The siege in Toulouse ended with rough justice delivered to Mohammed Merah, the terrorist responsible for murdering three French soldiers, a rabbi, and three Jewish schoolchildren. He died battling the French security forces that stormed his apartment. But the debate over his heinous acts will live for some time. No doubt we will hear many voices raised to counsel against anti-Arab or anti-Muslim bigotry because Merah was of Algerian descent and a follower of al Qaeda’s twisted ideology. And those voices will be absolutely right: Fanatics like Merah are a tiny portion of the world’s billion-plus Muslims and even a tiny portion of Europe’s Muslim population of more than 50 million (excluding Turkey). The vast majority of Muslims are law-abiding and utterly unsympathetic to the siren call of extremism–indeed polls shows that Muslim opinion has turned firmly against Al Qaeda and its ilk over the past decade.
Yet 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. That is no reason to discriminate against Muslims; indeed the best protection against violence is to assimilate Muslim immigrants so that they have a stake in society–something that the U.S. has done notably better than Europe, which is why Europe has to worry about homegrown terrorism more than we do.
But even here the threat is real as seen from incidents such as the foiled Times Square bombing in 2010 or the shootings by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood in 2009. Incidents such as these, along with the Toulouse attacks, reinforce the arguments of analysts such as Marc Sageman who speak of “leaderless jihad” being the wave of the future — i.e., lone-wolf jihadists carrying out atrocities with little if any central direction. The danger is real and yet it is not entirely disconnected from the existence of terrorist sanctuaries, as witness the fact that Merah traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan allegedly to receive terrorist training or from the fact that Hasan was inspired by the preaching of American-born Al Qaeda Anwar al-Awlaki who found sanctuary in Yemen until he was killed in a U.S. drone strike last year.
The ability of Afghanistan to serve as a training ground for terrorists is strictly limited at the moment because of the presence of more than 100,000 NATO troops: U.S. Special Operations Forces, in particular, will target and kill or capture any substantial gathering of foreign terrorists. Yet it is salutary to remember that in the 1990s under Taliban rule Afghanistan served as a training ground for thousands of jihadist killers; it could play that role again if the U.S. pulls out prematurely because the Taliban and related groups such as the Haqqani Network have done nothing to repudiate Al Qaeda in the intervening years. Indeed some local terrorist groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban, are branching out into international terrorism; it was one of their members who tried to set off the Times Square car bomb.
The answer to this diffuse threat is simple to state but hard to execute: We must remain vigilant both at home and abroad. That means trying to prevent the creation of terrorist sanctuaries in countries such as Afghanistan where it is in our power to do so and to disrupt terrorist sanctuaries that already exist in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. It also means maintaining the vigilant homeland defense policies that were instituted after 9/11, many of which have come under fire from civil libertarians who contend that the threat of terrorism is vastly exaggerated. The New York Police Department, for one, has come under fire lately for its use of undercover officers and informants to infiltrate various Muslim institutions to ferret out possible terrorist plots. Such steps are understandably controversial but they are also necessary if we are to avoid seeing New York turned into Toulouse.