Home  > Historical Perspectives
Toulouse in the aftermath of terror: a city divided (ISRAEL HAYOM) Boaz Bismuth 03/23/12)Source: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=3629 Israel Hayom Israel Hayom Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Boaz Bismuth reports from the streets of Toulouse after the nightmarish scenario at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and the standoff outside terrorist Mohammed Merah’s home • He spoke to Jews who expect a wave of aliyah to Israel, Muslims who are divided between empathy for the killer and revulsion and others who feel the France they knew is slipping through their fingers.

The year 1995 will not be remembered as a good one in France, although it was a banner year for Bordeaux and its wine industry. Between July and October of that year, France was rocked by eight terrorist attacks that killed eight people and injured 200. Those were the days when al-Qaida had yet to enter the picture, and the Algerian organization GIA (Armed Islamic Group) waged a campaign of terror in its home country as well as on the soil of its former colonial master, France.

Those were very violent days in the North African country, which sustained more than 100,000 deaths over the course of a decade. France’s problem could be traced to efforts by Algerian Islamists to export terrorism to France. In 2007, France elected “Mr. Security,” Nicolas Sarkozy, as president. Algeria’s domestic discord came under control, and Islamic terrorism became a distant memory for French citizens. Terrorism was other people’s headache.

Seventeen years have passed since the last terrorist attack took place in France on Oct. 17, 1995, when a bomb was detonated on a commuter train taking passengers to the Saint-Michel train station. Over the last two weeks, Islamic terrorism has reared its ugly head once again. Algerian terrorism courtesy of GIA has given way to the jihadist terrorism of al-Qaida. Afghanistan has replaced Algeria. The only things that have remained constant are religious fanaticism and the would-be terrorist’s vulnerability to manipulation.

“Much more dangerous”

In the span of 10 days, one man, 23-year-old Mohammed Merah, almost succeeded in accomplishing his goal of “bringing France to its knees.” He caused a major scare in Toulouse after he committed what Sarkozy deemed “an unprecedented crime” – trespassing onto the grounds of the Jewish day school Ozar HaTorah, rife with religious fanaticism, and murdering four innocent victims, three of them small children who were waiting for transportation to the nearby Rashi elementary school.

The sight of the coffins of Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, 30; his 6-year-old son, Aryeh; and another son, 3-year-old Gavriel; and Miriam Monsongo, the 8-year-old daughter of the school principal left no one unmoved. Only Merah, their murderer, was indifferent. The youth-turned- mujahideen (holy warrior) returned Islamic terrorism to the headlines in France. It’s like 1995 all over again. Now Jews in one of France’s largest cities are living in fear. In 2012. Who would have believed that?

Even then, in 1995, Jews were a target. I remember it well. On Sept. 7 of that year, a booby-trapped car exploded just 15 meters from the entrance to the Nahalat Moshe Jewish school in Villeurbanne, a town just outside of Lyon. The blast was premature, occuring 10 minutes before parents and students between the ages of 2 and 15 were due to exit the building.

All of the children were in class at the time of the explosion. Fourteen people were injured. In late September, French police killed the suspect, Khaled Kelkal, a young Frenchman of Algerian extraction who at the time was the most wanted man in France. The country was shocked by the video footage of his death, which showed police yelling “Finish him! Finish him!”

This week, things were different. The attack at the Jewish school in Toulouse was more lethal and the terrorist, Merah, “was much more dangerous,” said a senior police source.

Unlike the Kelkal case, this time France wanted to apprehend the perpetrator alive. The French wanted to question him and to ensure that more terrorist attacks were not in the works. That is why the elite police unit waited many hours near his home. Sarkozy also wanted him captured alive. Merah, an unconventional jihadist, at first expressed a desire to emerge with his head held high, and not die as a martyr, but later said he wanted to die with guns in his hands. This is a new type of jihadist.

A terrified, desolate city

This week, I returned to Toulouse, a city that I have visited on many occasions. I have never seen it this tense, this unnerved, one might even say terrified. The massacre was perpetrated on the same day I arrived. I spent part of the evening wandering around Jean Jaures Boulevard in downtown. The streets were desolate. People were cooped up at home. Some of them were afraid to go out, while others paid their respects to the victims.

The fear and panic were real. Seven people had been killed since March 11. Bullet casings indicated that the victims were killed by the same gun. France was searching for a serial killer that initially targeted Muslim soldiers before moving on to butcher Jewish schoolchildren.

Initially it was thought that the killer was a Muslim who was out to kill French Muslim soldiers out of revenge, since the troops were fighting their “Muslim brothers” in Afghanistan, before setting his sights on Jews. Then the French media began to speculate about the far Right, which seemed to make sense given that the country was just five weeks away from the first round of presidential elections. Such a killer would represent a villain for all of France, and he would surely harm the electoral chances of far-Right candidate Marine Le Pen.

