Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was released in April after being held hostage in Syria by ISIS, has identified Mehdi Nemmouche, who is also French, as one of his captors. Henin says that over a period of several months he was repeatedly tortured and beaten by Nemmouche.
In July, Nemmouche was charged with murder following the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, on May 24.
The case of Nemmouche raises concerns in at least two ways: firstly, because he is viewed as a fear come true by those who warn of the risk posed to the West by European passport holders returning from the war in Syria who, having been trained by ISIS, may bring their jihad home. Secondly, his violence is being linked to the rise of antisemitism across Europe, particularly in France.
Henin’s perspective on Nemmouche is interesting because unlike terrorism experts who maintain much more distance from their subjects, the French journalist got to know this individual in a much more intimate way: as his torturer.
It would be easy to conclude that the nature of this relationship would make it impossible for Henin to be objective. Maybe so. But I think it’s just as likely that a victim of torture would feel driven to try and understand the mind of his persecutor — especially when they were in the unusual situation of sharing the same first language.
For this reason, I find Henin’s brief psychological profile of Nemmouche particularly interesting.
Henin observed that Nemmouche “came to Syria not because he wanted to fight for a specific cause but because he was looking for a destiny of his own.”
The term “radicalization” appears in the media a lot these days and it conjures up images of empty vessels — young men susceptible to being radicalized.
While that might accurately describe the hapless path that leads some into jihad, there are others — and who’s to say which are more numerous — for whom jihad simply becomes the vehicle for a destiny they were already pursuing.
My hunch is that it is the latter kind of jihadist for whom ISIS has the greatest appeal — that they are pursuing destinies of their own for which they have been provided an ideological vehicle which legitimizes and articulates their visceral drives.
France has about 70,000 prisoners, 60-70% of whom are Muslim. However prevalent the radicalization of Muslim prisoners has become, only a small minority become jihadists. Given that only 5-10% of the French population is Muslim, France’s larger concern should be that so many Muslims are being thrown in jail.
The French journalist Marc Weitzmann recounts how one prisoner describes the system.
Karim Mokhtari, who was sentenced to 10 years in the mid-1990s after he tried to rob a drug trafficker and accidentally killed him with a shotgun, reveals in his book Redemption how easy it is to be approached by Islamists there. “In prison,” he told me, “there are two things you catch as soon as you get there. One is how lonely you are, and the other is how lonely you don’t want to be. So you look in the courtyard and you ask yourself, to which group do I belong? There are the junkies, there are the dealers, there are the rapists, and so forth. And there are the religious. Cleaner than the rest, they also seem to suffer less, they take care of each other. I watched them for a week, then the improvised Imam came to me to ask if I were a Muslim and I said no, not yet, and he introduced me to someone freshly converted — a European — who taught me the first rudiments of Arabic, the first prayers and rituals. And it went on from there.”
After the conversion rate started to turn the group into a force of some sort, the administration decided out of precaution to dismantle the religious group: The imam was transferred. He came to Mokhtari’s cell, as Mokhtari told me: “ ‘Listen’ he said, ‘I’m being transferred and I must leave. But you, your mission as a Muslim is to kill. Kill miscreants anywhere you find them. You need to keep in touch for that even when you’re out so do it. And if you need military training, we have places for that too.’ ”
“That’s when I realized what I was going into,” Mokhtari said. He was the son of a violent mixed marriage, and his French mother got divorced and remarried to a racist Frenchman who lived on welfare and off robbery. … Mokhtari started to get regularly beaten by the man, who also woke him up at 4.a.m. on Saturday nights to take him along with him on his robberies of villas and apartments while Karim kept watch. But despite an incomparably more violent background than Nemmouche endured, Karim Mokhtari never turned to terrorism.
In the following film, Mokhtari describes his own redemption.
Destiny is a dangerous and intoxicating idea. It empowers the individual by allowing him to shed doubt.
Where there is no internal struggle, conviction easily translates into action. Those pursuing their destiny, swiftly move forward, while those unsure of their destiny, are more inclined to waver, aware of their capacity to make mistakes. Destiny is dangerous both subjectively and objectively.
If we believe some individuals are destined to become to become terrorists, we’re also likely to view them as irredeemable.