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What fuels Islamic extremism in France?

Since an attack at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in early 2015, more than 200 people have been killed in terror attacks by Islamic extremists in France. A new book, “Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West,” by Gilles Kepel, discusses the roots of Islamic extremism there and unrest within French Muslim communities. Kepel, a professor at Paris Sciences et Lettres, joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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    Beyond the United Kingdom, France has endured the worst terrorist attacks in Europe during the past two years, attacks that have killed 239 people. There was the assault on the offices of the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" in January of 2015, followed by the mass shootings at a concert hall and cafes in Paris in November, and then last summer's Bastille Day truck attack on pedestrians on the boardwalk in Nice.

    In his latest book, "Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West," Paris-based scholar Gilles Kepel delves into the undercurrents of these attacks.

    I recently spoke to Kepel here in the studio.

    What's happening in France? Why is it different than the rest of Europe in terms of these attacks?


    Well, it was different because, as you said, we suffered 239 dead. The reason why we focused on France was that they thought they could take the French political hostage. They thought the more attacks there would be, then the more people would vote for the extreme right because they felt that almost they're more of culprit (ph) or something, and — because you have to remember that the terrorist jihadist wants to proselytize among other Muslims, and they want to sort of bring them under their banner, because most of our Muslim compatriots just loathe them and hate them.

    But, you know, they want to say, the French are racist, the French vote for the extreme right, therefore there is no way for you in Europe, and the only way for you to be safe is to rally with us and then to sow jihad and civil strife in country — in Europe, because, you know, this third-generation jihadism, which I describe in my book "Terror in France," thinks that Europe is the soft underbelly of the West, and this is where they have to focus.

    In Europe, they want to use a number of disenfranchised young Muslims whom they think see no future in Europe and then are sort of manipulated by the Salafists and think there is a break in values between Islam and European values. And therefore, you know, this is the sort of bolt and nut phenomenon that will lead to mobilization of the masses, because it's easy to kill people, but it's very difficult to mobilize the masses on your behalf. And this is the quandary of terrorism.


    We've had terror attacks before throughout the world. I mean, whether it's Africa, or Indonesia, as you point out in the book. But they didn't have the effect of destabilizing societies. And as you point out, there is a little bit more of a systematic thought given to what this third-generation of terrorists are doing.

  • KEPEL:

    Well, definitely. The issue is to destabilize society and to provoke retaliation, you know, from the majority societies. So as to lead to sort of enclave wars in Europe, you know, we have those values where impoverished young people, children of immigrants or others live with very high level of unemployment, rates that can reach up to 40 percent at times. So, for those people, there is not much hope. They went to school. They have no jobs. They do drugs or they go to jail. And therefore, this idea that the future is the Islamic State, is ISIS, was appealing to some.


    France and Belgium saw thousands of men go to training camps in Syria and then come back into Europe. Has that flow decreased? And if so, why?

  • KEPEL:

    Well, over the last year, there is no flow left because the borders between Turkey and the Islamic State have been sealed, and the Turks arrest whoever comes from France and they pick up in Turkey. So, to a large extent, this big threat that was envisaged that, you know, we have so many returnees who have been trained and brainwashed and would be very powerful in staging huge attacks has not been that salient as we thought it would be.

    And then the people there on ISIS territory are, you know, suffer from the bombings and from the droning. And therefore, they're sort of trapped there for the time being.


    One of the things that's interesting also is you look at this notion of the lone wolf. It's not absolutely accurate. You actually trace it back into ideology and how it's been publicized and proselytized for years and years now. And one of the more unsettling conclusions is that the attack in San Bernardino, the attack in Orlando are not the end for the United States.

  • KEPEL:

    Definitely, and they're not lone wolf issues. You know, you may — lone wolf is something that comes from an American concept. Someone, you know, the Columbine attack or whatever people who just read books and everything, and buy weapons and go on a shooting spree.

    But this is different. I mean, because you have this ideology in place. There are works by a Syrian engineer called Abu Musab al-Suri who posted on the Internet in 2005 a very lengthy book in Arabic called "Global Islamic Resistance Call" where he says those attacks in your neighborhood, this is the solution, that people imbued with this Islamist radical ideology. And, then, you know, you take a knife, you take a gun, you take your car, and then you kill as many kufar or infidels as possible and then they will retaliate. They will, say, desecrate a mosque or something, and this will create a sort of a system of provocation and repression, which will lead up to the breakup of society.


    So, the goal is to break society up from the inside, to create civil strife.

  • KEPEL:



    How do the French intelligence agencies and the authorities deal with, this and what lessons can be applied to the United States? Because if it is distributed, if you can't stop the Internet or turn it off, how do you try to win hearts and minds or at least protect hearts and minds from going to the other side?

  • KEPEL:

    Well, you know, there is a program economy of jihadism that, you know, it's easy to kill people, but after a while, when you do not manage to mobilize the masses on your behalf, then violence turns against its perpetrators, and you have to find a new means.


    What's the right mix of policy for the United States on the diplomatic front and also the security front? How — I mean, the administration has already put forth their ideas on how to tighten the borders. Now, you also have laptops that are banned from certain airplanes that are coming into the United States.

    But are these cosmetic? Are these structurally sound? Will they work?

  • KEPEL:

    Well, you have to deal with the symptoms. And you have to monitor, you have security and to understand the ideology. I guess this is sort of the mix that newly elected President Macron wants to make because he thought he's going to have sort of task, a terrorist task force in the Elysees Palace, mixing with security, diplomacy, justice, the military, education, of course.

    And, you know, this is a big challenge, which I believe is also a means for us to think about our own society. Terrorism is not something which is somewhere apart in disguise or only in the projects. It's something that we have to wonder why this has happened. And if we understand that correctly, I think it could allow us to fix what is going wrong in our society, specifically in Europe today.


    All right. The book is called "Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West" — author and professor Gilles Keppel, thanks so much.

  • KEPEL:

    My pleasure.

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