French fear spillover from Syrian war

Members of ‘poor man’s jihad’ choosing easy targets in Europe

A couple stand in front of the Jewish Museum  in Brussels where four people were shot. “The danger of a European 9/11 is more real than ever,” Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Syria expert and professor at Sciences Po told “Libération” newspaper. Photograph: Reuters

A couple stand in front of the Jewish Museum in Brussels where four people were shot. “The danger of a European 9/11 is more real than ever,” Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Syria expert and professor at Sciences Po told “Libération” newspaper. Photograph: Reuters

 

The arrest of Mehdi Nemmouche (29), a French Muslim suspected of having murdered four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on May 24th, has heightened fears of spill over from the civil war in Syria, and drawn attention to the inadequacy of French domestic intelligence. Returnees from Syria “represent… the greatest danger that we must face in coming years”, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said earlier this year, when he was still interior minister.

Radical groups

“The danger of a European 9/11 is more real than ever,” Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Syria expert and professor at Sciences Po told Libération newspaper. “Europe cannot hope to be peaceful with a volcano like Syria on its doorstep.”

Four people have been arrested in France on suspicion of recruiting Muslims to fight in Syria, interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced yesterday.

Nemmouche’s arrest was kept secret for two days because French and Belgian authorities did not want to alert possible accomplices before following up leads from his telephone memory. They searched his relatives’ homes and arrested two men in Belgium.

In December 2012, Nemmouche was released from prison after serving five years for armed robbery. Three weeks later, he left for Syria, where he joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), “the principal force in world jihadism” today, according to Le Monde.

Prison

When Mohamed Merah, another French Muslim whose case was disturbingly similar to Nemmouche’s, attacked a French barracks and a Jewish school, killing seven, in 2012, Nemmouche asked for a television. “His behaviour changed,” the prison guard said. “He was cheerful. When the media coverage stopped, he gave back the television.”

Like Nemmouche, Merah was of Algerian origin, from a dysfunctional family, and built up a police record in adolescence. Merah travelled to Afghanistan rather than Syria before his killing rampage.

Merah filmed the murders he committed with a “Go Pro” camera and sent the images to Al Jazeera television. Nemmouche had a Go Pro attached to his belt when he shot dead an Israeli tourist couple and a retired French woman who worked as a volunteer in the Jewish museum. His fourth victim, a male receptionist, is reportedly brain dead.

When Nemmouche was arrested at the bus station in Marseille by French customs officers, they found a 40-second video on a small Nikon in which Nemmouche explains that the Go Pro did not function. He films the Kalashnikov and revolver used in the attack against a white sheet, on which “Islamic state of Iraq and Sham” and “God is great” are written with a black marker in Arabic.

Intelligence failure

He landed at Frankfurt airport in March, after a circuitous return from Syria via Asia. German authorities notified France, but French officials lost his trace.

Nemmouche showed a strange mixture of professionalism and amateurism. A few days after the shooting at the Jewish museum, he boarded a Eurolines coach in Brussels. It originated in Amsterdam and terminated in Marseille, and was known to carry low-level drug dealers. Nemmouche, who was laden with weapons and ammunition, was caught in a routine check by customs officers.

At the beginning of this century, notes the political scientist Gilles Kepel, Osama bin Laden gave his followers precise instructions for elaborate attacks which he financed from beginning to end.

In the new “poor man’s jihad”, men such as Merah, Nemmouche and the Tsarnaev brothers who attacked the 2013 Boston marathon are indoctrinated and given weapons training, then left to choose easy, local targets.