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French Shootings Renew Homegrown Terrorism Worries

March 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Mohamed Merah, an accused gunman claiming ties to al-Qaida, was holed up Wednesday in an apartment in Toulouse, France. Merah is suspected in seven homicides. Margaret Warner and The New York Times' Steven Erlanger discuss France's latest terror concerns.
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TRANSCRIPT

MARGARET WARNER: And now, for more, we go to Steven Erlanger, Paris bureau chief of The New York Times.

And, Steve, hello.

What can you tell us about the latest? What’s happening down in Toulouse?

STEVEN ERLANGER, The New York Times: Well, unfortunately, the police are still surrounding the building. They have been talking to him all day, actually, since 3:00 this morning.

And they’re trying to get him to surrender because the authorities would like him alive. They’d like to put him on trial. They’d also like to interrogate him, because clearly the French missed an opportunity. They took less seriously than probably they should have someone who had been to Afghanistan and also to Pakistan twice, most recently last summer.

MARGARET WARNER: So, these connections, these alleged connections to al-Qaida and Afghanistan and Pakistan, they’re for real?

STEVEN ERLANGER: They seem to be.

I mean, no one really knows what al-Qaida is these days. But there is a lot of worry about European passport-holders born in Europe who are Muslim who for some reason get disaffected or angry, who travel on their passports to Afghanistan, Pakistan, who somehow meet up with radical Islam there, who are trained in some fashion, and then return home, where they live under constitutional protections.

And this seems to be the model. This is the homegrown terrorism that everybody worries about. He was in Afghanistan once before, probably in 2009 or 2010, and then got arrested there had and sent home. But then he went back again last August and was there for two months, we now find out, and only returned home after he got hepatitis.

So, clearly, some of what he’s saying about, you know, his interests certainly in radical Islam and possibly his training there may be true.

MARGARET WARNER: So what are the authorities saying about why, with this background — and we heard the interior minister say, well, he had been followed for a while — why he wasn’t more quickly, at least, kept — prevented, at least after the first attack, from the second attack?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, that’s a question a lot of French people are asking, because, of course, it is an election season and it is in the interests of the government to make it seem like everything was fine until it suddenly wasn’t, and they had nothing to do with what happened.

But the fact of the matter is, someone who’s gone to Afghanistan and Pakistan twice, whose brother was well-known to be active on radical Islamic groups and websites, who had been in prison in France, who himself was interested in Salafist Islam, you would think that would be somebody that would be given a little bit more attention.

The police say they only tracked him down when they discovered an email sent from his mother’s computer to his first victim, a soldier, inquiring about buying a motorbike. And then, when that clicked and they recognized the name, they suddenly thought, aha, this may be the guy, but they weren’t sure whether it was him or his brother, so they prepared the raid.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the mother, her background and her role?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, it’s hard to say. She was born in Algeria.

She says, you know, that police brought her to try to negotiate with her son. And she said there was no point because he really doesn’t listen to her anymore and he’s — he’s clearly someone who’d gotten out of parental control. He’d been in trouble with the law. He’d spent time in prison.

Like, you know, many people, he didn’t have a very good job. Life had disappointed him. Life in France probably disappointed him. He probably faced a certain degree of racism in a society that still has trouble recognizing Muslims as part of itself.

And he found meaning and strength in this idea of jihad and radical Islam. And it’s not, unfortunately, an uncommon story. What’s uncommon is that he’s taken it to such a great extent to terrorize a big city in France and to deliver a tremendous blow both to the army and also to the Jewish community of France.

I mean, France has the largest number of Jews in Western Europe, but also the largest number of Muslims also. So, intercommunity relations are very important and Muslims here are very concerned that they will again be stigmatized because of the actions of this — the apparent actions of this young man.

MARGARET WARNER: As we heard from that one young man in the taped piece.

So this of course comes in the midst of a heated presidential campaign. And immigration, I gather, has been one of the issues. How has this — what have been the reverberations of this politically?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, I think it’s going to help the president, Sarkozy, for a while.

I mean, he was always liked by the French for his law and order when he was interior minister. He likes to go to the spot. And he’s been very tough on crime. Now, he’s been blamed for pushing the rhetoric against immigrants, against halal butchering, against lots of things too far, passing this law banning the full-face veil for 2,000 women in France.

Sarkozy has been moving to the right to try to make sure he doesn’t lose out to the farther right National front, much as Francois Hollande, his socialist rival, is moving to the left for the first round to try to make sure he survives into the runoff.

But as it turns out, it’s not a person, it seems, from the far right who’s done these deeds, but someone from the Muslim community. So I’m afraid that it’s going to make anti-immigrant, harsh-on-crime, anti-Muslim rhetoric even stronger, rather than actually calm it down.

MARGARET WARNER: And would you say — is it because of the election or the economic situation that the discussion about immigration and assimilation has been particularly heated, or is this an ongoing theme, really, for years now in French society?

STEVEN ERLANGER: It has been an ongoing theme. And it’s been an ongoing theme for Nicolas Sarkozy, let’s be honest, even last summer, I think, or this — 2010.

I mean, he gave a very harsh speech in Grenoble. He was attacked for trying to push out Roma from Romania and Bulgaria who had extended their visas beyond legal limits. He talks about, you know, French identity in a way that, you know, on one level is all about secularism and constitutionality, but on another level is clearly aimed at one community, which is the Muslims.

And he’s been concentrating, it’s fair to say, on radical Islam, not on the many millions of normal people, but on the growing trend towards Salafism, to a kind of basic Islam, which is becoming very popular among disaffected youth and which has bled a little bit into this kind of violent jihadism.

So it’s an issue that he’s been on for quite a long time. He’s a little cynical about it, I think. But issues — what happens in Toulouse will make some people say, you know, I don’t like the way he says it, but the man has a point.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Steven Erlanger of The New York Times, thank you so much, as always.