Expert: France Lacks Strategy against Islamism

As France takes tough security measures following Paris attacks, counter-extremism expert says Europe must tackle Islamism at its roots.

Ari Soffer ,

French special forces stand outside the Hyper Cacher store, where four people were killed
French special forces stand outside the Hyper Cacher store, where four people were killed

France cannot hope to grapple with the threat of Islamist terrorism until it develops a coherent strategy to tackle the extremist discourse which fuels it, warns a prominent anti-extremism campaigner.

Haras Rafiq, who is the Managing Director of the UK-based Quilliam Foundation, told Arutz Sheva that while French authorities do have a "security" strategy in place to arrest and prosecute those extremists they know are involved in illegal activities, France is woefully lacking in any kind of effort to prevent further attacks from taking place. The only way that can be done, he says, is by undermining and neutralizing the extremist ideology which inspires Islamist terrorism in the first place. 

Until that happens, he warns, the next attack is just a matter of time.

His comments highlight the limitations of even the most robust security measures taken by European governments in reaction to last week's deadly terrorist campaign, as both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS have threatened further attacks. In France in particular, an extra 15,000 soldiers and police have been deployed to protect high-profile sites, 5,000 of whom are stationed outside Jewish schools, joining hundreds of armed police already protecting synagogues and other prominent Jewish establishments which could likely be targeted by Islamists.

Though "certainly necessary," such security measures, even coupled with the best efforts of intelligence services, can't hope to thwart every single attempted attack, Rafiq noted - a fact acknowledged Tuesday by the EU's top counter-terrorism official. French authorities have already admitted to "serious failings" in their monitoring of potentially dangerous Muslim extremists, after it was revealed that all three of the men who carried out last week's attacks had known ties to terrorism - with two of them even having served time in prison for terrorism-related offenses.

But those failings are bound to repeat themselves if France does not fundamentally change the way it approaches the issue of Muslim extremism, he insists.

"France looks at these issues purely through the lens of criminality... through the lens of legislation," Rafiq explains, pointing to the case of Cherif Kouachi who, along with his older brother Said, carried out the bloody attack at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris. 

The younger Kouachi brother had already been convicted in the past of terror offenses, after attempting to travel to Iraq to fight for Al Qaeda. But upon his release, French police apparently neglected to keep tabs on him.

"The way French authorities look at someone like that is: if he keeps his nose clean, he's paid his debt to society, and that's that," said Rafiq.

The problem with such an approach is that it places security services constantly on the back foot, waiting for the next plot to crop up and hoping they will detect it in time. 

In contrast, he pointed to the model employed by British authorities, who - in addition to policing and security measures - seek to "de-radicalize" individuals who fall into the orbit of Islamist extremism even before they become involved in actual terrorism. That, he says, is the only way to tackle the problem at its roots.

France does have a more difficult job, he cautioned. In part, that's due to the simple fact that its Muslim population is far larger in general (the largest in Europe); but it also has to do with the demographic makeup of the French Muslim population, which is largely comprised of immigrants from Arab countries in north Africa, where anti-Semitism and jihadism have deep roots. Most British Muslims on the other hand hail from the Indian subcontinent, where until relatively recently - with the rise of Salafism and other related brands of Arab-influenced jihadism - anti-Semitism was almost unheard of, and most practiced more moderate streams of Islam.

He admits Britain's own counter-extremism strategy is far from perfect, with that gap closing as terrorist groups disseminate their propaganda with increasing effectiveness over the internet, particularly via social media, and as radical Islamist groups infiltrate the Muslim community - often sponsored by countries such as Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the UK is now one of the leading sources of foreign fighters for ISIS per-capita.

But Rafiq insists that the model British authorities employ to neutralize the threat from Islamic extremism - known as the Prevent Strategy - is essentially the right one.

He takes great pains to dismiss the notion of "self-radicalization," and stresses that in almost all cases young Muslims are influenced by existing extremist networks.

A recent in-depth study of online radicalization carried out by Quilliam debunked the idea that people can simply "fall into" extremism without any warning. Last week's terrorist bloodbath underlined that point well; despite acting as individual cells and even swearing allegiance to different organizations (the Kouachis to AQAP, Amedy Coulibaly to ISIS), the three terrorists were clearly part of a wider network. Some of them had even reportedly been radicalized by the same extremist preacher while in prison.

"There is no such thing as self-radicalization, or 'lone wolves'," he said. "People don't go onto the internet looking to buy a pair of shoes or a handbag and end up becoming a jihadi. You have to be looking for something or somebody has to find you."

Locating the disseminators of such extremism is important, but just as crucial is the ability to engage with and debunk the theories espoused by Islamist ideologues. 

That's an area which his organization is well-qualified to tackle, having been founded by several former jihadists who realized the error of their ways. "People who have actually experienced it, who know what it is firsthand... these are the people who are most successful" in countering extremist discourses, he says. 

Engaging purely on the theological level, however, can be problematic, since there are various interpretations within Islam which can be used to justify all manner of ideologies.

"You can find a hadith to back up your position, and I can find one to back up mine.

"That's why it's important to focus on the personal motivations... the personal grievances, perceived or real, which motivate these people.

"Jihadi recruiters tend to look for people undergoing personal crises. In the past couple of years, we've also seen how they have targeted individuals with mental health issues like depression.

"They sell them this idea that the only way you can find salvation is in this Islamic Caliphate utopia."

Government and non-governmental organizations need to work together with schools and other institutions to locate individuals being groomed by jihadis. "At that point you can have an intervention, to engage and pull that person away from that ideology."

But, he adds, it is crucially important that the Muslim community "play its part as well."

"We Muslims have a huge role to play in this as well," Rafiq states, urging his community to "move away from tribalism" and work with wider civic society to fight back against Islamism. 

He says he hopes last week's attacks are a turning point.

"I'm disheartened at what happened, but I'm also seeing more and more European Muslims who are turning around and saying 'no'. 

"Out of the tragedy that we saw in the last few days I think there's been a galvanization of civil society, and I hope it continues and can gather momentum throughout Europe.

"It's very important that Muslims play their part as well, to have some self-reflection about all of the things that we need to do within our own communities."