The shooting sprees of self-proclaimed al Qaeda member Mohammed Merah, who killed three soldiers, a teacher and three schoolchildren in France, are disturbing in several ways. First, they raise the specter of the homegrown terrorist, the violent radical who turns against the very country in which he was born and raised. Second, the fact that Merah knowingly opened fire on a school is a painful reminder of how sordid the jihadist movement really is. Also, reports that the French domestic intelligence agency was aware of the risk that Merah posed are, if true, reason for concern. At the same time, though, when we place Merah’s actions in the wider context of the development of jihadist terrorism on European soil, the picture looks decidedly less bleak. While this does not take anything away from the tragedy that Merah’s attacks brought upon his victims and those close to them, Merah’s modus operandi can be viewed as indicative of a wider trend in jihadist terrorism in Europe that does not suggest that the jihadist movement is gaining the upper hand.
The terrorist threat to Europe has evolved markedly over the last decade. The Madrid bombings, although already a notch below the 9/11 attacks, were fairly complex and still stand as the deadliest terrorist attack on European soil. The perpetrators were experienced, professional and highly organized jihadis who knew how to acquire and use heavy explosives and who engaged in transnational cooperation to muster the necessary manpower, expertise and resources. Then there were the London bombings and the 2006 Heathrow Airport bomb plot, the foiled attempt to simultaneously blow up several US-bound passenger planes. All these attacks demanded a considerable degree of expertise and coordination from the perpetrators.
As time went by, however, jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe became less sophisticated. Recent attacks were quite simple in their execution and did not require substantial preparation. Also, none of the perpetrators showed a high degree of expertise in the way they handled their weapons. This probably has to do with the fact the terrorist threat in Europe no longer emanates primarily from international networks of terrorist cells. The jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe after 2007 were carried out by lone operatives like Roshonara Choudhry, Arid Uka and Nick Reilly or by small and isolated groups of two or three operatives, for instance in the cases of the failed suicide bombings in Stockholm and Milan.
Merah’s actions are clear examples of the decreasing complexity of jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe. His attack against the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse was, operationally speaking, not essentially different from a school shooting, which means that it could have been carried out by any 16-year-old. Also, a piece of information released by Ange Mancini, President Sarkozy’s chief intelligence adviser, illustrated the ineptitude that Merah displayed in his actions. Mancini said that for his last attack, Merah had set out to kill another soldier, failed to find him and then decided on the spot to attack a Jewish school that happened to be nearby.
The meaning of this trend towards less sophisticated terrorist attacks is twofold. First, and most obviously, it means that we are physically safer from terrorist attacks. Although more difficult to detect for police and intelligence services, terrorist plots by lone operatives and small groups are almost always small-scale and rarely cause many victims. The case ofAnders Breivik in Norway is, of course, the obvious counterexample, but Breivik is clearly an outlier. The lethality rate of jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe after 2007 – ten people, including one suicide bomber, were killed – pales in comparison to the Madrid and London bombings and clearly shows the operational limits of the jihadist movement in Europe today.
Second, and this point follows from the first, as a result of the degradation of the jihadist movement’s operational capabilities, violent action is no longer a feasible way of winning support. Terrorism, as many experts have argued, is a way of sending a message. In order to gain popular support and persuade potential recruits to join, terrorists need to present themselves as serious challengers of state power. This requires violence of a certain level, be it in terms of numbers of victims or in terms of the disruptive impact on a country’s regular political process, preferably both. For instance, al Qaeda derived a large part of its appeal from its proven ability to deal the US a devastating blow where it hurt the most: in the heart of one of its most important cities. Bin Laden and his associates appeared to be able to take on the world’s only superpower, which gave them a heroic aura that goes a long way toward explaining the willingness among Islamist radicals to follow al Qaeda’s example. In this, al Qaeda was helped by the fierceness of the US government’s fierce response, which confirmed the idea that the group posed a serious threat to US supremacy.
It is difficult to see how Merah’s attacks could have a similar mobilizing effect. Targeting schools is never a good idea for terrorists given the inevitably negative backlash, but even Merah’s attacks on French military personnel are unlikely to capture the imagination of the potential support base of the jihadist movement. His actions, like those of other jihadist terrorists who have struck in the EU in recent years, are too obviously the tinkering of amateurs to convey the impression that the jihadist movement is a force to be reckoned with. Consequently, they will not have the desired effects: they will not strike fear in the hearts of European policy makers and they will not stir new followers into violent action.
In a free and open society, it is impossible to entirely eliminate the risk of a terrorist attack. Actions like Merah’s will happen again, and they will be terrible every single time, but the message they send is clear: jihadism in Europe is not what is used to be.