Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West

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By: Gilles Kepel
Antoine Jardin

Oxford and Princeton: Princeton University Press. 240pp. $29.95, ISBN: 9780691174846

Volume: 5 Issue: 12

December 2017

Review by:

Christopher Anzalone, ABD

McGill University & Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School

Cambridge, MA

In this updated study and expansion upon previously published work, Gilles Kepel traces the contemporary history and evolution of Sunni radical Islamism and militancy in France from 2005 up to the launching of attacks by Islamic State in Paris and other locations in the country in 2015.  The backdrop of the book is not only the rise and increasing radicalization and organization of European jihadi cells on the continent but also the growing popularity of far right wing political parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid; PVV) in the Netherlands, which have drawn on public alarm and anger over terrorist attacks at home to push their anti-immigration and extreme nationalist and ethno-racial ideologies.

Kepel is uniquely placed to write such a study as one of the foremost academic experts on radical Sunni Islamism and the author of several important and influential earlier studies in the 1980s and 1990s on the history and trajectories of Sunni jihadism in Egypt and the wider Muslim world.  In this book, he draws upon his several decades of fieldwork and observation of the outlying neighborhoods of France’s major cities, the banlieus, which tend to be home to immigrants and other groups from lower socio-economic classes and who are less connected to mainstream French society.  It is in these neighborhoods that feelings of alienation, anger, and a desire for the utopian ideal promised by jihadi ideologues has in part taken root, producing groups of youth susceptible to the media messaging and propaganda of radical organizations such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.  Kepel also makes use of selected primary source materials produced by these organizations, most of them in Arabic but some of which are translated into other languages including French, English, German, and Spanish.

What France and other countries are experiencing now, Kepel argues, is the “third wave” of jihadi militancy that builds upon the first set of waves of Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, and Algeria in the 1980s and 1990s and the “second wave” represented by Al-Qaeda Central’s attacks inside the United States on September 11, 2001.  In Europe, this “third wave jihadism” began in 2005 and was marked by jihadi recruiters targeting second generation immigrants from Muslim majority countries living in Europe whose personal and communal identities remain, to a large degree, separate from the rest of national society.  He also argues that 2005 was a pivotal year in the emergence of a new form of jihadism in France because it also saw the breakout of the most widespread riots in the banlieus, riots which were also based on an “enclave-based ethnic-racial logic of violence” (xi) that came to form the basis of third wave jihadism’s exhortations to militancy.  The riots themselves marked a major shift in French society and politics as the children of first generation immigrants from North and West Africa emerged for the first time as significant political actors.

France’s Muslim communities are divided along generational, social, political, and economic lines with many different groups competing for influence over an estimated eight percent of the country’s population of nearly 65 million people.  A greater percentage of first generation immigrant and second generation French Muslims are younger and poorer than the national average.  The numbers of the country’s Muslims has also increased due to the conversion of “native” French to Islam, particularly from the working and lower middle class.  Since the early 2000s, France’s once dominant Muslim organizations, many of which were offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, have lost more and more ground to grassroots Salafi preachers and groups who have built large followings in the banlieus.  On the political side of developments, French Muslims also began to play a more prominent role in national politics, establishing their own civic organizations and lobbying groups that supported an array of different candidates for public office.

French jihadism specifically built upon the opportunities for indoctrination and recruitment presented to imprisoned militants such as the French-Algerian Djamel Beghal, who was jailed on charges that he was planning an Al-Qaeda attack on French soil before being released to house arrest in 2009 after the government was unable to deport him to Algeria.  Some of these militant voices went on to indoctrinate younger generations of militants such as the Kouachi brothers, Saïd and Chérif, who carried out the 7 January 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.  These shifts in French Islam and the evolution of French jihadism are discussed in the book’s first three chapters.

The outbreak of mass demonstrations followed by civil war in Syria presented jihadis with arguably the most significant recruitment opportunity in modern history.  Graphic footage and reports of government atrocities, which were later backed by Russian and Iranian military interventions, served as an emotional catalyst for many Muslim youth around the world including in France, with estimates ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 of individuals believed to have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join organizations including Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.  Although only an estimate, these numbers are the highest in Europe.  The poorer integration of France’s Muslims into mainstream society has probably played a role in the attractiveness of militancy among segments of the population.  Recruitment into Islamic State and other jihadi organizations was also aided by individuals who had joined during earlier periods and later served as recruiters in their own right, such as the notorious Islamic State member and recruiter Rachid Kassim, who was featured in the organization’s media operations and his own social media accounts before he was killed in early 2017 in a U.S. air strike near Mosul, Iraq.

The book is rich in detail and includes a useful chronology of events as an appendix.  Citations, however, are scant and it does not include either substantial footnotes/end notes or a bibliography, which makes it difficult to verify or follow up on sources of information cited in the main text.  The absence of substantial in-text citations or footnotes and a bibliography are particularly surprising in an academic study published by a university press.  Despite these important omissions, the book provides one of the most extensive histories and set of analysis on the history and evolution of French jihadism and will be of interest both to the general public as well as scholars and analysts.

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