Apr 2nd 2016 | NICE
France puts its faith in secular authorities to help fight radical Islamist ideas
IN THE 15 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, many attempts have been made to draw people away from the jihadist world-view, involving health, social and security services; national and local authorities; and secular purveyors of advice as well as religious ones.
Saudi Arabia lavishes cash on suspected terrorists who co-operate with its deradicalisation programme, setting them up with jobs, cars and even wives.
Efforts by Indonesia’s government have been intensive but snarled up in the wider problems of a corrupt prison system; as in many countries, local initiatives have done better than central ones.
In Western democracies schemes have targeted both those suspected or convicted of terrorist offences and those thought to be at risk of going down the same path.
Not only the tools, but the aims and terminology vary. Some pundits reject the term “deradicalisation”, which became popular in Europe a decade ago, because it seems focused on the individual, ignoring social context. Some make a sharp distinction with counter-radicalisation — attempting to stop people turning to violent extremism in the first place. And in many countries “countering violent extremism” has become the preferred expression for both. It is often stressed that ultra-right fanaticism must be targeted, as well as the Islamist kind.
Whatever they are called, all such programmes now face a growing challenge. By the end of 2015 the number of jihadists from western Europe fighting in Syria had doubled in just 18 months. Governments are scrambling to stop more joining them, and to deal with those who return.
As a share of population, Belgium is the western European country that has supplied the most fighters to IS. But in absolute numbers France is top. Twice targeted by Islamist terrorists and still under a state of emergency, it has turned somewhat belatedly to deradicalisation. Earlier this year it began a compulsory re-education programme in four prisons, where convicted terrorists have been grouped into special units. It is soon to open its first residential centre, for radicalised young adults. Some of the most interesting experiments, however, have emerged at the local level.
Unlikely as it may seem, Alpes-Maritimes, the department that covers the swish Côte d’Azur, has one of the biggest problems with radicalisation outside the Paris region. A short drive from the shuttered façades and palm trees of old Nice, and in the shadow of a raised motorway bearing fast cars towards nearby Monaco, grim concrete tower blocks crowd into the narrow valley. Partly thanks to the efforts of a vigorous local recruiter, Omar Omsen, at least 55 residents from Nice or nearby towns are currently fighting in Syria, including 11 members of one family. Since 2014, the department has recorded 522 alerts about newly radicalised individuals, and it recently closed five underground prayer houses suspected of preaching violent Islamism.
A year ago Alpes-Maritimes put in place a programme that has become something of a model. Thanks to local family-help organisations such as Entr’Autres, the department has trained teachers, social workers, doctors, policemen, prison officers and others to watch for signs of radicalisation and sound the alert. The basis for detection is a grid, devised by the French interior ministry. Signs range from the weak, such as a teenager who cuts himself off from his friends, to the strong, such as a pupil who defends terrorism in the classroom. A national telephone helpline for families also flags local warnings. A counter-radicalisation cell meets weekly to sift cases.
When the system works, alerts have stopped some youngsters leaving for jihad in Syria. Last year two teenage boys were hauled off a plane at Nice airport before take-off. Under French counter-terrorism laws, would-be jihadists can be forbidden from leaving the country, and their passports confiscated. Thanks to an extra €425m ($476m) for counter-terrorism in last year’s national budget, if such hard-core cases involve minors, they can be referred to counsellors.
“Some young people turn up like blocks of concrete,” says Patrick Amoyel, a psychoanalyst and co-founder of Entr’Autres. In a consulting room fitted out with a regulation couch and ample supply of cushions, he sees non-residential patients referred by the counter-radicalisation cell. Analysts follow a three-stage process. First, says Mr Amoyel, they need to forge trust. For an ordinary patient in psychoanalysis this requires a few weeks; with radicalised youngsters it can take months, if it happens at all. Next comes the attempt to “break down their ideological certainties” by finding a weak point in their armour of beliefs. Third, the putative jihadists are confronted with a “counter-discourse”, sometimes with the help of (often Muslim) mentors.
Room for doubt
“The objective is to bring someone back from the edge,” says Mr Amoyel, “from the point at which the radicalised mind turns to terrorism.” Brigitte Juy-Erbibou, co-founder of Entr’Autres, is most hopeful about the young girls, whether Muslim or converts. Some seem to be in the grip less of political Islam, she says, than of an adolescent identity crisis. But Mr Amoyel reckons there is, at best, a 50:50 chance of turning a hardened teenage boy.
Two difficulties mark the French experience. One is linked to the country’s strict secular tradition, which keeps religion out of public institutions. Alpes-Maritimes has begun, tentatively, to include local Muslim leaders. Many social workers and teachers, however, remain uncomfortable. Yet excluding religion leaves a big credibility gap. Boubekeur Bekri, an imam in a tough part of Nice, says the youngsters he tries to talk out of extremism have been “exploited by ideas that have nothing to do with our religion”, so the fact that he shares their faith is “decisive”.
The second issue, shared with other countries, touches fears about confidentiality. Those encouraged to flag trouble do so voluntarily. Yet social workers, trained in child protection, do not want to be seen as informers. There are particular worries about what happens to such information in a country that keeps intelligence files on some 10,500 Islamists and is under a state of emergency. Yet the need to step in and talk to young teenagers, long before they contemplate strapping explosives to their backs, makes it essential to look out for small early-warning signs.
Perhaps most striking, the experience in Alpes-Maritimes reveals a three-way cultural gap between the security-driven tradition of French counter-terrorism, that of psychological therapy, and scholarship on political Islam. If deradicalisation is to mean anything — and some Islamic scholars are sceptical — it needs to link all three. Even the French intelligence services now recognise that a security-driven approach is not enough.
“We should be honest,” says David Thomson, author of a book on French jihadists. “These programmes haven’t yet deradicalised anybody.” A 15-year-old girl from the French Alps recently tried to leave for Syria — after spending time in a deradicalisation programme. Mr Thomson, who is conducting research with returned jihadists, says such teenagers are typically drawn to fight through a sense of social humiliation. Working out the causes of this may be as important a part of the effort as counselling or surveillance. Deradicalisation, says one official, is a “growing industry with lots of exaggerated claims”. The aim, he says, “has to be to stop the process of radicalisation in the first place.”