France grapples with possible causes of Toulouse killer’s terror rampage

March 23, 2012

The Globe and Mail

Mohammed Merah died alone on Thursday morning, gripping a submachine gun, plummeting from his apartment balcony with a bullet in his head. Even before his body had struck the pavement, though, there were grave questions about just how alone he really was when he methodically killed seven people in southwest France in the space of nine days this month.

While French prosecutors painted a picture of a lone, psychologically disturbed figure who created his own brand of extremism with little help from others, there were open questions as to how a 23-year-old petty criminal from Toulouse received financing for the considerable arsenal – including hard-to-obtain assault rifles and machine guns, and a number of vehicles – used in his terror spree. And reports began to emerge that he may have been in contact with a wide range of radical individuals and organizations, even if he wasn’t a formal member of a group.

There is a widespread concern in France that other young, economically marginalized Arab men are becoming radicalized on their own, either in France’s prisons (whose populations are overwhelmingly of Arab origin) or through online contacts.

This was enough for President Nicolas Sarkozy to declare on Thursday that he will pass a law – if he wins re-election in the presidential vote set to begin on April 22 – making it illegal to have contact with Islamist radicals.

“Extreme Islam will be repressed by a law to be passed after this election,” Mr. Sarkozy said in a press conference shortly after Mr. Merah’s death after a 20-hour siege. “Anyone who consults a website that glorifies hate and violence will be punished under the law.” Those who go abroad for extremist training will be punished, he added, and an investigation opened into the spread of militant ideas in French prisons.

“We cannot allow our prisons,” the French president said, “to be breeding grounds for the spread of these hateful ideologies.”

Mr. Sarkozy also met with Muslim and Jewish leaders and called for an end to the harsh divisions between France’s minority communities, at the same time as calling for harsh law-and-order policies of the sort that helped him win the presidency in 2007 when the country was still reeling from riots of unemployed youth in the suburbs.

“Unity and coming together must be our priorities,” he said, “and firmness must be our way to serve those values.”

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