By Praveen Swami
“Protect Islam and the Muslims”, he said, “humiliate polytheism and the polytheists, and allow the banner of Truth and Islam to fly high.
Why are some young Europeans turning against their own? The answer lies in the stories of those who carried out the Paris attacks — young unemployed men in the suburbs, part of street gangs, involved in drugs and petty crimes, till they gave themselves a “cause”
That day, a few hours before the massacre, Imam Muhammad Khatta was delivering his Friday afternoon sermon to the congregation at the Aisha mosque, in the French city of Montpellier. “Protect Islam and the Muslims”, he said, “humiliate polytheism and the polytheists, and allow the banner of Truth and Islam to fly high. Support your servants, the mujahideen everywhere, Lord of Mankind”.
In Paris, at about the same time Khatta ended his sermon, a group of young men were preparing for their final journeys. In the night, at 9.40 pm, one would send out a text message: “time to go”. Two would travel, vests filled with home-made but lethal explosives, to the Stade de France, hoping to target football fans crowding the entry gates. Held up by the traffic, they arrived too late to kill, but not to end their own lives. Elsewhere, though, things went as planned. Three men entered the Bataclan theatre, killing almost a hundred people. Four others drove to bars and cafés, emptying their assault rifles before blowing themselves up.
France’s president, François Hollande, has promised a “pitiless war” against the perpetrators — but that’s a more complex undertaking than it might seem. Though the hands that guided them are hidden in the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqa, those perpetrators who carried out the strikes are all French or Belgian-born and raised.
That has led many to ask why some young Europeans are turning on their own people with such ferocity. Is it France’s tradition of laicite, the rigorous separation of religious from public life, that has engendered segregation? Is it the depressing poverty of the Banilieus, the suburban housing estates that are home to so many Muslims? Does the answer lie in the hate-filled words of neo-fundamentalist preachers such as Khatta that fall on the receptive ears of young believers?
These easy-reach answers don’t begin to explain what happened. The outlines of the truth lie somewhere in the stories of the perpetrators and others like them.
A cult of death
Everyone in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek knew where to find Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim Abdeslam — and it wasn’t at the local mosque. The brothers would spend hours at Les Beguines, a local bar known for its relaxed attitude to its patrons’ drug use. Salah, in particular, was known for his freewheeling sex life. He paid great attention, neighbours recall, to his appearance, buying expensive teeth whiteners to remove tobacco stains. The thick cloud of marijuana became too much, though, for those living around the bar and it was shut down.
Local residents recall that when everyone in the market would gather at the mosque to pray, the brothers could be seen on the terrace ledge of a building, smoking marijuana.
Then, on a Friday morning the world will not soon forget, Salah Abdeslam drove his brother to his death at the Bataclan theatre, in a rented Renaut Clio — and disappeared.
Police records show Salah Abdeslam met slain Islamic State commander, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, in prison. In 2010, the two men were convicted of breaking into a parking garage, to steal car stereos they could sell for drugs. Then, the next year, Salah was jailed again, for a drunken assault near the metro station. In 2011, he was fired for skipping work too often. The two men were then arrested for armed robbery.
It’s hard to say just when, and how, Abdeslam turned jihadi — but his story is true to the template of the Paris killers.
Omar Mostefai, the Bataclan theatre killer, also turned radical in prison. Born to an Algerian father and a Portuguese mother, who converted to Islam when she married, Omar grew up in a secular environment: his parents visited the mosque on festivals, but had little to do with god otherwise.
Mohammed Dem, who studied with Mostefai and played with him in a local rock band, remembers him as an unexceptional teenager. “He was just like the rest of us,” Dem says. He was: before Mostefai was 21, he’d been convicted eight times, on charges ranging from drug dealing to brawling.
In the Paris suburb of Courcouronnes, scarred like so many similar neighbourhoods by gang-violence and unemployment, this wasn’t unusual. The family moved south to Chartres, 96 km away from Paris, a decade ago, perhaps hoping for a new start. The young Mostefai began work as a baker and had a child. Mostefai appears to have aroused little suspicion at the housing block he shared with his family. Arnauld Froissart, a 34-year-old bank employee who lives in the area, remembers Mostefai as “very discreet”.