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Toulouse on Monday, I listened to the city’s residents talk nonstop about their gut feeling that it was an Islamic terrorist who had carried out the attack. Indeed, a few hours after the nation caught a glimpse of the coffins bearing the remains of the dead Jews, crack units raided the eastern Toulouse neighborhood of Cote Pavee. They were on their way to the address of the most wanted man in France.

As police made their way toward their target, the pupils of the Ozar HaTorah school were returning to class just three kilometers away. The school’s Jewish students continue to bear the trauma of witnessing three their own, as well as a beloved rabbi, being gunned down. Psychologists were summoned to the school to treat the horrified children. The first thing they did was to watch live coverage of the funerals in Jerusalem. The school was once again in tears.

The fact that this despicable murderer was located did not assuage the parents. “To think that an al-Qaida operative attacked the school that my son attends doesn’t calm me,” one parent said. “Who can tell me, who can promise me, that there won’t be another attack?” School officials were fearful that parents would pull their sons and daughters out of class. Others were furious that there wasn’t extra security on the premises.

“Look, while negotiations were taking place with the perpetrator, there was no police presence near the synagogue,” said Gershom Goldman, pointing toward the synagogue nearby.

Not far from Sergent Vigne Street, where the attacker was taking refuge, I bumped into Aviv Zolabend, a representative of the Toulouse branch of the French-Jewish umbrella organization CRIF. He was hardly surprised when news emerged of the killer’s identity.

“I see and hear what is going on in the neighborhood of La Terrasse, which is a working-class area where most of the city’s Muslims live,” he said. “There are a lot of illegal weapons there and youngsters there download pictures of Osama bin Laden which they use as screensavers on their cell phones.”

Zolabend remembers well what Toulouse looked like at the height of the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2004. At that time, France experienced a large number of anti-Semitic incidents, although there were no deaths. Two synagogues in Toulouse were hit, one by a firebomb and another by a car that intentionally rammed into the wall of a synagogue. Toulouse residents were shocked, but there were no casualties.

“We are seeing that the Islamic residents of Toulouse are becoming more extreme,” Aviv said. “One day, before the attack, the head of our community, Aryeh Ben Simon, met with the French interior minister to see how it was possible to increase security on Jewish institutions. And look what happened just one day after that.”

Are the Jews of Toulouse living in fear?

“Certainly. It’s unpleasant to think that young people whom we meet every day are capable of doing these things.”

Is there another Mohammed Merah in Toulouse?

“I have no doubt that there is. That is why there is concern and caution.” He said he expects Jews to leave the city. “We can expect some of the people in Toulouse to make aliyah to Israel.”

“You know, people in this country talked about the far Right, but I was certain that it was Islamic terrorism,” he said. “The way that they killed Jewish children was in my view proof of this. Everybody talked and hoped that it was far-Right terrorism, but in my view the Islamic terrorism that hit Toulouse has a name: It is Nazi-Islamic terrorism, and it is the worst kind there is in my mind.”

Impact on elections

Merah’s home is three kilometers away from the school. A few minutes’ walk from his house is a restaurant owned by Monique Deree, a Jewish woman from Toulouse. On one of the days that Merah was holed up in his apartment, she was late in opening up the restaurant. Finally, she arrived.

“I don’t think he ever came to my restaurant,” she said, moments before France’s television news broadcast flashed an image of the murderer on the screen. The devil had a face.

During the long wait for his arrest, it was impossible to avoid thinking how these events would affect the upcoming elections, due to take place in less than five weeks.

It was also impossible to refrain from comparing the Toulouse attack with an attack in Madrid in March 2004, when a bomb ripped through a train station in the Spanish capital. Initially, the press believed that the Basque underground ETA organization was responsible for the attack. Ultimately, it was revealed the attack was carried out by al- Qaida. Soon after, the ruling party in Spain lost the election to the Socialists. Now, it is widely presumed that the Toulouse attacks will have an impact on the elections.

Just before Merah entered the picture, Sarkozy was widely perceived to be a president in his last days in office. Then the shootings occurred, raising suspicions that it was the work of far-rightists. For Sarkozy, this was good news, since it would hamper the election chances of Marine Le Pen, the far-Right leader who could have attracted right-wing voters who usually support Sarkozy’s ruling center-right UMP faction.

But then France awoke to the news that it was the son of Algerian Muslim immigrants who was responsible for the attacks. Polls gave Sarkozy a bump of two percentage points in the first round, which pulled him into a virtual tie with his main challenger, Socialist candidate Francoise Hollande. Yet polls also showed that in the second round, Hollande would enjoy an eight-point advantage over Sarkozy.

This news story gave Sarkozy a great deal of media coverage. There were images of the president in the hospital visiting the wounded, the president at the funeral of the murdered paratroopers, the president standing for a moment of silence with the Jewish children, the president accepting condolences from U.S. President Barack Obama, the president sending condolences to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president ordering the elite commando unit to apprehend the killer alive.

