On April 27, France voted for a new president in a first round of elections that decimated both established political parties. Although polls currently favor Emmanuel Macron, a centrist independent, to win the May 7 runoff, and the establishment parties have vowed to unite against the neo-fascist National Front, Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric appeals to many voters across the political spectrum.
Two hundred thirty-nine people were killed in jihadist terrorist attacks under President François Hollande, and more than 900 people left France to fight in Iraq and Syria, according to the Dutch-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. Today more than 17,000 people are classified by the French government as a possible terrorist threat, according to a report published by the French Senate in March. Although the two candidates for the presidency both acknowledge the continued threat that terrorism poses to the country, they differ vastly in their analysis of its roots and how to address it.
After the November 13, 2015, attacks, Macron, then the minister of economy and finance, argued for introspection, saying in a university lecture that a lack of social mobility contributed to the isolation of Muslim communities, who were then prey to violent extremists. “Our society has built the capacity to close the door on our own. People with a beard or a name that could sound Muslim are four times less likely to get a job interview than everyone else. … This is our responsibility,” he declared. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, has thrived by linking the terrorism threats and insecurity with a supposed violence within Islam and Muslim communities in France.
At the heart of the debate among government officials, academics, and the affected communities is the question of how to prevent young French people from being radicalized into embracing jihadist ideals, and what to do with the thousands of people currently on the watchlist maintained by the French government.
After the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, Hollande’s government poured funds into both private and public structures that promoted the relatively new concept of “deradicalization.” A Senate report blasted the inefficiency of the program, arguing that it has become a “deradicalization business” that has attracted associations from the social sector currently losing financial resources because of reductions in public subsidies. After the Bataclan attacks, Hollande’s government took a much harder line through Prime Minister Manuel Valls, whose public statements framing Islam within “a battle of identity and culture” drew upon the right’s talking points. Valls was one of few Socialist members of Parliament to vote for a law banning the burka in 2010. He also supported local mayors who banned the burkini in 2016, saying the burkini was a “symbol of women’s enslavement.”
Hollande’s deradicalization strategy waffled between a socio-economic view of the issue and a more simplified, Islamophobic one. If Macron prevails in the runoff, the future president will likely be influenced by these two strains of thought.
Saint-Jean d’Angély, a small village near Bordeaux, has a 13th-century church, a rugby club, an amateur football club, and less than 8,000 inhabitants. The socialist town bears all the hallmarks of any number of nondescript villages that dot southwestern France near the Cognac region. Yet Saint-Jean d’Angély, surrounded on all sides by fields, has a couple of unique characteristics: It is known across Europe as the home of a swingers’ sex club, which just reopened for the summer season. And last November, the town involuntarily welcomed a controversial new resident.
Kamel Daoudi, a large man with a bushy beard and tired eyes, can usually be found at a motel popular among truck drivers. Like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” his routine is monotonous: He sits at the same table in the motel’s cafeteria, at the same time twice a day for breakfast and dinner, and four times a day he climbs on his bicycle and rides to the police station, where he signs a paper confirming his physical presence in the town. He eats with his tablet computer on the table, sometimes connected on Skype to chat with his wife and children. Daoudi is one of dozens of individuals under house arrest in France for alleged ties to Islamic radicals.
In late summer 2001, moved by adventure, rage, or stupidity, Daoudi flew to Afghanistan to join an Al Qaeda training camp, a decision today he says was motivated by “curiosity.” He returned before 9/11, and once the towers fell decided France was not safe for him. In the days after 9/11, when the shocked world held its breath in uncertainty for the future, he said he crossed the channel into England with a fake passport. During this time, Daoudi’s friend Djamel Beghal, a French jihadi with whom he spent time with in Afghanistan, was accused of planning an attack against the American Embassy in Paris. Daoudi was arrested on September 25, 2001, in London and found guilty of criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist enterprise in 2005, according to a confidential “note blanche,” an intelligence document produced by the General Directorate for Internal Security. Since the state of emergency was declared in 2015, such documents have been admissible in French trials in cases of “violence against the state.”
