Three years later, Kelkal, by then 24, was France’s most-wanted man, sought in connection with a string of bombings in Paris, on the run after a summer of terror. His fingerprint was found on an unexploded gas canister, placed on a high-speed train track; in late September, mushroomers spotted him in the hills outside Lyon, just 15 miles from the housing project where he’d been raised. Two nights later, his corpse was sprawled on the pavement of a darkened rural street, a jammed pistol in his hand, the commandos of the gendarmerie prodding at him uncertainly to be sure they’d shot him dead. In his pockets were two knives, a compass, and a Koran.
The young man had joined the GIA, or Groupe Islamique Armé, jihadist insurgents battling the putschist military regime in Algeria. (For backing the generals, France was designated a target.) In prison, it appears, Kelkal had been urged back to religion by an Algerian Islamist; his recruitment to the GIA is understood to have come shortly after his release, at a moment of particular vulnerability when, despite the maturity he had evidently gained, he was without work or prospects.
In Kelkal, France and Europe might have identified a herald of what was to come, an early prototype for the weak and desperate young men, transfixed by ultra-violence and the promise of self-affirmation it contains, who are now terrorizing the continent. Be it for lack of foresight or imagination, or owing to the narrow dictates of institutional logic, or through no identifiable failing at all, they did not, and Europe today finds itself and its security services overwhelmed by an entire generation of jihadists in Kelkal’s image. Only now are the nations of the continent beginning to reckon with the notion that these men, the delinquent-radicals who appear so prominently among the thousands of Europeans who have traveled to the Syrian jihad, might have been at best underestimated and at worst created, in no small measure, by the very systems meant to protect Europe from terrorism.
More than a decade ago, American and European counterterrorism analysts had already begun to classify such men as members of a new class of fighters. “You have ‘little losers’—and that actually is the expression that was used,” said Glenn Carle, a former officer of the CIA and the National Intelligence Council, who until his retirement in 2007 spoke regularly with European counterparts. “When I met with the French services, and other French-speaking services, we talked about ‘les petits perdants’—‘little losers.’ When I met with the Spanish, we spoke of ‘los pequeños perdedores,’ the ‘little losers.’ And it wasn’t a term of art, it was the characterization that comes to mind when you look at these people.”
They were thugs and petty crooks from the grayest neighborhoods, oftentimes born to Muslim families but lacking much of any inherited knowledge of Islam. They were empty vessels, as the Islamic scholar Olivier Roy might put it, filled with the propaganda of jihad and possessed of the heedlessness to act on it. It was such “little losers” who carried out the Madrid bombings of 2004 and the murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh later that year; the London bombings of 2005; the killings of soldiers and Jews in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012; the killings at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels in 2014; the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris in January of 2015; the attacks in Paris and at the Stade de France in November of that year; and the bombings in Brussels in March.