There’s little doubt that the presumed June 4 killing of al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, by an American drone in Pakistan would constitute a major victory in the drive to destroy the terrorist organization’s traditional leadership. Yet even as repeated losses in the Afghan-Pakistani border region have battered the top of al-Qaeda’s pyramid, new examples of difficult-to-detect threats continue to multiply from its much broader base. This week, as new allegations arose that French and foreign intelligence services failed to appreciate the terrorism threat posed by extremist Mohamed Merah before he launched his March killing spree in Toulouse, French security officials tell TIME that a growing number of aspiring jihadis appear to be sharing Merah’s stealthy route toward violent radicalism.
“These are people who, like Merah, progress into radicalism largely on their own, then decide to travel to Pakistan by their own means for what they expect will be training and confirmation as true jihadi,” says a high-ranking French antiterrorism official. “In contrast to earlier waves, these newer volunteers are organizing trips by themselves, without help from extremist networks that set things in the past. That obviously makes identifying these new radicals and their intentions more difficult — and intervening to interrupt their travel and training plans, a bigger challenge.”
To be sure, the number of young men involved in such activities in France and across Europe remains limited — involving perhaps a score of budding extremists from countries like Britain, Germany or Italy at any given time. Indeed, while the destinations of those seeking to reach the “lands of jihad” have altered over time and as conflicts have shifted (initially it was Afghanistan, then Iraq via Syria and now largely Yemen and Afghanistan again), the overall flow of would-be militants from Europe to al-Qaeda havens has not significantly increased apart from spurts here and there.
What’s different now is that many young radicals appear to be eschewing the help and patronage of recruitment networks that previous generations of extremists relied on to arrange transport, contacts and falsified documents. That’s a confounding development because intelligence services have long monitored these facilitators to identify, intercept and arrest new volunteers before they managed to be transported to and trained in al-Qaeda hot spots.
“The do-it-yourself approach means that, in many cases, we won’t get the chance to learn about the trajectory and intentions of these people before they turn up in Pakistan, where — we hope — they’ll be spotted and identified by intelligence services,” the official says. “Once they’re detected in that region, the game is pretty much up. It’s not too likely that a young French-Muslim man will be going to the tribal regions of Pakistan or off into Afghanistan to take in the sights and sample the cooking. The few who might will find themselves the subject of great attention nevertheless.”
Or at least they will now — and for tragic reasons. It was Merah’s claim that his November 2011 trip to Pakistan was purely for tourism that led French intelligence officials to decide that the young extremist posed no serious security threat — and was probably no more than an antisocial flake who’d redirected previous criminal behavior into hardcore Islam. Merah’s Toulouse shooting spree, which killed seven people and ended with his own death during a gun battle with police, proved just how fatal an error that intelligence analysis was. In reality, Merah had traveled last year to North Waziristan, a main Taliban and al-Qaeda base of operations in Pakistan. It was there that he received an intense crash course in arms training, which he put to lethal use in his strikes in and around Toulouse just four months after convincing his intelligence handler that he’d been taking in the sights of Lahore, Pakistan.
Public anger in France over that intelligence failure was compounded by revelations that Merah had staged prior trips to the region — and at one point was deported from Afghanistan as a probable security threat. That consternation got even worse with other troubling revelations in the pending book, The Merah Case: An Investigation. Its authors report that U.S. spooks had detected Merah’s presence in Waziristan during his trip, based on Internet use and a phone call made to a contact number for an extremist group. French intelligence authorities have said they were only given that information from their American colleagues in the days following Merah’s death. In the meantime, however, the U.S. had placed Merah on a no-fly list. Finger-pointing aside, it appears clear that some degree of communication and intelligence failures allowed Merah to avoid detection for as long as he did.
That’s why French authorities are now studying the lessons of Merah’s movements and actions to adapt to the evolving terror threat. As part of that, they’re taking note of extremists they’ve managed to identify who are radicalizing themselves and preparing trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan on their own, just as Merah did. And since those would-be jihadis aren’t inclined to tip their hand by seeking assistance from networks known for helping recruits go abroad for training, experts are having to rely on the inevitability of such trips as their best shot of spotting people likely to pose a threat once they’re back home.
“We see newer radicals sharing the view of earlier generations that trips to Pakistan-Afghanistan are an obligatory rite of passage and a commitment to something there’s no backing away from,” says the French official. “They regard the contacts and training they receive in the region as spiritually, ideologically and psychologically essential to prepare for jihadist activity to follow. It’s getting harder to detect preparations for those trips and prevent them, but opportunity to identify extremists [from Europe] arises when they turn up there.”
Unlike the true lone-wolf terrorist — who keeps his radicalization and plans for violence entirely to himself — aspiring extremists of Merah’s generation appear to avoid contacts at home but require guidance and nurturing in theaters of jihad. Given that, officials are now looking in those areas as the place to battle al-Qaeda and its backers at both the summit of the organization and at its devolved but still dependent base.