Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Why Paris?

For the second time this year the French capital has been targeted by Islamist terrorists, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week’s Islamist terrorist attacks on the French capital, in which at least 129 people died and some 352 were wounded, was the second time this year that Paris has been the victim of such attacks, leading to renewed soul-searching about the causes of the radicalisation of the young French Muslims behind the attacks and what more can be done to counter them.

In January, 17 people died when Islamist gunmen opened fire at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a Jewish supermarket in Paris. The deaths, the work of French nationals of North African descent Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, a French national of West African descent, shocked France and led to a march of one and a half million people through central Paris in protest at the attacks and in solidarity with the victims.

The march was an impressive outpouring of national unity in the face of the violence and the problem of religious and political extremism in France. Thousands of banners read “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) as a way of expressing solidarity with those who died, along with others reading “Je suis musulman” (I am Muslim) and “Jihadistes, arrêtez de caricature le Prophète” (Jihadists, stop caricaturing the Prophet).

Charlie Hebdo was attacked because of its publication of cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohamed and the Muslim religion, while the Jewish supermarket was apparently at least in part targeted in retaliation for Israeli actions against Palestinians.

Following the January attacks, questions were asked both about the reasons for the radicalisation of some members of France’s young Muslim population, leading them to carry out extreme acts of violence, and what can be done to treat the problem at its roots and not simply by repression.

The problem has been exacerbated by the presumed or proven affiliation of young French extremists with international Islamist terror movements, including the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, and their receiving training and weapons from such groups either in France or abroad. Both the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly had links with international Islamist terrorist movements and had trained with them abroad.

In 2012, Mohamed Merah, also a young French-born Muslim of North African extraction, killed seven people in the southern French city of Toulouse, including three Jewish schoolchildren, before being killed by the security forces.

In August this year, a 25-year-old Moroccan man living in Europe, Ayoub Al-Khazzani, attempted to carry out a terrorist attack on a train crossing the border from Belgium to France, but was overpowered by three American passengers.

Last week’s attacks in Paris were the most serious in France in living memory, and overshadow previous episodes of Islamist violence in the country. Once again, French nationals of North African origin, this time claiming affiliation with IS, were responsible for the attacks.

Ismail Omar Mostefai and Samy Amimour carried out the attack on the Bataclan music hall in central Paris in which at least 89 people died, and Bilal Hadfi and Ahmad Al-Mohamed, the first also a French national, carried out the failed suicide bombings of the Stade de France football stadium north of Paris.

Ibrahim Abdelsalam, a French national, blew himself up at the Comptoir Voltaire restaurant in the city’s eleventh district. His brother, Salah Abdelsalam, also believed to have been involved in the attacks, is still being sought by police.

The men are believed to have travelled to Syria over the past five years to receive training at the hands of IS and are linked to Molenbeek, a predominantly North African and African suburb of Brussels.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, information was appearing in the French press on the backgrounds and individual circumstances of the eight men who carried out the attacks, with a depressingly familiar picture emerging.

Most were born in France, not always in particularly deprived circumstances and usually in small towns or city suburbs. Most seem to have had ordinary childhoods, only falling into delinquency in adolescence or later, and then becoming progressively more and more radicalised.

Mostefai, 29 years old, one of the terrorists who killed at least 89 people at the Bataclan concert hall in northeastern Paris, was born in the town of Courcouronnes outside Paris, later living in Chartres until at least 2012.

He fell into petty crime in adolescence, apparently left school with no qualifications, and seems to have had no significant work experience. He may have travelled to Syria between 2013 and 2014, presumably for training with IS.

Amimour, 28 years old, also responsible for the killings at the Bataclan concert hall, was born in Drancy outside Paris and worked for a time for the Paris Transport Authority. He was arrested in 2012 in connection with a terrorist plot in Yemen and then disappeared from the radar in 2013.

