Toulouse in the aftermath of terror: a city divided (ISRAEL HAYOM) Boaz Bismuth 03/23/12)
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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
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
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
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
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
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
“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,
“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
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
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
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
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.
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