Starting on March 11 and ending on March 19, a terrorist wearing a motorcycle helmet that covered his face conducted a vicious killing spree in Toulouse, France, murdering three French military officers (two of Arab ancestry, one of Caribbean ancestry) and four French Jewish civilians (a 30-year-old Rabbi, his 5-year-old son, his 4-year-old son and an 8-year-old girl). Much speculation as to the possible motives and background of the terrorist followed. On March 21, 2012, the French armed forces surrounded an apartment in Toulouse where the killer lived and released his identity: It was a French Islamist named Mohammed Merah. On March 22, Merah was shot dead while jumping out of his apartment window.
What was most disturbing about this terrorist act — aside from its occurrence — was that the elite Western public officials’ and media’s speculation about the true killer, prior to the discovery of his identity, heavily focused (also here and here and here) on the belief that he was a white European neo-Nazi, or perhaps another Anders Breivik, a white, European Christian killer who hated Islam and may have hated Jews.
Granted, the fact that both French Muslims and French Jews had been killed, and the fact that some neo-Nazis had recently been dismissed from the French military, made this a plausible assumption. But it was not the only possible assumption, and it was almost certainly not the most likely one.
The most likely assumption was what was eventually found to be true — that the killer was a Muslim jihadist who hated Jews and hated those “traitorous” fellow Muslims who served in the “infidel” French army. Indeed, not to toot my own horn, but this was my initial belief. The neo-Nazi Frenchmen who were originally focused on had never been accused of any actual violence against anyone, unlike the actual killer, Mohammed Merah.
Merah had numerous acts of violence on his record along with two short prison terms, in 2007 and 2009. And there was plenty more circumstantial evidence pointing to Merah. He had made two trips to Afghanistan and one to Pakistan — vacationing in a war zone, he claimed — had trained in a jihadist camp in Afghanistan, had been caught planting bombs in Afghanistan in 2007 but escaped from jail in 2008 to return to France, terrorized his French neighbors who in 2010 reported him to the police as a physical threat, was arrested in 2011 during his second trip to Afghanistan and sent back to Toulouse, was under surveillance by French authorities since 2008 for his Islamist beliefs and was even on a U.S. no-fly list. In fact, it turns out that after the first terror attack, Merah was actually placed on a list of possible suspects alongside his older brother Abdelkader, but little was done to trace either of them until after the Jewish school massacre, when the police secured the mobile phone of the first victim, the soldier in Montauban, which showed conversations between him and Merah.
Aside from this evidence, there were other good reasons why the police and observers should have suspected an Islamist killer. Since the 1990s, a large majority of the acts of terrorism in the West have been conducted by Islamic jihadists. This is simply a fact. According to one unscientific count, since 1992 there have been 72 Islamist terrorist attacks on Western targets. Taking a more global view, others cite a number of 18,616 terrorist attacks by jihadists since 9/11. Max Boot says “it is undeniable that the most prominent acts of terrorism in the past several decades have been committed by Islamists, whose ideology has displaced Marxism and even nationalism as the primary propellant for terrorism, as it was in the 1960s-1970s.”
Meanwhile, during this same time, there have been very few non-Islamist acts of terrorism. The two most commonly mentioned are the attacks in Oklahoma City in 1995 and in Oslo, Norway in 2011. Breivik, by the way, was not a neo-Nazi, nor a Christian fundamentalist; he was ruled “a paranoid schizophrenic” by a Norwegian court.
Yet, in 2012, when these brutal acts of terrorism occurred in France, the immediate working assumption by the Western elites was that the perpetrator was a neo-Nazi. Let’s be very clear about this. We all understand why this delusional thinking occurs — the desire to be politically correct and to not single out a specific religion as producing most of the world’s terrorists for the past few decades. But facts are facts, and these PC feelings are dangerous. In the Toulouse case, Mohammed Merah was not even hiding, he was sitting in his apartment because he was “confident that police sought a neo-Nazi.” It is even possible that he might have been caught sooner, perhaps prior to the killing of the children, had the French tracked down this terrorist criminal who was well-known to them.
Please remember, political correctness kills. Just ask them.
Adam Turner serves as staff counsel to the Middle East Forum’s Legal Project. He is a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee where he focused on national security law.