To those who proclaim themselves jihadis, Mohamed Merah is a hero and a martyr. He became a hero last month when he attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse, murdering Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two young sons, Gabriel and Arieh, and a seven-year-old girl, Myriam Monsonego, whom he pulled by the hair and then shot in the head. He became a martyr when, after a 33-hour standoff, he was killed by French commandos.
This part of the story has received too little attention: Merah, the 23-year-old son of Algerian immigrants, began his killing spree by gunning down French paratrooper Sergeant Imad Ibn Ziaten and, four days later, two more uniformed paratroopers, Corporal Abel Chennouf and Private Mohamed Legouad. All three were Muslims.
The clear message Merah was sending his co-religionists in France and other Western nations: “If you are good citizens of the infidel lands in which you have settled, if you are not waging war against the unbelievers or supporting those who do, you are traitors. And one of these days, Allah willing, you too will get the justice you deserve.” In France, graffiti in support of Merah characterizes those he slaughtered as “Zionists” and “false Muslims.”
Merah’s connections to well-known terrorist organizations are sketchy — perhaps by design. A strategy paper produced by al-Qaeda’s senior leadership was recently uncovered by German authorities. As summarized by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Daniel Trombly, researchers at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, it “outlines the group’s war-of-attrition strategy: a combination of both complex, multi-member operations and also smaller attacks, perhaps executed by so-called ‘lone wolves.’”
Gartenstein-Ross and Trombly note also (in a study soon to be published) that less than a year ago, al Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media production arm, “released a one-hundred-minute video urging Muslims to undertake individual jihad” against infidels.
Extremist websites call upon Muslims to take up the sword against Jews, Christians, and those Muslims who do not toe the jihadi line. Such appeals are made as well in mosques — some, not all. Think, for example, of Anwar al-Awlaki: Born in the U.S.A., he ran the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Virginia, where he posed as a moderate. Eventually, he took off for Yemen, where he became an al-Qaeda leader with a global online presence. (His career was cut short by a U.S. drone strike in September 2011.)
A growing list of lone-wolf terrorists includes Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, who shot and killed two Israelis at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport; Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who shot two soldiers who were on a smoke break outside a military-recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas; Major Nidal Hasan, who carried out the most deadly shooting spree on a U.S. military base in history; wannabe-car-bomber Faisal Shazad, whose explosive device malfunctioned in New York City’s Times Square; and “underpants bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who, thanks to courage and quick thinking by passengers on his flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, succeeded only in damaging his own crotch.