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.
"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."
The challenge has been avoiding the perception that they are using members of the community to spy on Muslim youth and to curb the radical messages of virtual terror networks and social groups without infringing on basic freedoms or enraging them further. When the international community took aggressive measures to combat terrorist cells after 9-11 – closing radical mosques, arresting militant clerics, and shutting down insurgent training camps – Al Qaeda and similar groups used the Internet to call on their sympathizers in the West to carry out attacks on their own initiative.
The rise of radical websites, which previous "lone wolves" cited as sources for inspiration, has led to calls for more monitoring of both websites and Islamist groups, but de Graaf says that could be counterproductive.
"You cannot prevent people watching radical websites," de Graaf says. "And do you want to control every one on the planet who travels to Pakistan?"
In January, French officials outlawed Forsane Alizza ("Knights of Glory"), the Islamic group Mohammed Merah had connections with, saying it played a role in encouraging French Muslims on the path to radicalism, notably through its Facebook wall.
Such groups act as an "antechamber" to terrorism. "They don’t directly take part, but they contribute to an individual moving to the next step toward terrorism," says Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation, a London-based counterterrorism think tank.
One of the key challenges for government monitors is the lack of a clear-cut profile of the lone wolf.
* Merah, the Algerian-born shooter in Toulouse, loved motorbikes and nightclubs. French authorities say he first started reading the Quran during an 18-month-stint in jail, where he was serving a sentence for theft in his late teens. He spent two months in Pakistan and was under surveillance by the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI). He told police he killed for three reasons: to avenge Palestinian children, to punish France for its ban on the burqa for Muslim women, and for sending troops to Afthanistan.
* Roshonara Choudhry, a Kings College London student of Bangladeshi origin, was a model student before becoming the first Briton inspired by Al Qaeda to try to assassinate a prominent figure – in this case, member of parliament Stephen Timms – on British soil. Experts say she had had no contacts with jihadists or Islamist organizations, but she had downloaded hundreds of hours of speeches and sermons from radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
* Arid Uka, who killed two US soldiers at the Frankfort airport last year, was a German success story. An ethnic Albanian and devout Muslim, he won an award for an anti-violence project at his Frankfurt school. But he grew radicalized after an online propaganda video showing US soldiers raping women. His Facebook wall had links to a jihadist fighting song. In a comment on a friend’s post, he mentioned the “miserable kuffar“ (infidels).