French Government Concerned with its Citizens’ Involvement in Syria

The Flag of the Jihad. Wikimedia Commons

The Flag of the Jihad.
Wikimedia Commons

Following the release of a group of French journalists from a Syrian prison, the issue of French citizens leaving the country to “faire le djihad” has been brought to the public’s attention.

The hostages were released on April 20 after 10 months of captivity. During a debriefing by the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE), to obtain more details on the timeline of captivity, conditions and location, jihadists, etc., it was discovered that the hooded jailers were Francophone.

The jailers, presumed to be French of Maghreban origin and Belgian, had the exclusive responsibility for the Western hostages until the month of March. Assigned the task of guardians for practical reasons, the jailers’ command of the French language allowed them to manage the everyday life of detention.

Francophone Arabs are often assigned the task of the jailer, as the hierarchy of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the terrorist group responsible for the hostages, places Francophone Arabs at the bottom of the pyramid. The French citizens present in these groups are, however, not exclusively linked to this type of function.

There are a surprisingly significant number of French citizens fighting in Syria alongside the rebels at present. Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius estimated that 500 Frenchmen have joined the ranks of jihad in Syria since the conflict began three years ago, almost half of which have joined in the last four months. In January, former Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls estimated that there were around 250.

Why are there French citizens in Syria? Many have been drawn to the movement by a desire to fight for an Islamic state.

People are leaving in greater numbers and at younger ages. Adolescents, some as young as 14 years old, are motivated by “teenage angst amplified by violent video games” more than serious religious convictions, according to a report by Al-Jazeera.

A French research center, the Centre de prévention contre les dérives sectaires liées à l’Islam (CPDSI), says most French nationals volunteering to join the “jihad” in Syria are not typically from traditional Muslim families.

Eighty percent of them were French nationals for more than three generations, and two-thirds of them were raised by parents who would describe themselves as atheists. Only twenty percent of them were raised in traditionally Muslim families, of which most did not attend weekly prayer services.

Geographically, more than one quarter of the jihad candidates are coming from the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, know for its high unemployment rate and family instability. The CPDSI report concludes that the increasing number of French nationals leaving to fight in Syria is resulting from the ability of transnational groups to “entrap weak minds” who have been affected by the poor economic growth in France in the last decade.

A great number indoctrinate themselves on the Internet, through social media and online chat groups. David Thomson, author of Les Français djihadistes, asserted in an interview with France 24 that adolescents are called to join the jihad movement not in mosques, but mainly on the Internet, through social media. A major problem with this phenomenon is that the groups are international, most being created outside of France, meaning the French government has little control over them and no way to limit them.

The French government must consider the role of the Internet in the development of its plan for restricting the growing phenomenon. In a plan presented last Wednesday by Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, jihad candidates will be placed under surveillance using Internet bias.

The plan consists of more than 20 additional concrete measures, including the requirement of special authorization for minors to leave the French territory – a measure that was just removed in January 2013. It will also establish an “ad hoc structure” that would help families that suspect their children are becoming involved in the fundamentalist movement, frequenting fundamentalist mosques or visiting terrorist websites. Psychologists, researchers, and various social services will be available to those who suspect their children of radicalization.

In cases of “strong intuition,” it will be possible to register a “risk profile” in the Fichier des personnes recherchées (FPR), as well as in the Schengen system information database, which centralizes the search at the European levels.

In a radio interview last Tuesday, Fabius said that plan was “to tackle this upstream [at the source], and all the way downstream.” The government must identify young people caught on the “tragic path,” stop them from crossing the Syrian border, and then, if they have managed to cross it, their return and reintegration must be monitored.

Social reintegration of these young people recruited in the hostile militias of Bachar al-Assad’s regime is a crucial issue, especially considering the growing threat of terrorism in France. The risk of radicalized French citizens is real. Cazeneuve believes that, given the scale, the country and even Europe could be “overrun” by citizens converting to radical Islam.

Other European countries are experiencing similar phenomena – by the end of January, more than 200 Belgian and 200 German citizens had left to fight in Syria. On April 30, Cazeneuve will meet his English, German, and Belgian counterparts in London to discuss the growing problem.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls had developed during his tenure as Minister of the Interior a comprehensive legal and preventive plan against French nationals leaving for Syria. He was the first European leader to do so, despite the occurrence of a similar phenomenon in other countries.

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