Ben Bammou, the head of the local Islamic Association, remembers Mostefai attended the local al-Nusra mosque with his father until two years ago. “He was a reserved young man who played soccer with his colleagues.” Then, he disappeared — into the bowels of the Islamic State, police now believe, to join a group of jihadists led by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-born terror commander reported killed by jihadists last week.
Early this year, two days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, a tall, black man shot dead three shoppers and an employee at a supermarket in Paris. Then, he calmly introduced himself to the 15 people who were now his hostages. “Je suis Amedy Coulibaly”, he said, echoing the Je Suis Charlie slogan that had echoed across the world. “I am Malian and Muslim. I belong to the Islamic State,” he went on.
For most of his life, god and nation were at some distance from Coulibaly’s life. A one-time armed robber and drug-user, his journey casts light on the dark spaces in our knowledge of the Friday killers’ lives.
In 1999, just 15 years old, Coulibaly had begun a career in armed robbery and drug dealing. The son of working-class immigrants who set up home in a poor Paris suburb, he began circulating through France’s prison system. Each term in jail seemed to do little to prevent the next.
Then, in 2006, he ran into Chérif Kouachi, the man who, with his brother, would attack the Charlie Hebdo office. The two found a common prison mentor in Algerian-born Djamel Beghal. Long a member of the Islamist movement in Algeria, Beghal had visited Afghanistan to join al-Qaeda in 2000. He was arrested while plotting to bomb the United States embassy in Paris.
Iranian-born scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar spent three days a week, for three years, in French prisons before the publication of his book Radicalisation, an authoritative study of the Islamist movement. Khosrokhavar believes Islamism is, for some Muslim prisoners, a kind of spiritual experience: “thorough jihadism”, he writes, “they transform the contempt of the others into fear”. Educated by hardcore jihadists, they come to believe “that they belong elsewhere, to the Islamic community, and not to the French society”. Thus, becoming a jihadist involves abandoning a real community for a new, imaginary one, the global ummah, or nation, that exists online.
In a video posted online just after his death, Coulibaly visually illustrated his transition: first, he wore the street-gangster’s leather jacket, then a military uniform and, finally, the white gown of the martyr.
Ten years ago, before he was arrested in Pakistan and despatched to the United States, Syrian jihadist Mustafa Nasar, known to his comrades as “Abu Musab al-Suri” and friends as “Redhead”, appeared in an online video. “It is our legitimate right to strike at France”, he said, “because we are at war with that country”.
In Algeria, Nasar argued, the jihad failed because its ambition exceeded its military capacity: the insurgency against the Algerian State had, eventually, been annihilated. He called, instead, for a war based on “the level of individual operations”.
Now, as the Islamic State has begun to suffer significant territorial losses, that’s a lesson it has studied carefully, as it brings its war to Europe.
For France, the war against Islamism isn’t new. In 1985 and 1986, bombs went off at iconic locations, like the Champs Elysées, and upmarket department stores, including the famous Galeries Lafayette. French intelligence eventually tracked down the perpetrators — an Iran-linked cell known as the Fouad Ali Saleh group.
Then, in the 1990s, fresh attacks followed: bombs went off on the public transport system, in cafés, in the streets. In 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, had won elections in Algeria, but was denied power by a military-led secularist coup. France supported the coup — and became a target. Led by veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the Islamic Armed Group, or GIA, launched a campaign of terror, killing dozens of foreign hostages, as well as thousands of Algerian citizens.
In the years after 9/11, France launched a fresh assault on Islamist networks. Zacharias Moussaoui, the so-called “twentieth 9/11 hijacker”, was traced down by French intelligence and eventually convicted in the United States.
Later arrests, though, showed France remained a recruitment hub for global jihadists. In May 2002, French police arrested Ghulam Mustapha Rama, the leader of the ethnic Pakistani association Chemin Droit and the preacher at a mosque in Saint-Denis, for attempting to send recruits to the Lashkar-e-Toiba.
Then, in 2005, French intelligence dismantled a cell recruiting for the war in Iraq — the jihad against American invasion that would evolve, inside a decade, into the Islamic State.
In his book, jihadist ideologue Nasar wrote that “terrorism is like talent for poetry, music, painting and different aspects of the arts. The trainers and those supervising the foundation of Resistance cells must discover those talents and refine them with culture and training so that they find their place in leading terrorist operations in this type of blessed jihad”.
France’s disenfranchised suburban Muslims, many believe, is where that talent was to be found.