Daoudi, who attended the prestigious Lycée Lavoisier in Paris, was stripped of his French nationality in 2008 while serving his six-year sentence and banned from French territory for “preparing an act of terrorism,” according to the note blanche on his case. When he finished his term, he was slated for deportation to Algeria but petitioned the European Court of Human Rights, which concluded that his return to Algeria would endanger him with “inhuman and degrading treatment,” according to a confidential interior ministry document on his case seen by The Intercept. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in his favor, so even though he no longer had French nationality, French authorities could not deport him.
Under French law, foreign nationals can be placed under house arrest in France if they “present a grave threat to public order.” After six and a half years in prison, four of which were in solitary confinement (22 hours a day locked in a cell, according to Daoudi), he was eventually freed and put under house arrest. During this period he got married, had three children, and settled down in the village of Carmaux in the south. His daily routines, punctuated by the regular check-ins at the police station, were relatively calm and unremarkable until the Charlie Hebdo attack on January 7, 2015.
Since then, Daoudi’s anxiety, as well as that of the authorities, has intensified. After the ISIS attack in Magnanville on June 13, police took him from his home and placed him under house arrest in Saint-Jean d’Angély, 250 miles away from his family. ISIS had called for similar attacks to be carried out, and the authorities feared that Daoudi could carry out an attack in Carmaux.
“The Minister of the Interior has concluded that in the context of a particularly high terrorist threat, proven by the assassination of a police couple in Magnanville on June 13, 2016, violent acts against the policemen of Carmaux were to be feared. Thus, Mr. Daoudi must be transferred to a different district, be controlled more thoroughly, and respect hours during which he should not leave his residence,” an official notice explains.
These days Daoudi’s life is defined by an all-you-can-eat buffet at the hotel paid for by the French government, the light of the hotel sign flickering through his window, check-ins with the police four times a day, and down-time at the bar in the center of the town. “I’m an enemy of the state,” he said, at various times comparing himself to Galileo, who was under house arrest for supporting heliocentrism, and to heroes of the French Resistance against the Nazis.
The French government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls took a more radical security position after the Bataclan attacks, and Daoudi is convinced he has been victimized. On November 16, 2015, President François Hollande announced, “We need to be able to strip French citizenship from an individual found guilty of a terrorist act or other acts against a country’s fundamental interests, even if he was born a French person or if he has another nationality.” The proposal provoked an outcry and divided Hollande and Valls’ Socialist party. Nearly a year later, Hollande has said he regrets his statement: “Since terrorists are willing to die anyway, stripping their nationality has no dissuasive value.”
With regard to ISIS, Daoudi said “they are more impulsive, more nihilistic than Al Qaeda,” and have supplanted Al Qaeda (whom he continues to admire) as the main terrorist threat in France. As of October 2016, according to the prime minister, 680 French nationals and residents are fighting in Iraq and Syria. About twenty minors were involved in combat.
“Explaining is a bit like excusing,” said French Prime Minister Valls after the Paris attacks, arguing that trying to understand the social roots for the attacks was akin to apologizing for them. Yet how can French authorities fight the violent radicalization that led to the attacks if they cannot understand or agree on its roots?
Ouisa Kies, a sociologist who specializes in radicalization, said the words “radicalization” and “deradicalization” are recent additions to the French lexicon. “The concept of ‘radicalization,’ as it refers to understanding individuals who turn against their own society, comes from the Anglo-Saxon world,” she said in an interview, adding that the term in its current context was born in Great Britain after the 2005 terrorist attacks and was first used in France during the Mohamed Merah case in 2012. Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar in his book “Radicalization,” defines the term as “the process through which an individual or a group adopts a violent form of action directly linked to an extremist ideology with a political, social, or religious content intended to protest against the established order on a political, social, or cultural level.”
In theory, the violence is illegal, not the ideology, but today in France, the authorities treat the ideology itself as a form of violence. “In prison, I meet people who came back from Syria or Iraq and who were condemned to nine or 10 year sentences even though there was no clear evidence they took part in fighting,” said Kies. “The mere fact of going there and returning is a crime.” French law states that anyone who has traveled to Syria and joined a terrorist group may be detained upon arrival in France for prosecution.
Islamists became an important community in French prisons during the 1990s, when France was fighting the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA). Regular prisoners began interacting with members of the GIA, and “gradually began transforming their violence into religious violence,” explained Kies. But becoming radically pious is different from being a terrorist.