Ibrahim Abdelsalam, 31 years old and a resident of Brussels, was a convicted drug dealer and petty criminal. His brother Salah, 26 years old, has a similarly chaotic record and is a convicted criminal and drug dealer.

The criminal backgrounds of the terrorists, all young men in their late twenties or early thirties, has drawn attention once again to the path from “delinquency to radicalisation to terrorism,” as French President François Hollande put it in his speech to the French parliament on Monday.

“It is painful to say but these were French citizens who killed other French citizens,” Hollande said. “Individuals who, living on our soil, went to fight in Syria or Iraq and often formed networks that helped each other depending on circumstances.”

While the authors of the terrorist attacks seem to have been marginalised by French society, their radicalisation seems to have taken place as a result of the added ingredient of the ideology of IS.

France’s Muslim population, chiefly of North African or West African origin and reflecting the ethnic composition of its former colonies, suffers disproportionately from exclusion, with young people of North African or African descent being more likely than their white peers to be unemployed or live in the often grim housing estates that ring some French cities.

Such problems of social and economic exclusion among some young French Muslims have not been helped by the perception that France as a whole sees such young people as a problem, accusing them of lacking the will to integrate themselves into the wider society. However, moves have been made, particularly since the 2005 riots that burned down suburban areas across France, to remedy some of the worst aspects of such exclusion.

In order for juvenile delinquency to turn into radicalisation and eventually terrorism, as Hollande put it in his speech this week, the added component of the extremist ideology of IS and other such groups is needed.

IS released a statement on Saturday claiming responsibility for the attacks, saying that “eight brothers wearing explosive belts and carrying assault rifles attacked sites carefully chosen in the heart of Paris” because of the French campaign against IS in Syria and because Paris is “the world capital of abomination and perversion.”

Commentators in the French media have long warned of the potentially explosive situation in many French suburbs that house large numbers of people of North African and African origin and have long been seen as segregated from the rest of society.

While the residents of such suburbs have become used to the atmosphere of crime and violence reigning in them, politicians across the political spectrum in France are now ramping up the ideological battle against Islamist radicalisation.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s attacks, French Socialist Party Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on television that he wants to “expel all radical Muslim imams” from France. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that legislation will soon be passed to “close down mosques suspected of hate speech.”

With presidential elections on the horizon in France in 2017, French politicians have been bidding up the stakes, sometimes in ways apparently calculated to exacerbate the climate of fear that has already taken hold in some French cities.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of Les Républicains, the main centre-right political party and a likely frontrunner in the elections, said at the weekend that the measures proposed to counter further Islamist terrorism in France were “insufficient” and demanded the immediate imprisonment of all French nationals being monitored by the police as potential threats to security.

Extreme-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen said at the weekend that all “radical mosques” in France should be closed and police patrols beefed up in the country’s troubled suburbs.

“A certain number of terrorists have slipped in among the migrants” entering France as part of a European Union plan to distribute refugees from the conflict in Syria across the continent, she said.

Le Pen is notorious for her hostility to Muslims and Islam, and there are fears that both the Front National and Sarkozy’s Les Républicains will use last week’s attacks for political purposes, stoking up Islamophobia and making life more difficult for French Muslims.

A poisonous climate is being created of economic and social exclusion among some young French Muslims, mixed with the extremist ideology offered by IS and similar groups and calls from some French politicians for even harsher measures than those already adopted by Hollande’s Socialist Party government.

Returning to France from abroad last weekend, one long-term observer of the country commented on the morose atmosphere of fear and suspicion now reigning in the French capital.

“We had got used to military patrols in railway stations, armed police on the streets, airport-style metal detectors at the Louvre Museum and other cultural institutions, and the racial profiling of those stopped for their papers on the streets,” he said.

“But now the situation is likely to become even worse, with some people thinking twice before going out to a restaurant, a music concert, or a bar as a result of the killings of the innocent people sitting on the café terraces of the 11th district of Paris last week.”

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