PARIS – French police shot and killed a man, and arrested 12 others in countrywide anti-terrorist raids this past weekend.
True, this is no terrorist network of the kind that fomented the September 11 attacks in 2001, or in London in 2004. But the small group of radicals dismantled Saturday in Cannes, Strasbourg and the Paris region is still a threat, according to authorities.
"This is the epitome, the apotheosis of a long series of events," Manuel Valls, France's Interior Minister, told Le Monde. "Here is a group, a small network of people who share a criminal past, radical Islam, and jihadist projects abroad and perhaps also in France. It is a hybrid form of radicalism, with young French converts to Islam."
Samir Amghar, a specialist in Salafism, believes that there is nothing new in this kind of homegrown radicalism. "Since the 1990s, we have seen the rise of a sort of Islamic criminality, mixing petty and organized crime and radical Islam. But now there seems to be a new twist, where people who are on the fringe of a society which they reject turn to petty crime, under cover of religion, to finance jihadist networks."
In 1996, several converts formed the core of the "Roubaix gang," which committed a series of armed robberies and had started to turn to terrorism. At the beginning of 2003, France's former intelligence service, the Central Directorate of General Intelligence, estimated that there were more than a thousand newly radicalized Muslims. But the police service noted at the time that these men were rarely found at the core of the cells.
But this time, Jérémy Louis-Sidney, 33, who was killed in his home in the eastern French city of Strasbourg after firing at anti-terror policemen, was according to early investigations, the head of the group. Jérémy Bailly, 25, was carrying a .22 Long Rifle when he was arrested in the lobby of his building in Torcy outside of Paris. He is also believed by investigators to have been an important member of the group. Another member, a Muslim convert, Yann Nsaku, 19, was arrested in the southern French Riviera city of Cannes. He became radicalized during his acquaintance with Louis-Sidney, after a failed career in professional soccer.
Rise of anti-Semitism and radical Islam
The worrying thing about these converts is how fast they became radicalized. Mohamed Merah, the killer of Toulouse and Montauban, had become radicalized several years before his crimes, but most of the young men arrested Saturday slipped toward jihadism in a matter of months. Although the government has been congratulating itself on the work of its intelligence services, who had been following most of those arrested Saturday, this kind of jihadist is difficult to detect.
They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, with young men pulled into radical Islam through prison, the Internet, an imam, or a friend. "This reveals the cultural weight and the pressure of some elements in our neighborhoods on young people who build their political identity around radical Islam," says Manuel Valls.
It also demonstrates the influence of anti-Semitism on some youths. The Jewish community has been warning the authorities for years about the rise in anti-Semitism and radical Islam in impoverished suburbs.
Amghar believes that "profound, knee-jerk anti-Semitism is a characteristic of radical Islam, but is also found in every Muslim community." The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still, he says, "a sort of obsession, the focal point of conflict." Nabil Ennasri, president of the Organization of Muslims of France, warns of "the confusion, maintained especially by Jewish leaders, between anti-Zionism, which many Muslims share, and anti-Semitism, which only a small number of them do, seeking a justification for their anti-Semitism in the Koran."
In July on the Jewish radio Radio J, Valls denounced "a new kind of anti-Semitism in French neighborhoods." He suggested that the anti-Semitism came from persons linked to Islam, adding that it was also important not to cast "opprobrium on our fellow Muslim citizens."
Today Mr. Valls prefers not to dwell on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, he speaks of these young men's "search for a global enemy: the United States, the West, but also the Jews. In this point of view, the Internet and some foreign television stations give them the rudimentary ideology they think they need to understand the world." Valls lists other "ingredients" that fuel fire to this identity quest: "the headscarf issue, 'blasphemy' in the press, Islamophobia."
Although the immense majority of them never take this kind of action, Muslims often express a strong feeling that they are victims of a double standard compared to the Jews, and worldwide in general.
"The political response is complicated," Valls admits. "Society as a whole has to rally." Amghar says "de-radicalization programs" are put in place in certain countries, in order to reintegrate these people into society. Muslim leaders regularly repeat that jihadism "has nothing to do with Islam." As for the pleas to train more prison chaplains to counter radical Islam there, for years they have been stymied by a lack of human resources and financial means.