“I’m radically religious,” said Sofiyan Ifren, who was sent to prison in 2012 for recruiting for jihadist groups in Mali and released due to a lack of concrete evidence. “It doesn’t mean I’m radically violent though. I’m not Charlie, I disapprove of Muhammad’s caricatures, I’m against the French colonization policy in Mali. Yet I’m against a violent response to all that,” he explained. Ifren was placed under house arrest two days after the Bataclan attack. “The courts should either sentence me or let me go. I want to be judged on facts, not on the political climate,” he said. On March 22, Ifren was released from house arrest, according to him and his lawyer.
Yet as the French government earmarks millions for a crackdown on Islamic radicalization, another war rages in the background — that of the experts. The stakes are significant, with important government subsidies being reallocated from funds for crime prevention. Experts argue publicly and privately among each other, especially about the root causes of radicalization.
Dounia Bouzar was once the leading specialist on these issues, though today she is out of favor. Other experts and some journalists accuse her of operating on the fly and dismiss her theory that young ISIS fighters were victims of brainwashing. Like other ISIS experts, she is constantly flanked by bodyguards.
On a cold and rainy weekday in February, Bouzar wore heavy makeup and a black headband over her dyed blond hair as she hosted parents of radicalized children in a rented conference room near the Gare de l’Est. Bouzar broke off talks with the government after it proposed stripping citizenship and then created a hotline to report radicalized individuals. She now opposes nearly all of the government’s efforts against radicalization. “It was hard enough to get in touch with the working class, who already don’t trust state institutions. When the hotline was set up everyone knew the police was on the other side of the line,” she said. “The only parents who called this number were those who had faith in their institutions and who could afford a lawyer.”
According to Bouzar, the government does not reward those who believe in the redemption of former jihadists and radicalized youth. “There is no space for people who believe, like me, that people can leave the jihadist ideology,” she said. Her fatal flaw, in the court of public opinion, was when she hired Farid Benyettou.
Nicknamed the “Emir des Buttes Chaumont,” Benyettou is known as the mentor of the Kouachi brothers, who assassinated Charlie Hebdo’s editorial board. He has since publicly rejected jihadism and is trying to reform his image as a repentant.
Benyettou spent time in prison in the 2000s and when he was released in 2009 studied to become a nurse. On January 7, 2015, he was working at La Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris and saw victims of the attacks at Charlie Hebdo being transferred to the emergency room of that same hospital. Watching the news, he saw one of the Kouachi brothers on a video and went directly to French authorities to tell them everything he knew. He has since become one of the most vocal activists for the cause of redeemed jihadists, though his public repentance has not won many believers. Benyettou told his own version of his arrest in a book called “My Jihad,” published on the second anniversary of the Bataclan attack.
On a March afternoon over an espresso in the 10th arrondissement, Benyettou wore an Oxford shirt with the collar peeking out over a smart sweater. His hair was closely cropped and his face freshly shaven, miles away from his look when he was sending his disciples to jihadist groups. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he wears a Je Suis Charlie badge everywhere he goes, like a lucky charm. “I am Charlie — everyone is, in their own way, there are thousands of ways to be Charlie. Some people think I go too far, but in my head I needed to be clear with myself. I didn’t want any ambiguity, because I was too ambiguous for too long.” Benyettou said. The jihadist “groups I supported: GIA, GSPC, Chechnya, Al Qaeda — it’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it never ends,” he said.
The question Benyettou poses is at the heart of the problem: Can he be trusted again? “We wanted to bring solutions to these problems, but are we ready to believe in people’s ability to change? We can’t pretend to deradicalize people if we haven’t made that first step yet. Those who come back from Syria and go to prison, if we don’t believe in them, they’re going to say to themselves ‘We can only live over there.’ It’s extremely dangerous. We talk tons about returning combatants from Syria, but what are offering them?”
For Mourad Benchellali, it’s the feeling that others are speaking for him — or over him — that drives him mad. A 42-year-old man living in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon, Benchellali has grown weary of the ballet of experts and politicians who pay him regular visits for his opinions on youth radicalization and then disappear shortly thereafter, leaving him where he started. People come to visit Benchellali because he spent two and a half years in Guantánamo after he attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2001. Despite the fact that he says he went to Afghanistan on a “holiday” and mistakenly ended up in a training camp, he considers himself legitimate enough to speak with authority on terrorism.