Officials close to the Socialist party acknowledged that Hollande did not appreciate Sarkozy’s conduct. Hollande will ostensibly remind the country that these events occurred on his watch. The incumbent president will most likely reply that terrorism is a global problem, and if there is one person in France who is capable of purging the country of terrorists, it is “Monsieur Securite,” Nicolas Sarkozy.

French voters will certainly be keeping an eye on upcoming polls. Meanwhile, eight of the 10 presidential candidates suspended their campaigns. Only one man refrained from suspending his campaign due to his work – President Sarkozy. Is the luck that comes with being president?

The last thing that the French public wants is for the Muslim community to import the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to French soil just like it did during the Intifada.

“He caused us great damage”

Neighbors in Toulouse reacted quite differently this week. Lise, 35, could not understand why people were ganging up on Merah. “He is a victim,” she told me. She was in the minority on this issue.

Another man named Henry told me that he had voted for the Socialists all of his adult life. He even has a statue of Jean Jaures in his home. Now, he thinks that France cannot be lax in the face of Muslim violence. “Our political correctness with this population is not helping,” he said. “I’m not saying that everyone is carrying out attacks, but almost all of the perpetrators come from this community, and this is a fact.”

By chance, dozens of Muslim youths walked by the area in which journalists were awaiting news of Merah’s capture. Abed, a bearded man wearing a baseball cap, is also of Algerian descent. He said that he was fearful the attack would unleash stigmas against the Muslim community. “Everyone will look at us as if we are killers,” he said. “There’s no doubt that Merah caused us great damage.”

A friend of Merah, who is also of North African origin, expressed his disgust at his actions. “Look at how my legs are shaking,” he said.

Since the 1970s, the Le Mirail quarter of Toulouse, which is home to a number of affordable, high-rise apartments, has been home to many immigrants from North Africa. There people talked about the Merah they got to know. “He was a quiet boy,” said Fatima. “He was a cute boy. I don’t believe that all of this is happening here.” She went on to say that Merah’s mother split from his father, and that she now lives in this hardscrabble neighborhood. The mother has been unable to lead a normal life in Toulouse.

Assimilation of Muslims

The assimilation of Muslims into French society is once again becoming a hot-button issue. Jewish and Muslim community leaders met here on Monday, the day of the attack, with President Sarkozy. But two days ago, disagreement once again arose over comments made by Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, linking the attack on the school in Toulouse with what happened in Gaza. Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, said he was shocked by the remarks.

Some of the third generation of North African immigrants has had a hard time accepting – and respecting - the laws of the republic. In the three soccer matches that France has played against Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, the French fans of North African origin jeered the French national anthem. Prison cells are also filled with the children of immigrants.

The families blame the state, the state blames the families, and Sarkozy is likely to emerge as the beneficiary. The Jews of France are the only ones dissatisfied by this situation.

While the number of French jihadists active in Afghanistan and the tribal areas that lie in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region is low, “it is enough to cause the worst possible tragedies, just like you saw this week in Toulouse,” said Natanel, a French Jew. “What happened here this week proves that since 1995, progress hasn’t really been made, and it doesn’t matter whether the Right or the Left is in power in France.”

Meanwhile, Anwar Kabibsh, the president of a Muslim NGO in France, is fearful of the fallout from the Toulouse attack. He is concerned that Islam in France will be entirely perceived as radical.

“Even before we knew the identity of the suspect in the school shooting, there was a genuine fear among the Muslim community in France that he was one of us,” he said. “The Muslim population needs to now deal with two options: first, the stigmatization that was already existent, and, second, that these attacks will be exploited politically.”

The imam of Bordeaux, Tareq Oubrou, is willing to acknowledge that a disorganized brand of Islam has taken shape, “which makes it easier for religion to become radicalized. We are well aware of the violent profiles of some of our mosques. During religious sermons, particularly on the Internet, there is extreme preaching, calls for Muslims to clash with society in which they live.”

“In these speeches, there is a desire to create a link between the suffering of one Muslim with that of another Muslim,” the imam said. “With all due respect to everyone making speeches about tolerance, young Muslims in France will always prefer speeches of hate.”

A spokesperson for the French police did not hesitate to tell journalists that it is easy to procure weapons in the suburbs. “That includes the La Mirail neighborhood,” he said. One can easily buy a Kalashnikov or an Uzi, or a Colt .45, the gun used at the school shooting, at a relatively cheap price.

Mohammed Merah, a young Frenchman who saw his parents divorce and then decided to travel to Afghanistan after his involvement in criminal activity in France, knew exactly where to go to buy weapons and where he could hear radical sermons.

The result – seven dead in Toulouse within eight days. That is nearly one murder victim per day.

France learned that the murderer considered joining the country’s military, but before initial testing he had preferred to hook up with a jihadist Salafi organization that sought one thing: to liquidate the Western society in which it lives and that it rejects.

France, which wanted to believe that it had rid itself of the cancerous growth known as Islamic terrorism, discovered – to the sound of gunshots – that it had indeed returned.

Return to Top