Notes From the Margins…

Lone Wolves on the Prowl

  • March 24, 2012
  • by

Mohammed Merah’s  act of suicide-by-cop has been followed by a further shift in the already confusing and conflicting narratives that have accompanied the Toulouse/Montauban murder spree.   When the siege first began, it was reported that Merah belonged to  al-Qaeda and that he had been trained on the Pakistan-Afghan border in Waziristan.  Then it was reported that he had fought with the Taliban and escaped from Kandahar prison in 2008, before a message on the Twitter account of the Kandahar Media Office claimed that ” Security forces in Kandahar have never detained a French citizen named Mohammed Merah.”

To complicate things still further, it’s now been revealed that Merah had been under surveillance by French police for months, that he was on a US no fly list and that he had been interrogated by intelligence officials after his return from the second of two trips to Afghanistan.

Now that Merah is dead, the French government appears to be at pains to deny his al-Qaeda links.   A senior official has claimed that there is no evidence that Merah had “trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists”.  According to Associated Press

The official said Merah might have made the claim because al-Qaida is a well-known “brand,” adding there was “absolutely no evidence allowing us to believe that he was commissioned by al-Qaida to carry out these attacks.”


Officials painted a picture of a self-radicalized young man – the type of lone-wolf terrorist intelligence services have long most worried about, who radicalize alone and operate below the radar.

The ‘lone wolf terrorist’ is a familiar trope in official and media representations of terrorism in response to acts of ‘terrorist’ violence that fall outside the normal parameters.

The ‘otherness’ of terrorism is often enhanced by animal imagery that depicts its perpetrators as  wild beasts, tigers, dogs,  snakes, vermin or simply monsters, and the ‘lone wolf’ is a new addition to the terrorist bestiary that really came into its own following Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in  Oklahoma city in 1995.

Before that many Americans assumed that such events were a ‘Middle Eastern trait’ – as the ‘terrorism expert’ Steven Emerson described the bombing in the immediate aftermath.  So there was shock and incomprehension when it was revealed that the worst terrorist atrocity in American history had been carried out by an American Gulf War veteran who was connected to armed ‘patriot’/survivalist militias which openly preached sedition against the government, taking inspiration from the American constitution.

US law enforcement officials and the media portrayed the Oklahoma atrocity as the work of an isolated misfit acting on his own behest.   Media analysts and commentators pored over McVeigh’s not especially traumatic childhood and family background for clues to his psychotic behaviour.

This ‘lone wolf’ framework skipped over the paranoid/conspiratorial world of the far-right patriot/survivalist movement that McVeigh was connected to, with its paranoid conspiracy narratives involving UN black helicopters and the ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government). McVeigh justified his actions by referencing American military operations  in  Serbia and Iraq, and he also expressed quintessentially American ideas about ‘big government’ and the right to bear arms.

Some commentators sought explanations for McVeigh’s ‘otherness’  in his personal history and psychology, but various psychiatric reports concluded that he was perfectly ‘normal.’   The forthcoming trial of Anders Breivik is following a similar trajectory, with the prosecution apparently seeking to prove a charge of insanity.

It’s not clear why the French government is so keen to promote this thesis in Merah’s case.  For the last decade governments have presented even the flimsiest and most improbable terrorist plots involving Muslims as evidence of a vast transnational terrorist conspiracy, and have rarely missed an opportunity to exaggerate the extent of ‘domestic extremism’ or highlight al Qaeda ‘linkages’ to such plots, no matter how tenuous or phantasmal these connections might be.

In 2009 French police carried out a mass raid on a leftist-anarchist rural commune in Tarnac, citing the presence of railway timetables as evidence of a terrorist conspiracy.  Yet now the government is playing down suggestions of wider involvement in Merah’s crimes, despite the fact that he was armed with a range of weapons that you don’t usually buy over the counter in the local supermarket, at a time when he was supposed to be under surveillance.

Given the willingness of  many governments to use ‘ al Qaeda’ as a catchall explanation for a justification for our endless terrorist state of emergency,  it’s odd that French officialdom appears to be sticking to a story that doesn’t quite add up.

This may have something to do with the French electoral campaign and the failure of the security forces to detect a man who was already on the radar – a failure that threatens to damage Sarkozy’s prospects.  Or it may be that Merah was some kind of intelligence asset and that his actions constituted yet another form of unexpected ‘blowback’.

So the French government may be trying to cover itself, at least for long enough for Sarkozy to win the election,  because the idea that Merah was a maverick lone wolf effectively exonerates the security services to some extent for their failure to stop him.

At the same time the government is keeping the threat level cranked up high.  Sarkozy is proposing to imprison visitors to “extremist websites”  on the grounds that they are engaging in “self-radicalisation”.  And now the EU’s Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has claimed that there are “about 400 lone-wolf extremists trained by al-Qaeda” on the loose in Europe.

This statistic seems somewhat dubious: if these individuals have not done anything and are not part of any networks or organisations,  then how can anyone know who they are or how many there are?

The logic may be fuzzy, but the implication is clear: lone wolves may not hunt in packs, but they are a lot of them out there.

Whether Mohammed Merah really belongs to this category has yet to be proven, and  like so much that takes place in the morbid world where terrorists, intelligence assets, agent provocateurs and informants overlap, the truth is unlikely ever to emerge.




You may also Like

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  • No events