Mohammed Merah - Lone Wolf or Al-Qa'ida Operative?

He bore the hallmarks of a trained and motivated operative, but it is unclear whether the Toulouse self-confessed terrorist, Mohammed Merah, was an Al-Qa'ida foot soldier. What is apparent is that he was motivated by both the street-cool allure of extremism, and the grievances that are common to many young radicalised Muslims in the West.

By Suraj Lakhani for

23 March 2012 - After a siege lasting almost thirty-two hours in the French city of Toulouse, Mohammed Merah finally met his fate. Merah confessed to the cold-blooded killing, on three separate occasions, of seven people including three young children. Whilst the life of this complex young French male of Algerian descent has ended, the investigation into his radicalisation has merely begun. This case is considered in certain counter-terrorism circles to be part of a new phenomenon of 'lone 'wolf' attacks. However, on many occasions this is not as clear-cut. There needs to be, as with the case of Mohammed Merah, a consideration of the complexities that are already emerging.

Lone Wolf?

Was Merah simply a self-radicalised lone-wolf, or was he plugged into a wider jihadist network, either in France or on an international level. This is perhaps the most challenging question presented to counter-terrorism experts now. At the time of writing this analysis French prosecutor Francois Molins stated in a press conference that they suspected he was acting alone and was not part of a wider network of individuals. Although in time this may well emerge as a clear-cut case, the evidence thus far throws up some important considerations which may reveal a more complicated picture.

Even some time after an incident, there may still be conflicting ideas on whether individuals acted alone or were part of a wider network. It must not be assumed that these individuals had no external influence at any point of their radicalisation. For example, although David Copeland, commonly known as the 'London nail bomber', was assumed to be acting alone, he had strong connections with right-wing group the British Nationalist Socialist Movement. In fact, Copeland was reportedly promoted to 'regional leader' merely weeks before the bombing campaign.[1] There is also the case of Andrew 'Isa' Ibrahim. Ibrahim was convicted for attempting to commit an act of terrorism in a Bristol shopping centre. It was widely claimed that although the internet played a dominant role in his radicalisation, there are reports of his interactions with others.[2] With the case of Merah, there are strong suspicions that at least one of his siblings was involved on some level.

Was he an Al-Qa'ida Operative?

Does this then mean that Merah acted in concert with Al-Qa'ida as he claims? The French authorities have confirmed that Merah visited Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan on at least two occasions. Certain reports claim Merah travelled to the region on his own accord in a bid to attend jihadi training camps. However, this is not as easy to ascertain. Though many do visit the Af-Pak region, not everyone is readily admitted to the various terrorist networks where trust is a key premium. This is due to jihadi networks becoming increasingly closed off and secretive in a bid to evade infiltration by various intelligence services. Merah's competent use of an array of weapons, which clearly indicates he received the necessary training, indicates some sort of affiliation within a network.[3] Nevertheless, his claims of being directly commissioned by Al-Qa'ida, and meeting the organisation's leading figures, are far from conclusive.

On return from Pakistan in 2011, Merah was questioned and put under surveillance by French intelligence agencies. In fact, he had been known to the French police for a number of years due to his criminal activities. The preliminary reports coming out of France from the police and authorities are that Merah was of course not considered to be an immediate or direct threat. If Merah did have these types of connections, then French intelligence would have known about them and he would have been elevated to a higher risk level. If, however, it does emerge that Merah did actually have associations within these types of networks, then some very taxing questions will be asked of the French authorities with regards to why he was allowed back into France and allowed to move so freely under the noses of the intelligence services.


There is now a large amount of scholarship on the gradations and complexities of radicalisation, one which cannot be faithfully represented in this short analysis. Judging the evidence thus far, there appears to be striking parallels between Mohammed Merah's already-known background and the trends studied by this correspondent - the phenomenon known as 'jihadi cool'. First and foremost, there needs to be the inclusion of the cultural aspect of radicalisation.

