Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Terror hits the Hexagon

A new book by France’s leading analyst of Islamist terrorism provides the background to last November’s Paris attacks, writes David Tresilian

Terror hits the Hexagon
Terror hits the Hexagon
Al-Ahram Weekly

French writer Gilles Kepel needs no introduction to Weekly readers, both because of his long career as one of France’s most distinguished commentators on the contemporary Islamist movements and because of the many times he has appeared in the newspaper’s own pages. Kepel’s first book, The Prophet and the Pharaoh, appeared in 1984 and was a study of the armed Islamist movements in Egypt. One of his last, Quatre-vingt-treize, an examination of the deprived suburbs to the north of Paris that have provided ground for the French Islamist movements, was reviewed in the Weekly in March 2012.

Kepel has published a new book, Terreur dans l’Hexagone, which, written with French sociologist Antoine Jardin, gives his thoughts on last year’s terrorist atrocities in Paris. It looks particularly at the decade from 2005 to 2015, in other words from the riots that swept the suburbs surrounding many French cities in late October and early November 2005 to the first of last year’s Paris atrocities. Twelve people died in an attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie hebdo and a further four were killed at a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris in January 2015.

These attacks were among the worst to have taken place in France in living memory, and they were followed by protest marches across the country, including one of some two million people in Paris on 11 January led by French president François Hollande. A further 130 people died in similar terrorist attacks on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris and nearby bars and restaurants and at the Stade de France football stadium north of the capital on 13 November.

It is these attacks and the earlier 2005 riots that bookend Kepel’s discussion of “terror in the Hexagon,” an account of French jihadist terrorism by one of its best-known students. Much discussed in France since its appearance earlier this year, the book has also led to some fierce academic squabbling. An article in the New York Times on 13 July described a “bitter feud” between Kepel and fellow French academic Olivier Roy over the societal and religious determinants of jihadism in France, referring readers to Kepel’s arguments in Terreur dans l’Hexagone.

Whereas Kepel had sought to understand French jihadism by referring to the writings of extremist Islamist thinkers, among them the Syrian extremist Abu Musab al-Suri, Roy had taken a less intellectualised approach, the paper commented. Those who committed the 2015 Paris attacks were not intellectuals and had not as much as opened a book by al-Suri, it quoted Roy as saying. For him, “the terrorists … were mostly marginalised young men and petty criminals who used Islam as a cover to pursue extremist violence.” There was no need to excavate their reading lists or ideological backgrounds.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case might be, Kepel’s book is more sociological in emphasis than the article implies. He says that the perpetrators of the 2015 attacks were all either born and raised in France or in neighbouring Belgium, meaning that they were all either French or Belgian citizens. Though they sometimes referred to the situation in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, they were not refugees or foreigners. That being so, it makes sense, he says, to look at the circumstances in which they grew up in France and to treat them as members of a common generation.

All of them were born in the late 1980s in the wake of the so-called Marche des Beurs (March of the Arabs) in 1983 that first drew broad attention to the discrimination faced by young people of particularly North African origin in France. Many left school with few or no qualifications and then fell into petty crime before being radicalised in prison.

Most of them were in their late twenties when they committed their crimes, and they entered adult life in the years following the 2005 riots at a time when France and the wider world were undergoing important changes. At the same time a new generation of young people of North African and African origin was growing up in France that had fewer links to their parental countries of origin. Many of these young people found themselves largely shut out of a shrinking job market. But the fact that they had been born and raised in France meant that they were perhaps readier than their parents had been to engage in political participation.

This generation was the first “since the immigrant population of Muslim descent first established itself in France” to participate significantly in parliamentary and presidential elections, Kepel says. “Not only did it turn out massively to vote, but it also fielded hundreds of candidates.” While it failed to prevent the election of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, who had at times leaned towards ideas associated with the extreme-right National Front Party, in 2012 it turned out en masse to vote for Socialist Party candidate François Hollande as the country’s president.

“Hollande’s narrow electoral victory in 2012 owed much to the votes of people defining themselves to pollsters as ‘Muslims,’ turning out in force against his adversary,” Kepel comments. It would be too much to say that there was a “Muslim vote” in 2012, he thinks, but there was certainly a “vote of Muslims.”

Looked at in this light, two distinct developments seem to have been converging in the period that forms the core of Kepel’s study. On the one hand, there was the appearance of a “third generation” of French Muslims born in the 1980s and distinct from the first generation before 1989 and the second generation from 1989 to 2005 that had been marked, if not by political quietism, then at least by a reluctance to participate directly in politics and French elections.

