Wrong Assumptions: Integration, Responsibility, and Counterterrorism in France

January 22, 2015

As the dust and emotions still settle over the attacks by jihadists in Paris, there has been a great deal of commentary on the lessons we should derive from this tragedy. The focus has largely been on free speech, integration, intelligence failures, and the competing claims of responsibility by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). So what lessons should we draw?

A Matter of Integration?

The debate immediately focused on the integration (or, better, lack thereof) of Muslims within France and, by extension, European Muslims. American commentators and President Obama himself were particularly focused on this issue. Some on the political right pushed a grotesque narrative depicting large chunks of European cities as “no-go” Muslim areas, sharia-controlled mini-caliphates over which European authorities have lost all control. Many on the left depicted European Muslims as disenfranchised minorities plagued by poverty, unemployment, and widespread discrimination who have to cope with regular harassment from street thugs and growing xenophobic parties.

Some of these concerns are legitimate. There are unquestionably major issues regarding the integration of Muslims in Western Europe. Unemployment rate, educational gaps, and income disparity clearly show extremely troubling challenges. And beyond the cold numbers, anybody that travels around Europe can easily perceive these problems.

Yet the integration issue is often overstated by commentators. Media organizations on the right and the left have projected their own caricatured versions of French Muslims. Indeed, there are problems of exclusion, but anybody familiar with French society knows that there is a sizeable and growing Muslim middle class. This trend is reflected with different degrees of intensity across European Muslim communities. On the other side, the rhetoric (particularly in some quarters of the U.S. debate) about the French suburbs (banlieues) often populated by large minority communities) is largely exaggerated. It is undeniable that areas like Les Minguettes in Venissieux (Lyon) or Clichy sous Bois (outside of Paris) are not exactly St. Tropez or central Paris. But they are not the lawless and squalid “no-go” zones they are often made out to be. In fact, based on crime rates, health care, education, and public transportation, the banlieues are actually significantly better off than neglected cities and communities in the United States.

What is really interesting is the assumption that poor integration causes radicalization. It seems intuitive and sensible, but is it true? Several studies seem to disprove the connection. A recent and extensive study conducted at Queen Mary University on a relatively large sample of young British Muslims, for example, showed that those most at risk of radicalization were 18- to 20-year-olds involved in advanced education from wealthy families who spoke English at home.

An analysis of radicalization cases throughout Europe clearly shows these dynamics. Let’s take France. Unquestionably the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly all shared a similar background characterized by crime and social exclusion. So do many other French jihadists. But is exclusion really the cause of their radicalization? If so, what explains the fact that the vast majority of French Muslims who hail from the same underprivileged background never get involved in militancy or even activism? We can even look to other members of the Coulibaly family, who hardly became radical.

Moreover, if we look at the backgrounds of many other French jihadists, we do not find many traces of the exclusion allegedly suffered by the Kouachis and Coulibaly. See for example what a 27-year old Parisian currently fighting in Syria (where he traveled alongside his wife and two daughters) told France 24 about his background:

I gave up everything to come here. I had good professional prospects. I earned about 3,000 euros per month. I had to let go of everything. This is how Allah judges our sincerity. I’m not sure what was the trigger. Everything happened gradually. Early in the Syrian conflict, in 2011, I resented the world’s indifference toward my Muslim brothers. At first I did not know what to think. In French mosques, you cannot talk about it. They just teach you to perform your ablutions. They ask you to be respectful. They never talk about the context of confrontation. Islam calls for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I only learned that on the Internet, when I started watching videos and listening to bin Laden’s sermons. You can call it “religious radicalisation” – I call it “awareness”…. A month before my departure, I could not sleep anymore. Allah made me realise that my land was no longer here in France. I had to go to Syria to atone for my sins. Before that, I used to go to nightclubs, I drank alcohol, I was a man of this world – only interested in possessions. Now, jihad has become an obligation.

Dounia Bouzar, director of the Centre for Prevention Against Islamic Sectarianism, recently published the results of her study of 160 French families that had contacted her center seeking help with their children’s radicalization. She found that two thirds of the families were middle class. Moreover, according to another study, 23% of French jihadists in Syria are converts. Discrimination against Muslim immigrants could hardly be seen as the factor triggering the radicalization of this sizeable cross section of French jihadists. If we add to that that many French converts hail from affluent families (see for example this interesting New York Times article on radicalization in the town of Lunel, in which one of the individuals profiled is the son of a Jewish engineer who grew up in a comfortable home with a swimming pool recently died in Syria), we see that in many cases socio-economic issues are equally irrelevant to explain radicalization processes.

There is one additional point. Two months before the Paris attacks we saw two attacks in Canada: one on Canadian soldiers in Quebec and the other in the Parliament area in Ottawa. But in this case, there was almost no debate about integration of Muslims in Canada, and rightly so (and that is not just because both perpetrators were converts). If a handful of individuals who represent the smallest fraction of a community numbering in the millions perpetrate an attack, it does not warrant bringing into question the integration of the entire community (assuming there is such a thing as a single Muslim community in France, Canada or any other Western country). That is irrespective of whether integration is overall successful (as it tends to be in in Canada) or more problematic (as in France). Most analyses assumed socio-economic issues had nothing to do with the radicalization of the two Canadian attackers. Why would it be automatically different for French jihadists? We should not exclude poor integration as one of the factors that may contribute to radicalization in some cases, but it is misleading to focus too much on this this one issue, as many Western observers are prone to do. There are likely many other factors that might have contributed in equal or greater measures.

What seems, on the other hand, to tie all these subjects together is that they are searching for something. As Ed Husain, himself a former radical, writes, “they are disillusioned, not disenfranchised. Many are well-educated, with a good family life. But they seek a value that they can fight for – a cause for which they can die.” A lack of integration, suffering discrimination, living in a bad neighborhood might help create that sense of disillusionment. But by themselves they are not reason enough to explain a complex phenomenon like radicalization.

