Surveillance challenge: The transition from struggling identity to mujahid is often fast and furious

Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid write: French counterterrorism surveillance data (FSPRT) has identified 11,400 radical Islamists, 25 percent of whom are women and 16 percent minors — among the minors, females are in a majority. Legal proceedings are now underway against 646 people suspected of involvement in terrorist activity. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls conceded after Friday’s attacks that even keeping full track of those suspected of being prone to violent acts is practically impossible: around-the-clock surveillance of a single individual requires ten to twenty security agents, of which there are only 6,500 for all of France.

Nor is it a matter of controlling the flow of people into France. France’s Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam (CPDSI) estimates that 90 percent of French citizens who have radical Islamist beliefs have French grandparents and 80 percent come from non-religious families. In fact, most Europeans who are drawn into jihad are “born again” into radical religion by their social peers. In France, and in Europe more generally, more than three of every four recruits join the Islamic State together with friends, while only one in five do so with family members and very few through direct recruitment by strangers. Many of these young people identify with neither the country their parents come from nor the country in which they live. Other identities are weak and non-motivating. One woman in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois described her conversion as being like that of a transgender person who opts out of the gender assigned at birth: “I was like a Muslim trapped in a Christian body,” she said. She believed she was only able to live fully as a Muslim with dignity in the Islamic State.

For others who have struggled to find meaning in their lives, ISIS is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that many of them will never live to enjoy. A July 2014 poll by ICM Research suggested that more than one in four French youth of all creeds between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four have a favorable or very favorable opinion of ISIS. Even if these estimates are high, in our own interviews with young people in the vast and soulless housing projects of the Paris banlieues we found surprisingly wide tolerance or support for ISIS among young people who want to be rebels with a cause — who want, as they see it, to defend the oppressed.

Yet the desire these young people in France express is not to be a “devout Muslim” but to become a mujahid (“holy warrior”): to take the radical step, immediately satisfying and life-changing, to obtain meaning through self-sacrifice. Although feelings of marginalization and outrage may build over a long time, the transition from struggling identity to mujahid is often fast and furious. The death of six of the eight Paris attackers by suicide bombs and one in a hail of police bullets testifies to the sincerity of this commitment, as do the hundreds of French volunteer deaths in Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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