On the other hand, there was the appearance of extremist ideas often originating in the Middle East or Southwest Asia and assisted by social breakdown in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. These ideas spread among some disaffected French young people of Muslim background and were incubated particularly through the Internet, extremist religious or other associations, and in prisons. They were given additional impetus by the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions during which in some cases radical Islamist movements fought against what they considered to be impious regimes.

THIRD GENERATION: It is important to put these things together because the young, mostly French men of North African or African descent who committed last year’s terrorist atrocities in Paris were members of Kepel’s “third generation”.

Alienated from the society in which they had entered adult life in the years after the riots in 2005, these young men seem to have considered themselves to have been marginalised socially and economically, in many cases falling into chaotic lifestyles or petty crime. They became easy prey for those peddling extremist ideas, sometimes being further radicalised either by periods spent in prison or by jihadist trips abroad.

Kepel’s book contains illuminating pages on the case of Lunel, for example, a small town in southern France that has been dubbed the “capital of French jihadism” because of the large number of young men from the town who have travelled to Syria in order to fight for Islamic State (IS) or other terrorist organisations. He describes a situation of social and economic frustration in the area, with some 40 per cent of young people of African or North African descent being unemployed or unable to find stable employment.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to see how a feeling of victimhood could take root among young people convinced that their lack of opportunities is due to prejudice on the part of the wider society or “Islamophobia” against them. Taken together, these high rates of unemployment and feelings of victimhood or rejection by the wider society have led in some cases to a “breaking off of relations” with French society, Kepel says, and a search for alternative forms of belonging in extremist interpretations of Islam peddled on the Internet, by some radical Islamist preachers, or in correctional facilities or prisons.

Terreur dans l’Hexagone is an ambiguous book, giving enormous cause for optimism as well as for concern. On the one hand, it describes the successful integration of successive generations of French Muslims of North African and African backgrounds into the wider French population, marked by ever-increasing rates of upward social mobility and, most recently, direct political participation.

On the other, it presents an unfortunately all-too-familiar picture of high rates of social exclusion and marginalisation among sections of the French population that suffer disproportionately from reduced life-chances, poor housing and education, and periods of under- or unemployment. While Kepel’s “third generation” of French Muslims has mobilised impressively to divert more attention and resources to such sections of the population, Hollande’s term in office as president has in general been a disappointment to them.

While his administration has made some progress in areas of social modernisation, attempting to bring France into line with European standards in areas such as marriage, divorce, and child-rearing, it has failed to make any dent on unemployment or integration. Though the ambitious programme of urban renovation announced in the wake of the 2005 riots has resulted in the demolition of some of the worst housing estates and the building of other new ones, it has not resulted in improvements to the life-chances of those who live in them. As is so often the case in France, the programme has also in the main been carried out in a dirigiste, top-down manner with little local decision-making

There is a danger that it will thus result simply in more Potemkin villages erected at public expense but without meaningful public participation. Kepel’s conclusion is that though the populations of such areas were encouraged to turn out to vote for Hollande in the 2012 presidential elections in the best traditions of American-style “community organising,” so disappointing has his term in office been that this is unlikely to happen again in next year’s presidential elections when Hollande is standing for re-election.

Meanwhile, for those extremists who have already “broken off relations” with France, so great have their feelings of victimhood or alienation in some cases been that a new strategy of jihadist terrorism has already made its appearance. Whereas in the past acts of terror tended to be centrally directed, as seems to have been the case on 9/11 when the attacks on New York and Washington were planned by Al-Qaida operatives taking instruction from abroad, today they seem to be carried out by individuals or groups of individuals acting on an ad hoc basis in line with a general strategy aiming to spread a maximum of terror and confusion.

Kepel calls this “rhizome jihadism,” or “network jihadism,” commenting that it is “able to operate beneath the radar and turn the enemy’s children, whether adopted or natural, against it. It is thus the very opposite of the centralised, almost Leninist model followed by [former Al-Qaida leader Ossama] Bin Laden. [Syrian extremist Abu Musab] al-Suri summarises it in a formula that has been doing the rounds of the jihado-sphere: nizam, la tanzim, or ‘system, not organisation’.”

It is this kind of terrorism, employing a network of individuals acting independently of central direction but in line with an overall strategy aiming to spread as much fear and confusion as possible among the wider population, that he thinks we saw at work in Paris on two occasions last year and earlier this year in Brussels.

Gilles Kepel & Antoine Jardin, Terreur dans l’Hexagone, Gallimard: Paris, 2015, pp330.

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