quinta-feira, 31 de março de 2016
French struggle with homegrown terror
French struggle with homegrown terror
False starts and ideological discomfort thwart attempts to combat foreign fighters.
By NICHOLAS VINOCUR 3/31/16, 5:35 AM CET Updated 3/31/16, 9:53 AM CET
PARIS — A week after a French minister accused Belgium of being “naïve” about jihadism in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, France entered its own anguished debate about the prevalence of violent ideology in tough immigrant neighborhoods and the best ways to address it.
The trigger was a remark by Youth and Sports Minister Patrick Kanner, who said that some “100 neighborhoods” in France shared the noxious traits of Brussels’ Molenbeek, the breeding ground for terrorism in the Belgian capital.
Kanner’s fellow Socialists blasted him over the comment. Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, who heads the ruling party, accused him of stigmatizing Muslims. While France had “pockets,” “buildings” or “streets” that resemble Molenbeek, he added, there were no neighborhoods like it in France.
This tit-for-tat in the ruling party is part of a wider political fallout from a spate of attacks. Hundreds of European-born Muslims have left to join Islamist extremist forces in Syria and Iraq; more volunteers for ISIL came from France than any other EU country. Many of these new European recruits are coming home and some are carrying out deadly terrorist strikes: Paris on November 13, Brussels last week.
The debate this past week also speaks to the underlying anxiety – both political and real – about a long-standing and dangerous shortcoming in French policy: Despite a robust security apparatus and a state of emergency in place since November, the country lacks a workable approach to dealing with violent Islamist indoctrination and recruitment.
While Germany, Sweden and Denmark boast well-respected “disengagement” programs to detect and dissuade would-be terrorists that draw on their experience with far-right groups, France is still experimenting and struggling to find solutions. People who work to prevent jihadist recruitment say France, like Belgium, will remain vulnerable as long as it doesn’t do better.
The best-known program, which stopped operating last year, used therapy and family engagement to break recruiters’ holds over their targets.
Programs launch then fold months later, without explanation. Some of the country’s toughest, most Molenbeek-like areas lack any program at all. And in prisons, where hundreds of hardened jihadis are now serving time after returning from stints with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, little thought is given to social reinsertion programs that might offer former fighters hope of starting a new life once they have completed their sentences. Experts fear France will end up with a new cadre of super-jihadists with nothing to lose when they leave jail.
“In terms of deradicalization, we are at absolute zero,” Rachida Dati, a center-right MEP who authored a report on radicalization adopted by the European Parliament last year, told the JDD weekly paper Sunday. “It shocks me when I hear [Prime Minister] Manuel Valls say, ‘We’re going to launch deradicalization centers, we’ve launched a deradicalization center.’ They don’t exist!”
France started to address radicalization in 2013, when departures to Syria were peaking. It launched a “#Stopjihadism” web campaign to fight online recruitment, as well as a toll-free hotline where parents, teachers, employers or friends could report suspicious behavior, such as sudden changes in clothing or eating habits, to authorities.
Hotline operators, who have received more than 8,000 tips so far, suggest a course of action to authorities, depending on the nature of the issue: “Dangerous” individuals might get signalled to intelligence agencies and monitored or pursued for criminal charges, when applicable; less risky profiles will be referred to a local prevention program approved by the interior ministry. These are highly varied and unequal, and there is no single preferred method. The best-known program, which stopped operating last year, used therapy and family engagement to break recruiters’ hold over their targets, most of whom are in their teens or twenties.
Only one permanent prevention center currently operates in France, and it’s strictly voluntary for participants, who usually join on request from family members.
France’s deradicalization predicament can be seen in miniature in the Paris suburb of Sevran, a 40-minute train ride from the Luxembourg gardens.
It’s a smaller, somewhat less blighted version of Molenbeek, with unemployment above 20 percent, high crime and a foreign-born or “immigrant” population estimated at about half of the total 50,000 inhabitants. Another shared trait: Sevran has produced at least 10 volunteers for ISIL in Syria and Iraq, seven of whom have since been confirmed killed.
