Terror in France and the chilling prospect of sleeper cells also in the USA

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — A spate of seven seemingly unexplained serial killings has shocked France with the uncomfortable realization that the specter of terrorism has not vanished. But the shootings of three soldiers and later, the calculated cold- blooded rampage at a Jewish school killing a rabbi and three children, turned the tragedy in Toulouse into a massive manhunt centered in southern France. President Nicolas Sarkozy has called the shootings a “national tragedy.”

While there appeared no logical motive nor connection, the media narrative soon drifted into the template that since the soldiers were of North African and Caribbean origin and the children and Rabbi were Jewish, this could well be the work of a “right wing extremist” probably with military training. Echoes of Norway’s mass murderer last summer.

Masked French special unit policemen (RAID) leave the scene on their way back to the Perignon barracks on March 22 after the assault to capture gunman Mohamed Merah, suspected in the killings of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. /Pascal Parrot/Reuters

Toulouse mayor Pierre Cohen chimed in to say “Everything leads one to believe these were racist and anti-Semitic killings.” Well they were, but with a more bizarre twist.

In the French case, foreign media outlets such as the BBC soon fell comfortably into this narrative as an explanation. Moreover many articles alluded to comments made in the current French Presidential election campaign against illegal immigrants as being grist for the mill by encouraging a climate of “intolerance”.

Well thanks to a massive and meticulous French police manhunt, the suspect was cornered and killed after a 32 hour standoff with police; alas, with a decidedly different resume.

Mohamed Merah a Frenchman of Algerian origin, had not surprisingly spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Club Med of the Taliban. His jihadi training and apparent Al Qaida connections were put into grisly use with the premeditated and clinically brutal attacks.

Ironically a day before the suspect was caught, India’s UN delegate, speaking about Afghanistan in the Security Council said, “Terrorism continues to find sustenance and support from a dangerous osmosis of ideologies, ambitions, training and operations among the syndicate of terrorism in the region.”

France’s Le Figaro newspaper described the suspect, “The young man is 24 years old and a French citizen. He has visited Afghanistan numerous times and claims to be a follower of Al Qaida. He also claims that he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children.” A home grown terrorist who apparently liked motorcycles and football (soccer) but who became a follower of radical Islam.

But why kill French soldiers of North African origin? Symbolism. Simply put the parachute regiment, among the best in the French military, has served proudly and effectively in Afghanistan and equally in Algeria during the 1950s. Jidhadi militants have a special hatred for the Les Paras no matter what their ethnicity.

As for the rationalization, why attack fellow French of the Muslim faith, look at recent Al Qaida attacks in Iraq over the past week; premeditated bombings killing scores of fellow Muslims. It’s called terrorism and intimidation.

The attack at the Jewish school in Toulouse was a poignant reminder of his white heat hatred in what the accused killer told the France 24 media outlet “the Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.” In other words, this was to avenge purported Israeli actions.

The timing of the unprovoked attacks are curious but come during a contentions presidential election campaign and, nearly overlooked, during the week marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Algerian conflict between France and nationalist rebels which ended in 1962. This nearly forgotten war is definitively described in Alistair Horne’s book “Savage War of Peace; Algeria 1954-1962”.

Could Merah be part of a wider network of sleeper cells across France? Very likely.

The tragedy in Toulouse serves as a poignant reminder to Americans, uncomfortable with the thought of jihadi inspired terror, that such “sleeper cells” are very likely in the USA too and can be activated for varied terrorist missions.

We have seen attacks on U.S. military bases such as the Fort Hood massacre, threats against schools and synagogues, the foiled Times Square car bomb in 2010, and naturally plots against mass transit systems. Given the carnage in France, this is precisely why Congressman Peter King’s (R-NY) hearings on the threat posed by Iranian-connected Hizbullah “sleeper cells” inside the USA take on a new urgency.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.