The French intifada
“F… the Police”, read the graffiti outside the housing block’s entrance. A gaggle of teenagers stood outside, smoking, heads pulled into hoods of their track suits, not caring about the cold drizzle. Like many of Chêne Pointu’s young, the men were likely unemployed, living several to a room on premises rented from a ghetto landlord.
The teenagers didn’t want to talk about their lives, perhaps because there wasn’t a lot to say. The lobby of the building was covered in broken glass. The elevator wasn’t working: some young people made a living hauling groceries or luggage up the stairs.
It was called the French intifada: France’s worst riots in generations, which began in Chêne Pointu, when two young boys who erroneously believed the police were pursuing them ended up being electrocuted. Thousands of cars were burned, public properties vandalised, and dozens injured, in violence that tore through the suburbs, home to many of France’s Muslims.
The riots were centred in the most destitute quarters of the suburbs, often called “cités” or “quartiers difficiles”. Yet, as the eminent scholar Olivier Roy has pointed out, Islam was never invoked by the rioters. He noted that rioters, gangs of 20-200 young men, coalesced around neighbourhood identity: “Cité des 4000”; “La Madeleine”; “Val Fourré”; “Les Minguettes”.
Led by a caïd, Arabic for leader, the gangs were typically made up of very young people. Half of those arrested for the 2005 riots, police records show, were under 18; almost no one was over 25, and there were very few girls.
French sociologists offer several explanations for the growth of the gangs. There has been a breakdown of parental authority: fathers often don’t work, or are absent. There are large numbers of single mothers, struggling to make a living. In many homes of recent immigrants, mothers are disconnected to the world because of language difficulties.
The children, moreover, often earn more than their parents from small-time street crime, especially selling drugs.
Economic opportunity, moreover, is limited, with youth unemployment levels often touching 40 per cent. The industrial working class, which the suburbs were built of, has almost disappeared. France has a new economy — but the children of the suburbs, poorly schooled, do not have the skills to enter it.
Thus, the gang is an alternate social order, based on violence, complete with its rites of passage. In the suburbs, there’s no sign of a blooming of Islamism, just the gangs. The youth share the idioms and aspirations of Western youth culture, cherishing expensive sports shoes and designer clothes. Their music is hip-hop, not religious anthems.
“They want to be part of the consumer society, even as predators,” Roy has observed. “The suburban riots in France have more to do with the inability to cope with a ghettoised young generation underclass than with Islam”.
France’s growing Muslim middle class, a class which is thoroughly secularised in its personal life and has the highest rates of inter-religious marriage in Europe, has fled the Banlieues. This is true, too, of the tens of thousands of Muslim-origin students who pass through France’s university system each year.
In some suburbs, neo-fundamentalist Muslim movements, like the Tablighi Jamaat and a welter of Salafist groups, have tried to reach out to young people. Though some jihadists have begun their journey in these religious circles, their message of secession from the secular world has little attraction for the youth.
The world of the Belgian jihadists involved in the Friday massacre bears out this proposition. Though some of the Molenbeek district’s old factories have become chic addresses for yuppies, back streets — with their halal butchers and mosques — are some of the poorest in north-west Europe.
Every fourth resident of Molenbeek is unemployed — 37 per cent, if they are under 25. The children of immigrants brought in to work in the district’s textile factories have, like their French counterparts, found themselves jobless.
The neighbourhood has a strong presence of Saudi Arabia-funded establishmentarian mosques, as well as radical jihadist organisations like Sharia4Belgium. Even though small groups of people have flown Islamic State flags in the district, there’s no evidence that more than a handful of people from Molenbeek have been drawn to the cause.
Belgium has seen alarming levels of recruitment to the Islamic State, over 400, but that’s a tiny part of a population of over 700,000. Instead, the district is mainly attractive to jihadists, and other criminals, because of the easy availability of guns, shipped in by narcotics syndicates operating out of the Balkans.
This New Year’s day, Interior Minister Manuel Valls announced that 1,067 cars and trucks were torched across France by youth gangs in the Banlieues the previous night — a “significant reduction”, he noted, from the 1,193 vehicles that were burned in 2013. The gangs destroy some 40,000 cars each year, along with school premises, job-centres, and community facilities. It’s a war, perhaps, but not a holy war the perpetrators of the Paris massacre called for.