Within the UK especially, extremism has increasingly been viewed as a new social trend since the atrocities of 9/11. Within this, certain young, mostly male, Muslim youth find it 'cool' to be associated with extremism; a phenomenon which is increasingly exposing Muslims of a much younger age, in some instances those in their very early teens, to extreme ideologies. This of course does not necessarily result in radicalisation that leads to a violent outcome, but it does in certain cases provide some foundation. Merah's claims of affiliations with top-level Al-Qa'ida operatives may well have been a desperate bid to attach some sort of warped credibility to his cold-blooded actions, or even an act of narcissism. However, this does not rule out all associations, possibly with other groups acting under the Al-Qa'ida banner.

Further, the grievances listed by Merah, as reported by news sources, largely correspond to the data collected for the doctoral thesis of the author. Before the trends from the data are stated, it is important to note that with the phenomenon of radicalisation there is not a 'one size fits all' solution, one single process, nor a general trend where people place themselves upon a 'conveyor belt' towards violence.[4]

Nevertheless, within my particular research there appears to be three strains felt by the radicalised which are utilised by the radicaliser. The first is on a 'personal level'. This predominantly involves a lack of identity and belonging in the country of residence. Certain reports emerging about Merah claim he attempted to join the French military and was effectively turned away due to his criminal record. This may have influenced his perception of his acceptance by French society. The issue of racism is also prominent. The rise of the far-right, the lack of acceptance (perceived or otherwise), and stigmatisation of Muslims in their country of residence all play a vital role. There have been fierce debates surrounding these topics of integration and racism for a long time in France. Merah also raised his grievances with France's banning of the veil and the ongoing row over halal meat. Second, there are the strains which occur at the 'local-level', an example of this is the implementation of counter-terrorism policies, which we know Merah was on occasion subjected to thorough questioning by French intelligence services.[5] Finally is the strain felt on a 'macro-level.' This includes the grievances felt, and the subsequent 'moral outrage' of the killing of innocent Muslim women and children at the hands of Western militaries - this was reported as Mehrah's prominent grievances in specific reference to Palestine. There also needs to be additional considerations such as the importance of the Ummah (global Muslim community), where all Muslims are considered to be brothers and sisters. In fact, Merah, according to Molins, apparently stated whilst committing his first murder, 'you kill my brothers, I kill you'.

Of course these grievances and declarations of fealty are held by many more people, not just Muslims. The real danger occurs when these three strains are utilised in order for the individual to believe this is a war against Islam as a faith on all of the aforementioned levels. What radicalisers aim to do is attempt to induce a belief of an 'us vs. them' scenario. Once again it is important to reiterate the complexity of radicalisation, and the existence of other influences and factors. This is especially the case when this results in a violent outcome. The discussion here is intended to merely highlight the similarities displayed in the little information currently available regarding the case of Mohammed Merah in an attempt to initiate some sort of discussion.

In the most common understanding of a 'lone-wolf', the individual has no external influences or training. By this, they become 'self-radicalised', and conceive and conduct the plot alone. The evidence suggesting Mohammed Merah fit this profile is far from conclusive. Only time and hard evidence will help to further explain how and why Mohammed Merah was radicalised, and in understanding his motivations for conducting such callous attacks. What the French, and arguably others around the world, must do in the meantime is to stand together united against such atrocities that are against the moral fabric of any decent society.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Suraj Lakhani is a PhD candidate at the Universities' Police Science Institute at Cardiff University. He was previously a Researcher at RUSI.


[1] BBC News, 'Profile: Copeland the killer', <>, 2000

[2] R. Pantucci, "Britain Jails "Lone Wolf" Terrorist Isa Ibrahim. Terrorism Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, VII: 23, 2009

[3] James Blitz, "'Lone Wolf's' unique skillset'. Financial Times, 22 March 2012, <>

[4] Mehdi Hasan, 'So, prime minister, are we to call you an extremist now?' The Guardian, <>, 9 June 2011

[5] The Daily Telegraph, 'Toulouse siege: French police 'had no grounds to detain Mohamed Merah'". The Telegraph,

 <>, 23 March 2012


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