France seeks to grapple the terror

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Following the most dramatic terrorist attack in decades, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled a series of “exceptional” measures to curb radicalisation and better monitor jihadists.

In order to fight radicalisation and to prevent further terrorist attacks, in February the French Prime Minister announced “exceptional measures” to respond to “an exceptional situation”. The French government unveiled a plan aiming to “reinforce the human and technical resources of the intelligence services” and to release additional funds to support the fight against terrorism.

A total of 425 million Euros in investment loans, new equipment and recruitment will be allocated over the next three years for all counterterrorism measures, including a part of it for the protection and equipment of police officers (national and municipal) and gendarmes, bulletproof vests and advanced weaponry. In order to prevent and eliminate a potential new threat, 2.680 officers will be hired in the next three years. A little less than the half, 1.100 will be specifically in charge of the Domestic Intelligence Services. A total of 122.000 security forces will ensure the permanent protection of public places and high-risk areas while 10.500 additional troops have been deployed across France as part of the Vigipirate Plan (the France’s national security alert system).

3.000 people under surveillance

“Aware” that the “combat against terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism will be a long battle”, Manuel Valls also announced an intensive monitoring of 3.000 suspects. He underlined that the number of radicalised individuals capable of moving into action had significantly increased. About 1.300 French citizens and residents must be kept under surveillance due to their implication in terrorist networks in Syria and Iraq. If he acknowledged that the figure had soared by 130% within one year, he also reaffirmed the “determination” and “perseverance” of the French Government to fight terrorism by implementing a “coherent action” plan.

Finally and probably one of the most sensitive measures is the 60 million euros program preventing youngsters from becoming radicalised during their detention, as two of the Paris terrorists (Cherif Kouachy and Amedy Coulibaly) are believed to have turned toward extremist Islam during their incarceration. As proposed in the measure, Radical prisoners would be isolated from the others, in confinement. Furthermore, 60 new Muslim chaplains will be recruited to work alongside the existing 182 chaplains in order to prevent the threat and the spread of radicalisation, in an environment where two-third of the prison population are Muslims.

“Lone Wolves” or “Individualistic personalities”?

By unveiling these “exceptional measures”, Manuel Valls declared his own “war against terrorism” as he called it. It is precisely the “war on terror” wanted by the American President George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11 which had led hundreds of youngsters to radicalise and to take the road of the jihad toward Syria and Iraq. As vital as they are, these measures will reinforce existing laws among the strictest in Europe. However, are they sufficient to constrain radical Islam and its ideological narrative?

The attacks by the two Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly raise questions on the personality of the perpetrators and the role played by religion in their actions. Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly were known to the authorities for their delinquency acts since the early 2000s. It is not before 2005 and the prison of Fleury-Merogis that the two men met and became influenced by their mentor, the Franco-Algerian preacher Djamel Beghal (arrested for plotting an attack against the US Embassy in Paris in 2001, he represents also the tutelary figure of Mehdi Nemmouche, the suspect of the Brussel’s killings). Far from being lone wolves, Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly (but also Mehdi Nemmouche) did not shift alone in radical Islam but had been taught by extremist preachers.

From street crimes in ghettoised suburbs (the so-called French “banlieues”) to jail, Islam provides them a key to escape. However, their drastic religious shift could not be analysed only from a theological perspective. According to Olivier Roy, a French specialist of Political Islam, French jihadists are often “marginals”, mostly coming from “fragile areas” of the society, “second generation immigrants”, individualistic and “used to commit crimes”[i]. In other words, they drift away after experiencing either a generational or cultural gap with their family or facing the absence of parents[ii] combined with their lack of self-confidence and stability and their need for recognition. All these factors had led the apprentice-jihadists toward self-proclaimed Salafi preachers.

