News that the suspected perpetrator of the Brussels Jewish Museum shooting is a French jihadist veteran of the Syrian war has added to what were already growing concerns about the dangers posed by European fighters returning from Syria. Media reports, following the lead of European officials, have focused on the threat to Europe. (For an example from CNN, see here.) But closer consideration of the Brussels attack and its precedents shows that threats in Europe are not necessarily threats to Europe per se: Jews (civilians) and Americans (military personnel) remain the preferred targets of Islamic terrorists who strike on the European continent.
The suspect, Mehdi Nemmouche, was arrested by customs agents in Marseille on May 30 during a routine check of a bus arriving from Amsterdam. Six days earlier, at the Jewish Museum in the central Sablon neighborhood of Brussels, a lone gunman shot dead two Israeli tourists with a revolver before coolly removing a Kalashnikov from a gym bag and killing one museum employee and fatally wounding another. Among Nemmouche’s possessions, French police discovered not only the presumed murder weapons, but also a homemade flag featuring the insignia of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the powerful al-Qaeda splinter group that now controls large swathes of both Syria and Iraq.
Only sketchy details are known thus far about the path that took the 29-year-old native of Roubaix from a juvenile career of petty delinquency to jihadist militancy and ultimately, it seems, terror. According to Paris public prosecutor François Molins, Nemmouche was convicted of no less than seven crimes—including several thefts and armed robberies—committed between early 2004, when he was 18, and the end of 2007. It was during his last and longest period of incarceration, from December 2007 to December 2012, that Nemmouche discovered and embraced radical Islam, thus confirming the longstanding reputation of French prisons as incubators of Islamic extremism.
The Making Of A Terrorist
Headshots of Nemmouche published by the French weekly Paris Match illustrate his transformation. The first photo, taken in 2007, shows a clean-cut young man with a blank stare. The photo appears to have been taken following one of his many arrests that year. In the second photo, taken in 2011 at the Toulon La Farlède penitentiary, Nemmouche has roughly the same blank stare, but he is now sporting a bushy beard trimmed precisely according to the specifications of the sharia.
In September 2011, Nemmouche is known to have written to the Sanabil association, a charity founded to provide aid to Muslim prisoners, requesting several religious texts, including “the hadiths concerning the sunna on the trimming of a beard longer than the breadth of four fingers.” The “hadiths” are accounts of the sayings and doings of Mohammed, from which is derived the sunna: the set of customary norms that are supposed to serve as a guide for pious Muslims.
Undoubtedly of greater significance for Nemmouche’s future development, he is known also to have requested texts regarding the nature of kufr or “unbelief.” The issue of what constitutes “major unbelief” (kufr akbar) as opposed to merely “minor unbelief” is a central preoccupation of the ultra-conservative “Salafist” current of Islamic thought to which al-Qaeda and its many contemporary offshoots adhere. The issue concerns not those who are kuffar or “infidels” by definition, such as Jews or Christians, but rather precisely other Muslims, who can be denounced as apostates for committing acts that exhibit “major unbelief.”
In particular, secular Arab rulers like Syrian president Bashar al-Assad—as well as a highly unorthodox Muslim ruler like the late Libyan “guide” Muammar al-Qaddafi—have long been denounced as apostates by Salafists. It is this charge of apostasy that fuels the fervor of the jihadist groups fighting to overturn Assad’s rule.
But Nemmouche was not only radicalized in prison. Judging from chronology, it would appear he was even recruited to join the Syrian jihad while in prison. If not, then he took the decision and arranged for the logistics remarkably fast. Nemmouche was released from prison on December 4, 2012. According to the account provided by the Paris public prosecutor, he left for Syria “just three weeks later.”
On March 19, 2012, while Mehdi Nemmouche was still incarcerated at the Toulon La Farlède penitentiary, a 23-year-old jihadist wannabe by the name of Mohamed Merah pulled up in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse on a stolen motorbike and proceeded to execute three Jewish children, aged three to eight, and a schoolteacher. Three days later and following a siege of some 32 hours, Merah himself would be killed by police in a shootout. A prison guard from Toulon La Farlède has told Paris-Match that Nemmouche—who otherwise declined to have a television in his cell on religious grounds—specially requested a television on that occasion so he could follow the siege.
Patterns Of Terrorism
Numerous similarities suggest that Nemmouche drew inspiration for the Brussels Jewish Museum attack from Merah’s 2012 attack on the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse: Not only the choice of targets, but also, for instance, Nemmouche’s use of a wearable “Go Pro” video camera to film his attack. Merah also used a Go Pro camera to film his attacks, in the hope that the video would be broadcast by the satellite channel Al-Jazeera. (According to his own apparent declarations in a separate video discovered by police, Nemmouche’s attempt to film his attack failed.)
The Brussels Jewish Museum attack clearly demonstrates the danger that returning jihadists represent in Europe. But especially in light of the similarities with Merah’s 2012 attack, it also reminds us that while jihadists do indeed represent a danger in Europe, the threat in question does not necessarily target Europe or European countries per se.
Individual European countries have become a target for jihadists for strategic reasons (e.g. the involvement of Spain and the UK in the US-led coalition in Iraq) or purely conjunctural ones (e.g. the publication of the “Mohammed cartoons”). In the run-up to the massacre at the Ozar Hatorah school, Merah himself killed three French paratroopers in two separate attacks: attacks he explicitly linked to the French presence in Afghanistan.
Yes, They Really Hate Us
Hostility towards Jews, however, has a more fundamental, well-nigh metaphysical significance in jihadist ideology. Perhaps only hostility toward America and Americans—with which this Jew-hatred is typically paired—has a similar status. Thus, it is notable that, apart from Merah’s killings of the French paratroopers, all the other so-called lone-wolf Islamist terror attacks that have taken place in Europe in recent years have targeted Americans or Jews: Arid Uka’s 2011 killing of American servicemen at the Frankfurt Airport, Merah’s 2012 attack on the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, and now the attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum.
Another example is provided by the so-called Sauerland Cell. The group of young German Muslim converts and Germans of Turkish origin had been stocking explosives for an attack on American military facilities in Germany when their plot was broken up in September 2007.
And then there are the numerous Islamic terror attacks around the world that have been carried out or facilitated by European-based extremists: from Bali to the Tunisian island of Djerba to New York and Washington. The 9/11 attacks, after all, were largely planned in Hamburg. If America ignores the newest generation of European jihadists being forged in the crucible of the Syrian war, it will do so at its own peril.
John Rosenthal is a journalist and political analyst who writes on transatlantic security issues, with a special focus on European-based jihadist networks. He is the author of The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion. His articles have appeared in such publications as Al-Monitor, World Affairs, Policy Review, The Weekly Standard, and The Wall Street Journal Europe, as well as numerous online media. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.