By DAVID RISING and PAISLEY DODDS, Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) — With France's deadly attacks, Islamic terror has apparently struck once more in the heart of Europe — and authorities say there's a dangerous twist: the emergence of homegrown extremists operating independent of any known networks, making them hard to track and stop.
"We have a different kind of jihadist threat emerging and it's getting stronger," Europol chief Rob Wainwright told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from The Hague. "It is much more decentralized and harder to track."
France's motorcycle gunman traumatized a nation heading into presidential elections and spread fear across the continent that the specter of al-Qaida was once again threatening daily life.
Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, sowed his terror over the course of nine days, killing paratroopers, Jewish children and a rabbi. He died Thursday in a shootout after police raided the Toulouse apartment where he had been holed up.
Merah traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and had claimed to have trained with al-Qaida there, but French authorities said Thursday they had no evidence that he had any contact with terrorist groups or that al-Qaida had ordered the killings.
Wainwright warned that Europe faces a tough challenge ahead.
Combating individuals acting in apparent isolation, he said, will take smarter measures in monitoring the Internet, better intelligence and international cooperation in counterterrorism efforts.
And he conceded there were limits to what law enforcement officials can do. "We can't police the Internet," he said.
Other European terror authorities echoed that view, saying that apprehending suspicious individuals with no clear connections to terrorist networks is legally problematic.
"We have one law for war, one law for peace, but we don't have a law for the current situation," said Alain Chouet, a former intelligence director at France's DGSE spy agency.
"If we stopped (Merah) three weeks ago, what would people have said? 'Why are you stopping him? What did he do?'"
German officials expressed the same frustration in the case of Arid Uka, a Kosovo Albanian who gunned down two American airmen and wounded two others last year at the Frankfurt airport before being captured. Aside from illegally acquiring a handgun, the 22-year-old, who was convicted last month, had committed no crime until he shot his first victim in the back of the head.
"A group preparing an attack with bombs or other instruments is running the danger of being detected," said a high-ranking German intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"A single person or a group of two, they have a greater chance of not being observed by security forces or getting tracked by police. It is very hard to find individuals like this and stop them from acting."
Some experts believe that al-Qaida's new strategy is, in fact, to stop acting like a network.
Encouraging individuals to carry out terrorist attacks, without organizing them in cells, has become integral to the terrorist organization's modus operandi, said Noman Benotman, a former jihadist with links to al-Qaida and who now works for the London-based Quilliam Foundation.
"They are part of the overall al-Qaida strategy, and they are part of the instructions — or suggestions, if you will — for groups and individuals seeking guidance or inspiration," he said.
Benotman, who maintains contact with the jihadist community, said that since the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida's strategy has evolved to include more individual attacks, rather than the heavily choreographed and expensive operations seen in the Sept. 11 attacks or the London suicide bombings in 2005.
The German intelligence official noted that al-Qaida theorist Abu Musab al-Suri published a book about 10 years ago putting forth the strategy of "leaderless resistance." The official said that with Internet propaganda, "you don't need any teacher or some other person any more to push people toward these actions."
Wainwright also sees al-Qaida's hidden influence in the France attacks.
"He was acting in line with al-Qaida inspired tactics, and although it may not have been closely coordinated, it was certainly al-Qaida inspired," he said.