There is no way of knowing for certain whether Mohammed Merah, the suspect in this week's terror attack in Toulouse, was in fact an Al-Qaida member. He claimed to be, but both he and the organization had a common interest in saying so. Indeed, it is not clear how active Al-Qaida is at the moment, if at all, or whether Merah was a lone activist following the organization's ideology though not its instructions.
The U.S. assassination of Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden last May seriously damaged the morale of his supporters, but not their motivation. Immediately after his death, his loyalists had a glut of plans to attack Western targets. But they face more complicated issues than the killing of their leader - primarily, the fact that the United States and other nations have broken the organization's infrastructure in East Asia, South Africa and the Arab states. Thousands of Al-Qaida militants have been assassinated in the past few years, in countless operations.
Nevertheless, jihadis are undoubtedly still scattered around the world, including in Europe and the United States. In many European cities, Muslim neighborhoods and slums have become fertile ground for extremist ideology, with some imams ranting against the West and Jews.
Merah apparently worked alongside his brother and perhaps with the knowledge of a friend, but Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri probably knew nothing about his intentions. But ultimately, even if Merah "only" shared Al-Qaida's views and was not an integral part of the organization, it is clear that extremist Islam is trying to lash out in order to prove it is still relevant in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Merah, who died following a shoot-out with French police yesterday, was a "classic candidate" for Al-Qaida membership. He was 23, of Algerian descent, and visited Pakistan and Afghanistan. In France, he joined the Knights of Pride, a radical Salafi group that France outlawed last January after it called for a non-recognition of the country's secular, democratic regime. The French security forces had group members, including Merah, under surveillance, but he managed to give them the slip.
In many senses, the terrorist from Toulouse was a relatively small headache for Western intelligence. He was a known target, they had information about him, and he was under surveillance. The more meaningful threat in Europe and the United States is from dormant, unknown activists, who are believed to be present in every major European city. Some were born there, others immigrated from Muslim countries.
Alongside the events in Toulouse, Egypt reportedly arrested two suspects Wednesday in a plot to strike a Western ship entering the Suez Canal. The two, apparently Islamic extremists, wanted to hit both Western targets and the Egyptian economy. The extremists are displeased by Egypt's transformation and the growing strength of political Islam there, namely among the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour party. In Iraq, Sunni organizations continue to launch terror attacks, and in Syria, a Sunni group claimed responsibility for the car bombings in Damascus last weekend that left dozens dead.
Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his doctrine and ideas are alive and kicking.
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