda’s message rather than through direct contact. (Consider the case of Roshnara Choudary, the King’s College student who stabbed Stephen Timms MP.) They are also much harder to detect, have more chance of succeeding and can be just as effective in terms of propaganda value.
Al-Qaeda has been seeking to exploit the Palestinian cause in recent years too, being aware of how much it means to Muslims around the world. They view it as the single most powerful issue that can be manipulated and used as a rallying call. This emphasis is likely to increase with Ayman al-Zawahiri at the helm.
The shootings are also unique in one regard. Terrorist plots in France have been foiled in the past. French nationals have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan in order to join Jihadist efforts and France was attacked by Algerian terrorists in the 1990s.
So France is not completely immune from Jihadist recruitment. However, this is the first time that an al-Qaeda linked French national, born and raised in France, has carried out a successful attack on French soil.
As such the impact of the Toulouse shootings could be profound. This could be a 7/7 moment for France in that it could initiate a major political, cultural and social debate about the role and integration of Muslims in France, and extremism in French society.
France, despite having by far the largest Muslim population in Europe, has thus far not witnessed the mass extremist recruitment we have seen in parts of the UK, Germany and Denmark.
Furthermore, Jihadist propaganda videos are normally produced in Arabic, English or German. Some have attributed this trend to the French secular model and its ability to integrate different communities.
Indeed, a study by the Pew Research Center in 2006, found that France’s Muslims were the best integrated Muslims in Europe. Others have pointed to the fact that most French Muslims are of North African extraction and hence come from less religiously conservative backgrounds.
Either way, this incident could shatter the relative calm that has presided over community relations in France. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiment has also been growing in recent years. With the economic downturn and a presidential election looming, this rhetoric is likely to be ratcheted up by both Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National, and other far-right activists.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has, thus far, handled the situation very well in my view. He took the events very seriously from the start, temporarily suspended his campaign and paid his respects to the soldiers who were shot dead.
He also gave a speech, after Merah had been killed, in which he stressed the importance of not directing anger towards Muslims in general and the need to tackle radicalisation in prisons and online.
These valiant words, however, also betray failings. Merah had made two trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to join the Taliban. He had even been arrested there and deported back to France. So, naturally, one must ask: why wasn’t he being monitored by the French authorities?
Terrorist attacks of this nature are designed to attract maximum publicity with a view to highlighting “causes” and winning sympathisers. They are also designed to disrupt peaceful relations between different communities and to sow the seeds of suspicion, mistrust and hatred.
The best way for the French to respond, therefore, is to do what the people of London did the day after 7/7. They just got up, paid their respects to the fallen and got on with their lives.
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