Benchellali grew up in a family steeped in political Islamism and fond of Al Qaeda’s ideology, and witnessed firsthand France’s failure to integrate his generation into society. In 1983, while still a kid, he thought the March for Equality, France’s first major anti-racist rally that started in his neighborhood, would change society’s perception of Muslims and other immigrants. But for him, the Socialist Party’s cooptation of the movement, through its now discredited anti-racism branch SOS Racisme, illustrated the politicians’ vacuousness. Today the National Front is on the rise and debates about the hijab and the burkini and radical Islamism rage while black and Arab communities mourn victims of police violence. Young men sell drugs in front of the cité apartment blocks, replacing last generation’s armed robbers as poor neighborhoods’ biggest threats.
Since his release from French prison in 2009 (where he was placed after being released from Guantánamo), Mourad has held workshops and seminars around France telling his story to radicalized young people. He thinks sharing one’s personal experience is the best way for a message of peace to be heard, a far cry from smear campaigns and counter-propaganda organized by governmental services, which young people react violently to. “[Jihadist] recruiters are not just manipulators, they believe in what they say,” he declared, countering Dounia Bazar’s theory that they are cynically operating for personal gain. Benchellali’s vision of deradicalization has been out of vogue in recent months, and he is at a loss for how to proceed in life. “No matter what I do, I’m contaminated by the jihad virus. I’m calm, nice, and easy-going, but the virus may spread at any moment so people keep their distance, just in case.”
‘We’re all guilty in this story,” said Stéphane Gatignon, the mayor of Sevran, a northern suburb of Paris. Sevran is often cited in jihadist case studies due to the dozens of young people who left there to join ISIS. Some left for idealistic reasons, some for humanitarian reasons, others to fight Assad. The mayor’s discourse is heavily influenced by the vision of the open society dear to George Soros, who funds a number of projects in the Parisian suburbs: “We did not understand what happened in 2005, especially concerning civil rights, a topic nobody wanted to deal with,” referring to the year when riots erupted in the nearby suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois after police chased two young black and Arab boys into a power station, where they were electrocuted.
“We rejected their demands and we’re paying for it today. A part of those who are indoctrinated by Daesh are the result of this lack of recognition, this lack of cosmopolitan awareness by the government,” Gatignon said. He does not deny the ties between crime and jihadism but places emphasis on the future of young people living in neighborhoods far from the ones most politicians are familiar with. “We’re only ten miles away from Paris! It feels like we’re on another planet. We live in a totally disrupted world, the far-right and the authoritative part of the right wing used the clash of civilizations theory to demonstrate that Islam was not compatible with the French Republic. If this is the case, what should we do with the six million French Muslims?”
The mayor, a supporter of Emmanuel Macron in the upcoming election, argues that parents are also responsible for their children’s departure. Christine Morin, whose son Thomas, 27, left France two years ago to join ISIS, said she does not understand why her son left. Widowed and settled in Narbonne, on the Mediterranean coast, she waits for news from Thomas, who was raised in small province cities, in an “insulated environment,” where religion was practically nonexistent.
A fan of former President Sarkozy, the only information she receives about her son comes from newspapers: In February 2015 he joined a group that included the Clain brothers, who claim to be part of the group that planned the Bataclan attack; and that his car had been used in a failed attack in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif. In March, after seeing a picture of someone she swore to be her son firing a Kalashnikov in a news report about ISIS, Morin traveled to the border that separates Turkey from Syria with a TV reporter in an attempt to find her “idealistic” Thomas. She never found him, and one fighter told her the picture she saw was of a Syrian man. Today she both fears his death and hopes for his death as the best possible outcome. “I don’t want him to go back to France. For what sort of life? Prison? Being labeled a jihadist his whole life? His life here is over. I’d rather know he died for ideas he embraced even though I disagree with them,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Saint-Jean d’Angély, Kamel Daoudi just learned his request to meet his family back in Carmaux has been refused. He intends to renew his application to the European Court of Human Rights. His family is paying for his lawyer. He is hoping Marine Le Pen will beat Emmanuel Macron in the runoff because “it would be less hypocritical.” Alone at his table, like every other day, he looked at his empty plate. “It’s hard being an enemy of the state,” he said as he cut himself another slice of lemon pie.