Politics / Society / World News

France’s puzzling home-grown Jihadis

How did Daesh seduce our youths?

Screenshot of French Jihadi Abu Salman al Faranci, November 2014. Image © Al Hayat Media Center via The Daily Mail.

Screenshot of French Jihadi Abu Salman al Faranci, November 2014. Image © Al Hayat Media Center via The Daily Mail.

European youths, by all standards, have it pretty good: born decades after the plague of war loosened its grip on the continent, they were bred in an era of relative material comfort, affordable education, and generally a high standard of living. So it’s only more puzzling when some choose to leave behind these comfortable lives for war, martyrdom or cold-blooded mass murder. Yet this choice is an increasingly popular one, judging from the well-known, frightening statistics: while the bulk of young Daesh fighters comes from Saudi Arabia and North Africa, no less than 12,000 Europeans have joined what UK Prime Minister David Cameron called the “evil death cult” between 2011 and 2014[1]. The issue of these young Europeans’ indoctrination is so pressing that the French government has created an online portal, “Stop Jihadisme[2]. According to the portal, over 130 French citizens or foreign residents of France have died as a result of their involvement with Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015 and the dramatic attacks of 13 November 2015, the French public began to hear of the “filières jihadistes”, networks of radical Islamists looking to recruit and indoctrinate new members throughout the country, facilitate their journey to Syria to partake in the jihad, and, as we now know, plan and carry out terrorist attacks within France’s borders. French intelligence services have long known and watched those dangerous “filières”. Among them, the infamous “filière des Buttes Chaumont”, from the depths of which the Kouachi brothers emerged, and the filière d’Artigat which produced notorious Daesh member Fabien Clain. But beyond these physical networks, a newer, more significant threat is emerging in the form of Internet recruitment, whereby more and more radicalized youths are being brainwashed by Daesh’s skillful Internet propaganda.

France is not the exception: over the past few months, examples of youths leaving behind distressed families in England or the Netherlands have multiplied. A journalist from Raqqa, Syria, told the New Yorker about the influx of foreign fighters: “these guys started coming in from all around the world (…) It was like New York! A second New York! People from Australia! From Belgium! From Germany! From France! A global tide!

Many think of French Daesh members as young, Muslim French-born sons and daughters of immigrants, living in dire socio-economic conditions, generally poorly educated, filled to the brim with religiosity and hatred of their motherland. This explains why many demand that “normal” French Muslims publicly condemn Daesh’s terrorist attacks on our territory. The truth, however, is as usual slightly more complex. In this article, we will walk you through a few analyses that have emerged in the French media regarding the many identities of young French jihadis. Who are really the people who have chosen to join Daesh?

French soldiers near the Eiffel Tower. Image © Getty Images / D. Kitwood via DW.

French soldiers near the Eiffel Tower. Image © Getty Images / D. Kitwood via DW.

Religious? Not so much

Religion appears to be, so far, the common denominator between young European jihadis, who we are told have all adopted a peculiar reading of Islam, presented by Daesh as the only acceptable, true form of the Muslim faith. But French newspaper Mediapart notes that “while, for young Europeans, the strength of this religious sentiment can be connected to laïcité or to the libertarian aspect of the society they live in (post-religious societies (…)), the same can hardly be said for young North African or Saudi jihadis, who live in societies where religion is strongly present”.

Besides, many of the French youths who travel to Syria to join the Islamic State may hardly be described as pious or devout. First thought to be Europe’s first female suicide bomber, Hasna Aitboulahcen, Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s nefarious cousin, was described by the media as a less than religious type. Many French youths know nothing of the historical references that underlie the caliphate’s rhetoric. Some of them are converts who knew nothing of Islam a mere few months before they transformed into full-blown Jihadis. Others have led less than Islamic lives as petty criminals and thieves before suddenly developing a religious streak. For a minority, radicalization results from disgust and disillusionment with contemporary France. But many have, so far, lived the lives of typical millennials born in the 1980s and 1990s; why suddenly leave their entire life behind for a new life à la 7th century?

While faith is certainly a motive, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in France live their faith in peace, and would never consider traveling to Syria to join the jihad or perpetrating attacks against their fellow Frenchmen. So what else is there?

Lower class children of immigrants, right? Right?

Racism and islamophobia are alive and well in France, that much is sadly clear. For people with white privilege, it’s hard to understand what a constant life of discrimination may feel like. Many French youths, who face daily occurrences of racial and religious discrimination, may feel like second-rate citizens in their own country. A country whose history is sadly entrenched in colonialism, while all patriotism disappeared in the comfortable three decades which followed WWII, as France discovered and basked in material comfort. Of course, it is not surprising that France, which understandably still feels the guilt of this complicated past, may want to keep patriotism on the down low. But for newer generations, the children and grand-children of French baby boomers, this has resulted in a complete failure in nation-building. We are now paying the price for this failure, as citizens quarrel over religious affiliation, forgetting the only force that unites all of them: their Frenchness.

French identity card of Said Kouachi, one of the Charlie Hebdo terrorists. Image © AFP via The Local.

French identity card of Said Kouachi, one of the Charlie Hebdo terrorists. Image © AFP via The Local.