Had it not been for the parents of Felix Roy, a convert to Islam killed in 2015, Sevran might have remained unremarkable among many similar towns.
They turned it into a symbol. Furious at what they called an “omerta” concerning radicalization that saw elected officials refusing to acknowledge a spreading problem, Thierry and Veronique Roy penned an open letter in early March to the mayor of Sevran, Greens party member Stephane Gatignon, accusing him of having failed to act against a local recruiter for ISIL or a makeshift mosque believed to be a jihadist boiler room.
Not only had Gatignon stood by as Salafist groups flourished in his town, the Roys alleged in their letter; he indirectly abetted the ISIL recruiter by allowing him to be employed on a municipal contract at a local school. “Your status as the town’s top official should have forced you to lodge a complaint … against these radical extremist groups that want to bring us down,” the letter read.
In a public response, Gatignon rejected all the accusations. Sevran’s town hall, he argued, had been “committed to fighting radicalization” for years thanks to the help of local associations — in this case, Muslim community outreach groups funded mainly via municipal subsidies.
He said the authorities didn’t turn a blind eye and engaged with the parents of foreign fighters. Gatignon met the Roys after their son left to Syria. The mayor added that the ISIL recruiter in question, who was jailed in 2015, was only employed by the town for a month during the summer.
Two employees at Sevran’s town hall declined to identify any programs or associations that carry out prevention or deradicalization work in the town. One said that “none [came] to mind.”
While Europe’s Radicalization Awareness Network — a European umbrella group that studies and establishes best practices for prevention and deradicalization work — lists a group named “Tarjama” as doing prevention and detection in Sevran, both town hall reps said they were unfamiliar with the name, which also was not listed in the town directory.
On March 26, Gatignon lashed out in an editorial published in Le Monde against what he called a “scandalous smearing” of his town. Sevran had become a “scapegoat” for a problem that existed across France. “Sevran is not an autonomous republic!” the letter read.
The Roys vowed to file a criminal complaint against Gatignon for “failing to assist a person in danger.”
For Ouisa Kies, a sociologist who runs a prison deradicalization program, Sevran is typical of many Molenbeek-like neighborhoods in France.
If the mayor has outsourced detection work to religious associations, as is often the case in towns like Sevran, he or she may not be aware of what is happening in his or her town, and is reassured by promises that things are “under control.”
Meanwhile, Kies said, a climate of intense suspicion of authority means that very few people will ever report suspicious behavior to a local authority figure or a government-sponsored anti-radicalization hotline. To do so would amount to “snitching,” or giving someone up to the cops.
In such neighborhoods, the few people who do use the government’s hotline, she said, never get referred to local prevention specialists, as the system is supposed to do.
“The hotline doesn’t work in places like this [Sevran],” she said. “It’s for the middle classes — people who feel comfortable dealing with the authorities.”
Two years ago, the interior ministry attempted to counteract the “don’t snitch” effect in poor areas by setting up an experimental prevention center in Aulnay-sous-Bois, another tough Paris suburb, run by a prominent female local activist. Interviews were granted; journalists were invited to inspect the spare, unmarked apartment in a housing project where Sonya Imloul and a team of religious aides held therapy sessions for suspected radicals, often with their parents.
After a year of operation, the center shut down. French media reported that the state cut its funds due to suspicion of embezzlement; Imloul said she feared for her safety and asked to stop.
Last year, another high-profile prevention program, run by anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, came to a similarly abrupt end.
Bouzar said she quit in protest over President François Hollande’s plan to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality. But other sources in the field hinted at different reasons.
Bouzar had recently come under fire in the case of a 17-year-old girl who had undergone her “deradicalization” treatment. After the girl attended therapy sessions with Bouzar and her family over the course of several months, the teen attempted to travel to Syria and was caught at the last minute thanks to phone taps of her conversations with a recruiter in France.
“There is a business of deradicalization,” added Kies, the sociologist. “When the government says it’s going to spend, all sorts of people line up to take the money. Some of them are good and competent, some are just on the take.”
