For more than a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, France avoided the spectacular plots, attributed to al-Qaida or its sympathizers, that shocked Britain, Spain and Germany.
But the string of killings that led to a police standoff Wednesday with a suspect in Toulouse seems to have much in common with those episodes: an alleged assailant born into an immigrant community, who was radicalized during travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan; a local group of like-minded extremists; and a failure by security forces to head off a threat despite their knowledge of the suspect.
Mohammed Merah, the 24-year-old man believed to have killed three French soldiers before attacking a Jewish school in Toulouse, is a French citizen of Algerian extraction. Reports on Wednesday said he had traveled more than once to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he may have been arrested and imprisoned in Kandahar.
When he returned to France, Merah became involved with a group of up to 15 extremists, authorities said. He also managed to accumulate weapons, including rifles, material for bombs and the .45-caliber handgun with which he allegedly executed the soldiers as well as three French-Israeli children and a rabbi.
Like al-Qaida's bombing of the Madrid subway in 2004, the Toulouse attacks come shortly before a crucial election. It's not clear how they will affect the chances of President Nicolas Sarkozy, a center-right leader who has been trailing a Socialist opponent in a campaign focused until now on economic issues.
Sarkozy has been tougher than challenger Francois Hollande on the subject of immigrant communities in France. But questions may be raised about why police did not stop Merah, when authorities have acknowledged they knew of his background and had him under surveillance.
Far-right leaders are seeking to exploit the tragedy, with presidential candidate Marine Le Pen claiming that "politico-religious fundamentalist groups" are "developing in a lax climate" in France. In fact, Sarkozy's government has not done enough to improve conditions for young French Muslims who often live in immigrant ghettos.
Merah reportedly told the police besieging him that his killings were meant as revenge for the ban on the public use of the Islamic veil, which was supported by Sarkozy. Though such policies don't explain or excuse the attacks, more discrimination against Muslim communities is hardly the right response.
Merah also claimed he attacked the Jewish school to avenge Palestinian children killed by Israel. This brought the best response of a terrible week, from Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
"It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life," Fayyad said.
We don't expect al-Qaida and its converts to respect his words — but they are a welcome step forward for a Palestinian leader.
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