Take a lack of belonging on the one hand, and rejection, misunderstanding, and racism on the other, and what you get is a volatile cocktail which results in, among others, the riots of 2005, the stellar rise of the unstoppable Le Pen dynasty, and the French unease regarding the “banlieues” (suburbs) and other “no-go zones”. This is the narrative we have all come to know and accept as the root of our malaise. However, the profiles of young Jihadis tell a different, more complicated story. They are far from being exclusively lower class, or exclusively second-generation, or exclusively anything, for that matter.

Stop Jihadisme notes that indoctrinated youths are “from all regions, from all backgrounds, upper and lower class, rural and urban, from downtown areas to suburbs[3], while some are from Christian, Jewish, atheist or agnostic families. While most of them come from the suburbs, their backgrounds, families and education differ strongly. Some grew up in solid, united families while others grew up in foster care. Some were brilliant students, others were delinquents.

For French political scientist Olivier Roy, who recently penned a worthwhile column on the matter for Le Monde, these young Jihadis pledge allegiance to Daesh out of opportunism, because Daesh is, if you will, what is available right now. “Yesterday”, writes Roy, “they were with Al Qaeda; the day before yesterday (1995), they were the subcontractors of the Algerian GIA or practiced, from Bosnia to Afghanistan and through Chechnya, their little nomadism of the individual jihad”.

Many are neither the sons and daughters of immigrants, or members of the underprivileged pauperized masses. It’s too easy to put the blame on the lack of economic and professional prospects. Thousands and hundreds of thousands live in these exact same conditions and have the basic human morals and decency required to prevent themselves from becoming blood-thirsty mass murderers and the mental strength and intelligence not to fall for vapid attempts at brainwashing and a shaky, non-existent ideology hiding behind the guise of religiosity.

Mediapart notes that the majority of young jihadis are neither psychologically unstable nor mentally ill. All in all, young jihadis are a diverse crowd united by one thing: their age, which makes them ideal targets for brainwashing.

How Daesh convinced French youths to drink the KoolAid

Adolescence (which, in our era, increasingly seems to encompass early 20s…) is a time of self-doubt and lack of self-confidence, which offers fertile ground for Daesh’ psychological manipulation. Dounia Bouzar, a French anthropologist who has dedicated her life to fighting indoctrination and met countless former young jihadis, speaks of a “double dehumanization”.

First, the young jihadi dehumanizes the other. Man has always fantasized about transcending their own petty lives, becoming an idea. The appeal of becoming an idea lies in immortality: while the human vessel is mortal and weak, the idea is noble and everlasting. Daesh’s success lies in its ability to promise a fast path for youths to become an ideology, instead of persons. Ideologies don’t feel, they don’t have personal relationships, they don’t care about other individuals. Daesh is convinced that the apocalypse is fastly approaching; this grand announcement allows them to offer a larger cause, an event bigger than our individual lives, to young people going through typical early-life struggles. Now emotionless, the young jihadi is eager to loosen his ties and cut off his relationships, which can only distract him from carrying out his god-ordained mission. It is worth noting that the second dehumanization Bouzar speaks of is that of the young jihadi’s victim. To facilitate violence and murder, nothing works quite as well as dehumanizing the subject of said violence. When the victim is an object, killing “it” does not awaken moral concerns. Bouzar writes:

Daesh does not merely kill its victims, Daesh cuts them up into pieces to deprive them from their human form. Just like the Nazis transformed the Jews into dust. These are not my peer, and I don’t feel anything anymore. Here, it is not about purity of race, but about pure comprehension of the true Islam. Naturally, they kill Muslims first and foremost”.

How does Daesh reach its young victims? It is no mystery that the organization has perfectly mastered 21st century-style communications, from its profusion of social media accounts (46,000 Twitter accounts) and Al Bayan, the radio station created to recruit Europeans, to its masterfully-edited English-speaking magazine, Dabiq. Daesh members use Twitter’s private messaging system as well as Facebook to reach out and contact users they are aiming to recruit.

Cover of Daesh’s English-speaking magazine Dabiq. Image via IBT.

Cover of Daesh’s English-speaking magazine Dabiq. Image via IBT.

Once contact has been made, the organization resorts to the classical array of brainwashing methods used by cults throughout history. Bouzar describes Daesh’s recruitment discourse as such:

The discourse of radical islam is going to offer the youth an escape from the real world by showing him that all adults are lying to him, that this world is corrupt, that no one may be trusted (…) They will mix truths and falsities so that the youth severs all ties to the adults who were working toward socializing him. He is going to consider his professors, educators, and official imams as people paid to prevent the young from revolting, to put them to sleep. He is going to sever ties to his parents (…) but he is also going to cut himself off from the media, people who aren’t like him.”

Daesh’s special brand of Islam is then presented to the youth as the only way to vanquish these lying adults, to reinstate justice, solidarity, a purer society. The discourse breeds paranoia, and infuses the individual with a sense of purpose: a grand mission that he has been exclusively selected to carry out.

Dounia Bouzar’s Center for the prevention of sectarian abuses linked to Islam[4], a center for parents of radicalized youths to exchange on their experience, has already welcomed hundreds of families searching for advice. This influx will no doubt grow, as Daesh’s perverse discourse continues to incite influenceable young minds everywhere to commit inexcusable, heartbreaking acts of cruelty.


[1] Source: Mediapart

[2] “Stop jihadism”

[3] Freely translated from French

[4] Source: http://www.bouzar-expertises.fr/presse-ecrite/531-dounia-bouzar-la-double-deshumanisation-des-tueurs-du-bataclan


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