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French gunman the latest of Europe's troubling 'lone wolves'

President Sarkozy said the Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah acted on his own, highlighting Europe's struggle to curb the radicalization of Muslim youths.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / March 26, 2012

An undated and non-datelined frame grab from a video broadcast March 21 by French national television station France 2 who they claim to show Mohamed Merah, the suspect in the killing of 3 paratroopers, 3 children and a rabbi in recent days in France.

France 2 Television/Reuters

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Frankfurt

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said today that Mohamed Merah, the gunman who claimed responsibility for the killing of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three French soldiers, acted alone and was not part of a terrorist network. 

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"There is no [terror] cell," said Mr. Sarkozy on France-Bleu radio. "To our knowledge, there is no network."

The case sheds light on Europe's efforts over the past decade the tackle the problem of "lone wolf" Islamist militants: individuals, often young, who are inspired by extremist ideology but are not formal members of militant networks like Al Qaeda. They typically attempt "low-cost, high-impact" terrorist operations, often receiving indoctrination and training over the Internet.

Their operations may have a small number of targets compared to organized terror groups, but they can be just as effective, says Sajjan Gohel, director of International Security at the Asia Pacific Foundation, a London-based counterterrorism think tank. "Terrorists don’t have to kill hundreds of people [to] still conduct a very disturbing operation that creates fear and panic in an entire country," he says.

Every successful shooting – as simple as hopping in a car with your gun – is a source of inspiration, says Beatrice de Graaf, professor of counterterrorism at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and author of a new study comparing counterterrorism performance around the world. European governments are struggling to come up with strategies that do not violate individual freedoms or exacerbate the isolation of marginalized Muslim communities. 

"Every country, every region has its own approach," says Ms. de Graaf. "But what you do about terrorism is very political.... Projects are started and terminated according to the political whim of a country."

While right-wing governments may focus more on forceful measures than the "tea with the imams approach," Europe has focusing mainly on grassroots preventive awareness programs that seek to preempt a would-be terrorist's radicalization, says de Graaf.

Such programs seek to reach potentially alienated children and teenagers, identify "hot spots" in cities, and to increase cooperation between security officials and imams and school teachers.

In The Netherlands, through the initiatives "We Amsterdam" and "We Rotterdam," local authorities have set up contact centers inside neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, where local imams have warned of the potential radicalization of local youth, de Graaf says. In Britain, the Quilliam Foundation has sought to get ex-terrorists involved in awareness programs. And this year, Germany opened the country’s first Center for Islamic Theology at the University of Tübingen to train imams in Germany in hopes of decreasing the number of religious leaders that local Muslim communities import from abroad. 

"It’s the ideology that infects [lone wolves], that motivates them, that offers them an answer to their lack of identity or their place in the world," says Mr. Gohel. "It’s a grassroots problem, you need grassroots solutions to counter this flawed narrative.… Members of the Muslim community are best placed to defeat the ideology."

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