French officials have identified the gunman responsible for the deaths of seven people, including three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse, as a French-Algerian named Mohammad Merah. As with other terrorist attacks, there was early confusion in the press reporting about the identity and motives of the killer. Some suggested he was a neo-Nazi or another brand of right-wing extremist, which was certainly possible. Now it is being reported that Merah, who barricaded himself inside an apartment, told a French negotiator he was trained by al Qaeda.
It will take some time to put together a full picture of Merah’s life. For instance, one account suggested he was previously captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned only to escape, but Afghan officials have now denied that the prison escapee—also named Mohammad Merah, but an Afghan—is the same man.
If Merah was really trained by al Qaeda, then investigators will have to determine if he was acting on orders or simply decided to act out his perverse fantasies on his own. It is possible that he was trained by al Qaeda, or an affiliated group, and then allowed to develop his own plot. Al Qaeda, especially al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has tried to get ideologues with no formal terrorist training to do just that. It is possible, therefore, that Merah was a true “lone wolf.” However, Merah has specifically claimed that he received training abroad, which, if true, puts him in a distinctly different category than a purely “homegrown” terrorist with no ties abroad.
Again, much of the story remains to be filled in.
One final note is worth pointing out, however. The gunman’s victims include, according to CNN, “three soldiers of north African origin who had recently returned from Afghanistan.” According to Reuters, all three soldiers were Muslims.
While we don’t know for sure if Merah was a true agent of al Qaeda, this is entirely consistent with al Qaeda’s ideology and operations. The principal victims of al Qaeda’s ideology around the world have been Muslims.
Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus – anyone who does not believe in al Qaeda’s worldview is considered a legitimate target. In fact, al Qaeda has lost popularity in Iraq and elsewhere because of its all-inclusive murder policy.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.