The killing spree by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse, France, that left seven dead in a little more than a week and culminated in Merah's own death as he jumped through the window of his apartment, is an eerie reminder of the War on Terror. It has come when we thought that religious terrorism was a thing of the past.
It is true that the large organized operations characterized by al Qaeda have diminished, and many of its leaders are dead. Yet the elements of imagined cosmic war still exist in the minds of many lone wolf warriors.
In the case of Merah, at one time in his life he had attempted to join the French Foreign Legion and was rejected. He was a warrior in search of a war, and he found it in imagined warfare. This was the jihadi rhetoric of the great moral struggle between good and evil, between his view of Islam and the secular culture of France.
Real wars also played a role in his thinking, to be sure. The French support for the American-directed war against the Taliban in Afghanistan loomed large in his concerns. His attack on French soldiers was said to have motivated, in part, by the French government's support for the American operations in Afghanistan. Jews were targeted in part because he saw Israel's treatment of Palestinian Muslims as an attack on Islam.
His imagined war was more personal than these political grievances, however. The great jihadi struggle gave him a role. He became a warrior, something that he was not able to achieve through other means.
This is a common pattern among activists involved in religious terrorism. The cosmic war of great religious struggle provides an imagined arena of conflict for warriors in search of a role. It appeals to former soldiers abandoned by wars that have come to an end, and it appeals to want-to-be warriors like Merah.
Some of the best known jihadi terrorists were part of the 1980s Afghan struggle of the Muslim mujahidin against the Soviet occupation. Osama bin Laden went to the battlefield to establish a guest house for foreign Muslim fighters drawn to the region. He called the hostel al Qaeda, "the base." Among the foreign fighters drawn to the Afghan conflict was an Egyptian, Mahmud Abouhalima, who later lived in the United States, where he became one of the chief organizers of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
Timothy McVeigh, the American terrorist who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995, was a frustrated former American soldier who had served in the Gulf War, and who was reported to be disconsolate and lost when the war was over. His life was given renewed meaning in discovering the cosmic war of Christian activists against the imagined evils of secular politics in the United States.
Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish terrorist who killed scores of innocent Muslims praying at the interfaith Shrine of the Cave of the Patriarch in the West Bank city of Hebron, had formerly served in the Israeli army. Rev Michael Bray, an anti-abortion activist who was alleged to have been the author the Army of God handbook, had enlisted in the American military but was not able to complete his training. The Christian anti-abortion war gave him his own battlefield.
What is compelling about the idea of cosmic war is that it is both social and personal. It relates to great political issues. But it also provides individuals with a goal and purpose in life. And for many otherwise lost souls, this is a significant source of meaning indeed.
It is said that Mohammed Merah, the Toulouse killer, sought out al Qaeda. This was not a case of a sophisticated international terrorist organization placing its operatives in unlikely cases such as Toulouse.
Rather, Merah was like the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who sought training from the al Qaeda leader, Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. He was also like Faisal Shahzad, the New York City Times Square attempted bomber who, on his own, travelled to Pakistan for training. They sought out the purposefulness of war.
For Merah, Abdulmutallab and Shahzad, the grand scenarios of cosmic war gave them not only political clarity but also meaningful personal roles. Alas, these roles were short-lived. They were also violent and sad.