France’s 20-year war on jihadists

Friday 24/07/2015
French police escort a terrorism suspect accused of decapitating his boss in an attack on a gas factory, near Lyon, in June.

Paris - Despite the French in­telligence success in uncovering a plan to at­tack a military base in southern France, secu­rity sources in Paris said the battle over deradicalisation of potential terrorists in the country could take 20 years.
The reason for this, said Yves Trotignon, a former French intel­ligence member of Direction géné­rale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE) and diplomat, is “that terrorists are inhabited simultaneously by a global project and by more local or personal claims, which makes poli­cies of deradicalisation very com­plex if not hazardous”.
Trotignon, who now works as a senior analyst in a Parisian private security and risk firm, added that “in France the security threat has always been high because it thrives not only on who we are — a secular argumentative state — but also on what we do. That is, our laws on the Islamic veil, our debates on Is­lam, our military involvement, our place in the Western world, not to mention our social situation and colonialist history.”
To make things more difficult, security sources surmise that, like British intelligence services, they are understaffed to monitor all those who represent a potential threat in France.
According to official estimates, there are 1,850 individuals in France linked to jihadists and 500 others in Syria and Iraq. Actual fig­ures could be much higher.
“Such figures are truly frighten­ing,” said Trotignon, who says he doesn’t believe in “lone wolf ter­rorists” with no direct link to a structured organisation.
He said he belongs to a school of thought in which there aren’t real lone wolves but micro terrorist cells. This evolution has been go­ing on for some time, he said, add­ing that some microcells work with a set of worksheets while others are self-activated and ask for guid­ance. There are also those who act in a totally autonomous way in the name of “the cause”, which makes the antiterrorism struggle so com­plex.
The foiled plan against a military base seems to point to the existence of microcells in France. According to Paris prosecutor François Mo­lins, the suspects, identified as Is­mael K., 17; Djebril A., 23; and An­toine F., 19, met on social network websites, became very radicalised by watching Islamic State (ISIS) videos and planned to wage jihad in Syria.
The three men had in common their age; baccalaureate diplomas, a relatively high level of education for their age; and, most important, no criminal record.
The suspects’ initial plan, which was allegedly to travel to Syria to fight alongside ISIS, hit a snag when Ismael K.’s mother became worried about the radicalisation of her son and asked French au­thorities in November 2014 to pre­vent him from travelling abroad. The authorities had one month earlier conducted an “administra­tive interview” with the teenager, according to a Paris prosecutor’s communiqué.
Figuring out that he was under surveillance and that it would be difficult for him to leave the coun­try, Ismael K., who, according to schoolmates, was highly skilled in information technology, used en­crypted messages to communicate with fellow jihadis in the making. He reportedly admitted during his interrogation that an ISIS mem­ber in Syria advised him “to hit France”.
After four days of interrogation at Direction generale de la sécurité intérieure (DGSI) headquarters, the suspects allegedly confessed to a terror plan. Based on information provided by Djebril A., who had served at a military base in south­ern France as a navy signalman before being discharged for health reasons, they decided to attack the site at the end of the year when the base would be thinly staffed.
Ismael K. and Antoine F. said they were to kill the officers at the site, behead the commanding of­ficer, film their actions and post them on the internet before fleeing to Syria.
The question yet again is: What makes young Muslims in France decide to join ISIS? French security services are focusing on economic and psychological factors while some politicians blame the inter­net, unemployment or psychologi­cal problems for the radicalisation of youngsters.
This is not enough, said Trotignon, who pointed out that the current approach is neglecting one fundamental aspect — the “as­pirations of potential jihadists”.
He said there were many factors in someone seeking to be a jihad­ist “such as a quest for a meaning to things, a desire to restructure personally, a taste for adventure, a struggle against injustices, going back to a communitarian aware­ness that is not only religious but also historical and, of course, reli­gious reasons that were sometimes very basic”.
France is not alone in this war. International cooperation is very dense and security experts point out that the terrorist threat in France can’t be disconnected from the global threat. Each theatre of operations, they say, has its own logic but all are connected, at least on a symbolic level.
This is a real war, said Trotignon, for whom it is the visible part of a redrawing of the international po­litical landscape.