Who Done It?

In the aftermath of the attack, there was an almost obsessive desire, especially in the American press, to link the actions in Paris to a certain group. From the get go, the question was: are the perpetrators linked to al Qaeda or the Islamic State? The question is crucially important from an operational point of view, as an answer to it could provide intelligence and law enforcement agencies with useful information in order to explore links and potentially avert future plots.

There is no denying that the two groups are currently engaged in a vicious competition and lashing out at one another. These are important dynamics that need to be understood and, if possible, even exploited and manipulated in order to weaken both organizations (See Clint Watt’s “Inspired, Networked, & Directed: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda post Hebdo”).

These dynamics have repercussions also on the ground in Europe. While information about them is still spotty, it appears increasingly clear that the Paris attacks were linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. By the same token, it appears that the raids in Belgium were targeting a network with links to the Islamic State. But drawing such a clear distinction between al Qaeda and the Islamic State when it comes to jihadist networks in Europe seems somewhat missing the point.

Most European jihadists want to fight jihad and care little about whether they do so with al Qaeda, the Islamic States, al Shabaab, or any other group of the global jihadist community. In many cases, they join one of these groups not so much because they have a clear preference for one over the others (even though it is undeniable that the Islamic State is the “trendiest” of them all these days), but rather because of chance encounters and logistical circumstances. Tellingly, for example, a French trial of recently convicted aspiring jihadists revealed that, until days before they were scheduled to leave for Syria, the men were still debating whether to travel instead to Mali, Libya, or Yemen.

From a top down perspective that focuses on groups’ leadership, the fact that the Kouachi brothers were closely linked to AQAP but Coulibaly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in his martyrdom video is surprising, given the rivalry between the two groups. But from the point of view of the average European aspiring jihadist, who simply wants to fight jihad and largely sees the squabbles between jihadist leaders as distant, annoying, and counterproductive, it is perfectly logical. To them, what matters is jihad and they will join whichever group allows them to realize that goal. By focusing almost exclusively on group dynamics, as important as they are, we risk missing the big picture of what happens on the ground.

French Counterterrorism: The Weak Link?

The last takeaway is that many criticisms of the French counterterrorism apparatus were too harsh. Obviously major mistakes were made. Prime Minister Valls had the honesty to admit it, clearly saying that “when 17 people die, it means there were cracks.” In the months to come there will be inquiries over inquiries and we will know more about how these attackers slipped the net and about the immediate response by law enforcement and other French agencies. It is likely that we will find out that mistakes were made and that various structural problems plague the French counterterrorism system. (Ironically, Valls, as Minister of Interior had admitted “errors, faults and mistakes” in the wake of the Merah case and had supervised an overhaul of France’s intelligence system.)

But some criticisms are unfair. Notwithstanding the mistakes made by French authorities, there are limits to what they can do. Legally, democratic authorities cannot arrest or impose even worse measures on people simply because they are known extremists. All they can do, until a criminal act is conducted, is monitor. Operationally, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have limited resources that are stretched thin by the unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters we are seeing now.

Let me be specific: French authorities have spoken of up to 1,200 individuals who have left France to fight in Syria—the largest Western contingent there. In addition, there is a potentially larger number of individuals displaying clear signs of radicalization and/or an intention of going to Syria. Then there are people, like the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly, who have a long history of militancy. We are talking, in total, of roughly 5,000 individuals who deserve some form of surveillance. How are French authorities to keep track of all these individuals?

Obviously, one way of doing so is to prioritize certain cases over others. And indeed, people like the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly, who had been in jail, had traveled to Yemen and were hanging out with jihadist royalty like Djamal Beghal, should deserve more attention than a 13 year old expressing sympathy for the Islamic State on Facebook, who is less likely (which is not to say unlikely) to become a threat. But, as troubling as that sounds, even the background of the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly is not that unique in France, but shared by a relatively large number of people (a few hundred). And therefore authorities are unable to keep tabs 24/7 even on top targets.

These dynamics are common everywhere. We can look to Britain and Australia for easy examples. A 2004 report found that MI5 was “unable to watch even the fifty-two suspects classed as ‘essential targets’ and could only provide ‘reasonable’ surveillance coverage of about one in twenty terror suspects.” And just recently Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted Australian authorities cannot watch even jihadists who have come back from Syria (let alone those who have never left Australia) around the clock.

Most successful jihadist plots against the West have been characterized by the same dynamic: the attackers were individuals already known to authorities who had been deemed not to be top priorities and therefore minimally monitored, if at all. That is true for Jamal Zougam (Madrid 3/11), Mohammed Bouyeri (the Theo van Gogh assassination), Mohammed Siddique Khan (London 7/7), the Tsarnaev brothers (the Boston marathon bombings) and many others.

We can find great insights into this common problem in a recent report by the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee on the intelligence relating to the gruesome murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. Given than intelligence agencies can only monitor a limited number of people, they assign priorities to different targets making decisions that, while based on as much evidence and analysis as possible, are inevitably subjective. In some cases they turn out to be correct (and, in fact, in this specific case, France had thwarted a handful of attacks in the months prior to the Paris attacks). In other cases the decisions will turn out to be dramatically wrong. That’s how we get to the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks. Scrutiny and constructive criticism will improve the performance of the French intelligence community. But unrealistic expectations and unfounded accusations are of little help.


Lorenzo Vidino, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at ISPI in Milan, Italy. He previously worked at ETH Zurich, the RAND Corporation and Harvard’s Kennedy School.


Photo credit: Francisco Osorio

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