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.
Imagine you are a young American Muslim wondering what to make of all this. You might go to the websites of some of the well-funded and well-connected organizations that claim to speak on behalf of Muslims in America. And there you would find . . . next to nothing. For example, on the website of ASMA (the American Society for Muslim Advancement), led by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam who has vowed to build an Islamic center at Ground Zero in New York City, I find no mention of Merah. What is highlighted instead is the dubious assertion that "Islamophobia is America's real enemy." I also find not a word about Toulouse on the CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), ICNA (the Islamic Circle of North America), and MSA (Muslim Students Association) websites.
The leaders of these organizations will indignantly object that they should not be held accountable for terrorists who happen to be Muslims. That's right, but it misses the point: Surely, America's Muslim leaders have an obligation to warn against the hateful, homicidal, and genocidal ideology that drives terrorists such as Merah — an ideology that, its proponents insist, is simply Islam in its purest form. And if three French Muslim paratroopers had been murdered by a Jew or a Christian, do you think they'd have nothing to say about it?
In France, Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, said: "These acts are in total contradiction with the foundations of this religion." But he then used the occasion to object to the term "Islamism," saying its use "feeds the confusion between Islam and terrorism and brings suffering to millions of Muslims who feel it important to defend the dignity of their faith and their religion." In fact, the term is meant to distinguish Islamic supremacists from Muslims who have no interest in forcing non-Muslims to submit to Islamic law. Similarly, former French justice minister Rachida Dati told a radio audience that using the word "jihadist" to describe Merah risked "stigmatizing our [Muslim] French compatriots." Isn't it terrorists who claim to be "soldiers of Allah" who stigmatize Muslims?
Most of the Muslims of Toulouse surely do not regard Merah as a hero. But he was not the only extremist in town. There is a jihadi network known as the Toulouse Group. And Merah's older brother, Abdelkader, has been linked to Salafis — ultra-fundamentalist Muslims — and he has now been indicted as an accomplice. And someone arranged for him to travel abroad — including to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he may have received terrorist training.
If one understands this context, one also must grasp that it is not Islamophobia that impels those charged with preventing terrorism to keep an eye on what is going on within Muslim communities. Yet Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal, recently condemned such intelligence gathering by New York City police officers, calling it an "aggressive policy of spying on American citizens." In the same article, Khan asserted that American Muslims want to be "full and equal partners in the fight against extremism."
Would that not require, at a minimum, some candid commentary from her and the imam when such extremism leads Muslims such as Merah to massacre patriotic French Muslims along with Jewish children? Should they not be drawing lessons for the Islamic communities whose interests they claim to champion and the more diverse communities they seek to influence? Are they afraid to do so? Or is there another explanation for their conspicuous silence?