He is the very model of a modern ISIS terrorist: not very smart, not very religious, certainly sadistic, hugely egotistical, a minor criminal most of his life who’s looking to kill whoever he can whenever he can to make a name for himself. The territories now held by the so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL) were his training ground but not his battleground: He was a jailor alternately torturing Western hostages and singing to them. But his sights were set on bigger Western targets. And he became such a loose Kalashnikov that, in the view of some European counterterrorism experts, even ISIS wanted to be rid of him.
Such a man, according to his victims and his prosecutors, is 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche. On May 24, the young Frenchman allegedly walked into a Jewish museum in Brussels and killed four people.
At the time, before ISIS had conquered Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, the attack evoked outrage but not hysteria. Today, amid the furor created by the realization that ISIS is redrawing the map of the Middle East, and after the horror evoked by the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, such an attack would have much more dramatic repercussions.
Over the weekend the French press published reports, unconfirmed, that when Nemmouche acted as one of the jailors for French hostages held in Syria in 2013, and possibly for the Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well, he bragged about ambitious plans to attack the July 14 Bastille Day parade in Paris.
There are many reasons to worry that ISIS will, at some point, try to carry out a major terrorist attack in Europe or the United States. (It will claim it was forced to do so by the American bombing campaigns, just as it says it was forced to behead American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.) But the immediate risk is from disorganized, undisciplined, and nonetheless very deadly characters who want to see their names go down in their own half-assed version of history.
Maybe like Nemmouche they’ve spent some “jihad tourism” time in Syria or Iraq—many hundreds of Europeans and a substantial number of Americans are believed to have done so. Or perhaps they’ve only been “inspired” by ISIS from afar. All can claim the black banner of “the Caliphate,” and in the emotionally fraught environment of today, a little terrorism goes a long way.
When President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Wednesday, not the least of his goals will be to rein in the rampant rhetoric surrounding ISIS. But it won’t be easy. Obama would rather talk about “managing” ISIL than “destroying” or “defeating” it—words he has used but with obvious reluctance. In classic Obama fashion, he wants to keep his options open, only to discover he’s lost control of the narrative altogether.
Veteran terrorism expert Brian Jenkins notes the alarmism in Washington has reached such proportions, there’s a kind of “shock and awe in reverse.” Thus, as Jenkins writes, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proclaims ISIS is an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” A congressional staffer argues that it is “highly probable ISIS will…obtain nuclear, chemical, biological or other weapons of mass death…to use in attacks against New York [or] Washington.” Texas Governor Rick Perry claims there is a “very real possibility” that ISIS forces may have crossed the U.S.-Mexican border. Senator James Inhofe asserted, “We are in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation,” and retired Marine four-star Gen. John Allen goes so far as to say, “World War III is at hand.”
All this plays to the advantage of the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose ragtag army conquered a huge swathe of Iraq mainly by filling the vacuum left by incompetent Iraqi government military commanders. The conquest—and the reaction to it—have given him an aura of invincibility that holy-warrior wannabes find quite thrilling.
“Foreign fighters in particular are attracted to the ISIS version of jihad,” says Jenkins. Many different motives may apply, but “personal crisis appears to be a major factor in self-recruitment. Some recruits admit that their old lives sucked.”
Large numbers of those who traveled to Syria to join the fight against the Assad regime in 2012 and 2013 wound up drifting into the ranks of ISIS because it “provides an opportunity to live in a caliphate and to be on the winning side as opposed to being on the run,” says Jenkins. “But unlimited violence—the chance to avenge past insults, to fulfill every violent fantasy–is obviously what ISIS propaganda thinks will resonate most with its potential recruits. And recruits attracted by violence are precisely the kind ISIS is most likely to now get.”
Nemmouche is just that kind of guy. French journalist Nicolas Hénin of the magazine Le Point, and other former hostages released in recent months, say they were held last year in the Syrian city of Aleppo in an old hospital turned prison. Other foreign captives reportedly were with them, including Foley, Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines, who is now threatened with the ISIS knife. Four of the former French captives have identified Nemmouche as one of their guards. They say he beat many prisoners, sometimes torturing them through the night until the dawn prayer.
Hénin told a press conference over the weekend that Nemmouche was known as “Abu Omar the Hitter,” and would brag about raping a woman before cutting her throat and decapitating her child. “It’s such a pleasure to cut off a baby’s head,” he is supposed to have said. He is also supposed to have serenaded his captives with his own rendition of Charles Aznavour love songs.
But at some point Nemmouche appears to have fallen out with ISIS, or perhaps he just got bored or ISIS commanders decided he was too unreliable. French criminologist Alain Bauer says “ISIS did not like him at all.” Bauer compares him to Zacarias Moussaoui, sometimes called “the 20th hijacker” from the 9/11 plot, who was so crazy that al Qaeda leadership didn’t know what to do with him.
In any case, Nemmouche made his way back to Europe, and even though he was on a French watch list, and might have been picked up if he’d landed in his native France, he managed to travel easily through other European countries with open borders. When he got to Brussels, he allegedly walked into the Jewish museum in the center of the city and sprayed anyone he saw with bullets from his Kalashnikov.
Then Nemmouche boarded a bus en route from Amsterdam to Marseilles, apparently unconcerned that customs officials at the point of arrival routinely search for drugs. And when they did stop him and look in his luggage what did they find? A Kalashnikov with a retractable stock and 261 bullets; a .38 revolver with 57 bullets; a black hood; a pair of black gloves; a gas mask; a white bed sheet on which he’d used a marking pen to write in Arabic: “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.” And, of course, almost inevitably, a Go-Pro camera with which he planned to make videos of his exploits.
Nemmouche is now awaiting trial in Belgium. Clearly, he was a fool, as many criminals are. But he was a deadly one in May, and with many others like him at large, it is only a matter of time before one of them strikes again. Bombing Iraq and Syria will not stop them and probably will not deter them. Neither will boots on the ground. They are a problem that will have to be managed, as best the West can do, for many years to come.