France’s predicament can be seen in miniature in the Paris suburb of Sevran.
When it comes to prevention, France is still searching for the right formula. Despite a wealth of examples from neighboring states, from Britain’s community-based approach to the German, group-therapy method, Paris has no clear preference.
Much of its ambivalence, critics say, has to do with the fact that, unlike in Germany, security services are deeply reluctant to cede any part of their duties to civil society actors, which means less funding for prevention groups. Another factor is France’s secular tradition, which makes the state uncomfortable with confiding sensitive work to religious authorities.
After several false starts, France inaugurated its first permanent prevention center late last year. The CAPRI center in Bordeaux, western France, employs a four-person team including a psychologist, a Muslim chaplain and a social worker, and takes after the Danish “Aarhus” model — a deradicalization program focused on family engagement named after a Danish town that sent several volunteer fighters to Syria. CAPRI, which stands for Center for Action and Prevention Against the Radicalization of Individuals, stands out for being the first permanent prevention program officially recognized by the French state.
CAPRI, like most prevention programs, operates on a strictly voluntary basis. Participants attend therapy or religious counseling sessions, often with members of their family, either on location or elsewhere, according to an ad hoc schedule. The cases treated are typically young people, converts to Islam in almost half of cases, who have shown a sudden change in behavior, cut themselves off from friends or been caught consuming jihadist propaganda online. CAPRI does not handle “deeply radicalized” individuals, who are usually referred to the criminal justice system.
“The state does not really have any religion as to what sort of deradicalization scheme they support,” said CAPRI spokesman Marek Fetouh. “We work with family members to try to break the mental hold these groups have on young people…. Our advantage is that we are linked to the town hall.”
Give them jobs
For the toughest cases — hardened jihadis who fought in Syria or Iraq, or deeply indoctrinated career criminals — France has no dedicated program.
In March, the government announced it would soon open its first non-voluntary “deradicalization center” near the city of Tours, southwest of Paris, that promises to deprogram radicals, instead of merely deviating them from the path of radicalization. Ten similar centers are due to open around the country over the next two years.
However, here again, the centers target not the toughest cases but people aged between 18 and 30 who have “not yet crossed the line into violence,” Pierre N’Gahane, a government official in charge of the program, announced on France Bleu radio.
For those who have, and they count for hundreds today, there is only prison where they are likely to mix with other radical inmates. France unblocked €80 million last year on a prison deradicalization program geared at such cases, but the funds are heavily weighted toward surveillance via the hiring of guards and intelligence agents. Of that amount, €1.23 million is allotted to hiring psychologists, social workers and Muslim chaplains who are to be in charge of the actual deradicalization work. When it comes to social reinsertion, or programs to help inmates rebuild their lives post-release, France has very few — and one of Europe’s highest rates of crime recidivism to prove it.
In any case, for Kies and Richard Rechtman, a psychologist whose work focuses on genocide and therapy for the authors of atrocities, the benefits of attempting to deradicalize the toughest cases are small to nil.
“The idea that these militarized, deeply indoctrinated people will simply give up their ideal because we show them it’s wrong, in return for becoming unemployed once they leave jail — that seems to me to be very naive,” said Rechtman.
Instead, he argued, the state should focus on helping jihadists who have served their time rebuild their lives post-release. Given the difficulty of finding a job in France, that effort should involve direct subsidies for housing and living. “The alternative is to have these people go back to their old neighborhoods with no job, no prospects and a completely collapsed sense of self,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they go back to the old life?”
According to a 2010 report by the RAND Corporation, deradicalization programs in the Muslim world, notably in Saudi Arabia, that put more emphasis on social reintegration have among the best track records in the world.
Politically speaking, France shows little tolerance for non-punitive measures where jihadists are concerned. Prime Minister Valls himself hinted at such a mindset when he said, after the November 13 attacks in France, that “to explain [jihadist terrorism] is already excusing it to a degree.”
“France isn’t ready,” said Rechtman. “I’m not sure it ever will be.”