France is not facing radicalisation from one part of its society, but facing a radicalisation problem from some marginals. A handful of individuals who are able to re-socialise only with similar persons. Neither well-organised outfits, nor lone wolves, the apprentice jihadists are mostly described as “individualistic personalities” for whom only jihad matters. Religion does not necessarily have a social reality. They look for the darkest face of Islam, its global and mystic dimension which would give a justification for their acts. They proclaim their allegiance to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, embody the Caliphate and become the direct representative of the Prophet. Far from conceiving Islam as Peace, they chant Suras to justify their hatred acts. “We are avenging the prophet Muhammad, Allah Akbar”, shouted the Kouachi Brothers after their barbaric acts. They define their own jihad with a handheld camera and are killed on live TV thus becoming the “martyr” or the “hero” of a new young generation of criminals[iii]. For Olivier Roy, “there is a generational nihilism” or “suicidal nihilism” which hits “lost soul youngsters” who are fascinated by the death. We could observe it in Columbine in 1999 when two students killed their classmates while filming themselves. Similarly, al-Qaeda or Islamic State provide to these new jihadists the narrative for their acts and often for their death, which have little to do with Islam. For the author of “The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims”, Jonathan Laurence, “even under the best circumstances, you cannot prevent some very small fraction of deviate behaviour”. Referring to Columbine, he explained that “we had in the United States a school shooting and we would love to figure out a formula to identify the likely school shooter, but it is extremely hard” as it is with “terrorists”.  For the terrorists scholar, Bruce Hoffman, “the problem with terrorists is how disturbingly normal they seem”.

Can we prevent?

In the light of the aforementioned, the question of preventing further attacks has to be addressed by the French authorities and other European countries. Far from the modus operandi used by al-Qaeda and the spectacular bombings of the early 2000s, more and more small attacks such as the one on Charlie Hebdo will occur in the next following years. Affiliation to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State is viewed as less important than the ideological narrative conveyed and the impact of the act.

In many of the recent jihadist attacks against the West, the attackers were know from authorities.  However, there is a second group of potential terrorists. They are not coming from a “fragile areas” of the society or are not “second generation immigrants”. They represent around 20 percent of all the jihadists. They are educated, coming from middle-class families, and went through a process of self-radicalisation via Internet and videos, becoming more and more difficult for Intelligence services to counter this new generational trend.

Approximately 1.300 French citizens would be today involved in the jihadist outfits (either they are planning to combat or they have already returned home) and nearly one-third of them are in Syria.

Facing this threat is rather a complex challenge for French counterterrorism officials and policies. Increasing records might also present the danger of losing the real threat while monitoring the wrong target. After all, France’s security agency employs only 3.500 people and is not sufficiently equipped to address this new form of terror. After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, intelligence agencies had been criticised for their failure to monitor the Kouachi Brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, known for being potential suspects. The three friends thwarted them by adopting a low profile behaviour and thus becoming a lesser priority than others for the Intelligence services. There is no perfect terrorist profile. Even if, there is no perfect formula or effective approach to really forestall an act of terrorism.


[i] “Un Islam sans racines ni culture” by Olivier Roy. http://le1hebdo.fr/numero/40/un-islam-sans-racines-ni-culture-651.html

[ii] Kouachi’s brother were orphans, as Mehdi Nemmouche, Merah did not know his father.

[iii] Mohamed Merah had been revered in Toulouse after his acts. The recent attack in Copenhagen might have been inspired by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Author

Vanessa Gondouin-Haustein

Vanessa Gondouin-Haustein is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Reporter for ten years, Vanessa holda a Master's Degree in the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College (London), where she wrote her final dissertation on the role of the European Union towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Previously, she worked five years for the United Nations as a Press officer covering the Decolonisation and Disarmament Committees, the General Assembly meetings as well as Palestinian and the Middle East issues. She wrote about the ongoing conflict in the Western Sahara, the crisis in Libya and more recently about the 2014 War in Israel. She also received a price for a story about the Fundamentalist Mormons in Utah.

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