France’s 20-year war on jihadists
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.