Why Europe can’t find the jihadis in its midst

Mitch Prothero reports: The assignment given to the Belgian police in the summer of 2014 was straightforward but high stakes: Follow two men suspected of involvement with ISIS through the streets of Brussels. Find out who they meet, record what they say. A court had approved wiretaps for the men’s phones and for the use of tracking devices, and a specialized team of covert operators from the secret service had broken into the men’s homes and vehicles and planted bugs and GPS devices without leaving a trace.

Rather unusually, there had been little problem getting senior police officials and the courts that oversee Belgium’s personal privacy laws to approve the mission. Partly, it was the two men’s history: They had long criminal records — drug dealing, petty theft, and the occasional violent robbery — and now, unbeknownst to them, had been placed on a terrorism watch list.

With hundreds of people suspected of having ties to ISIS and al-Qaeda, it would be impossible for the Belgian authorities to monitor all of them. But these two were believed to be linked to Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French-Algerian man charged with killing four people at the Jewish Museum of Brussels on May 24, 2014.

Belgian authorities knew there had been an alarming increase in violent rhetoric — as evidenced by the proliferation of online videos and public demonstrations, and by the criminal trials of members of Sharia4Belgium, a group advocating extremist ideology — much of it linked to the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But even for trained investigators, let alone police officers typically assigned to financial fraud or money-laundering cases, getting an overall sense of what was happening remained elusive.

In part this was because of the transformation in the threat posed by ISIS militants; as nebulous as al-Qaeda had been, it was at least an organization with a defined leadership and network of followers. These new cases were much more challenging, seemingly organic in nature, with a more diffuse structure that was nearly impossible to pin down. [Continue reading…]

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France’s ‘burkini’ bans are about more than religion or clothing

The New York Times reports: There is something inherently head-spinning about the so-called burkini bans that are popping up in coastal France. The obviousness of the contradiction — imposing rules on what women can wear on the grounds that it’s wrong for women to have to obey rules about what women can wear — makes it clear that there must be something deeper going on.

“Burkinis” are, essentially, full-body swimsuits that comply with Islamic modesty standards, and on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France waded into the raging debate over the bans in some of the country’s beach towns, denouncing the rarely seen garb as part of the “enslavement of women.”

This, of course, is not really about swimwear. Social scientists say it is also not primarily about protecting Muslim women from patriarchy, but about protecting France’s non-Muslim majority from having to confront a changing world: one that requires them to widen their sense of identity when many would prefer to keep it as it was.

“These sorts of statements are a way to police what is French and what is not French,” said Terrence G. Peterson, a professor at Florida International University who studies France’s relationship with Muslim immigrants and the Muslim world.

While this battle over identity is rising now in the wake of terrorist attacks, it has been raging in one form or another in French society for decades, Professor Peterson said. What seems to be a struggle over the narrow issue of Islamic dress is really about what it means to be French. [Continue reading…]

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Human rights groups vow to challenge burkini ban on Cannes beaches

The Guardian reports: A French human rights association and Muslim groups have said they will take legal action against the mayor of Cannes for issuing a decree banning burkinis from the resort’s beaches.

David Lisnard signed off on a ruling last month preventing women from wearing the full-body swimsuits in the Côte d’Azur town. The decree was introduced shortly after the Bastille day attack in Nice in July, where a delivery driver killed 85 people when he ploughed into crowds celebrating the French national holiday on the seafront.

The decree states that Muslim women wearing burkinis could be a threat to public order and will be cautioned and fined €38 (£33).

“Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order (crowds, scuffles etc), which it is necessary to prevent,” it says.

Thierry Migoule, the head of Cannes municipal services, said: “We are not talking about banning the wearing of religious symbols on the beach … but ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us.”

Lawyers, human rights groups and Muslim associations have described the decree as illegal and preposterous. [Continue reading…]

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How a secretive branch of ISIS built a global network of killers

The New York Times reports: Believing he was answering a holy call, Harry Sarfo left his home in the working-class city of Bremen last year and drove for four straight days to reach the territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria.

He barely had time to settle in before members of the Islamic State’s secret service, wearing masks over their faces, came to inform him and his German friend that they no longer wanted Europeans to come to Syria. Where they were really needed was back home, to help carry out the group’s plan of waging terrorism across the globe.

“He was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people,” Mr. Sarfo recounted on Monday, in an interview with The New York Times conducted in English inside the maximum-security prison near Bremen. “And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks.”

The masked man explained that, although the group was well set up in some European countries, it needed more attackers in Germany and Britain, in particular. “They said, ‘Would you mind to go back to Germany, because that’s what we need at the moment,’” Mr. Sarfo recalled. “And they always said they wanted to have something that is occurring in the same time: They want to have loads of attacks at the same time in England and Germany and France.”

The operatives belonged to an intelligence unit of the Islamic State known in Arabic as the Emni, which has become a combination of an internal police force and an external operations branch, dedicated to exporting terror abroad, according to thousands of pages of French, Belgian, German and Austrian intelligence and interrogation documents obtained by The Times.

The Islamic State’s attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 brought global attention to the group’s external terrorism network, which began sending fighters abroad two years ago. Now, Mr. Sarfo’s account, along with those of other captured recruits, has further pulled back the curtain on the group’s machinery for projecting violence beyond its borders.

What they describe is a multilevel secret service under the overall command of the Islamic State’s most senior Syrian operative, spokesman and propaganda chief, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Below him is a tier of lieutenants empowered to plan attacks in different regions of the world, including a “secret service for European affairs,” a “secret service for Asian affairs” and a “secret service for Arab affairs,” according to Mr. Sarfo. [Continue reading…]

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French politicians are using terrorism to score points ahead of election

By Jocelyn Evans, University of Leeds and Gilles Ivaldi, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis

Until recently, France’s politicians had largely presented a united front against terrorist attacks. Rarely did they use tragedy to score points off each other. But that has started to change over the past year. Now a political controversy has erupted in the wake of the massacre in Nice on Bastille Day 2016. It will no doubt be further fuelled by the killing of a Catholic priest near Rouen.

Within hours of the incident at a fireworks display in Nice, opposition politicians were rounding on the government. How was it that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was able to kill 84 people and wound hundreds by driving a truck into a festive crowd, even as the country lived under a state of emergency?

One was Christian Estrosi, the former mayor of Nice and a Republican right winger who supports former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Estrosi is currently leading the offensive against the government. “Lies are fuelling the controversy,” he said, referencing the contested number of national police and soldiers in Nice on the night of the attack. “If the state stops lying, there will no longer be a controversy.”

[Read more…]

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Muslims mourn in solidarity with Catholics across France after priest’s murder

BBC News reports: Muslims across France have attended Catholic Mass in a gesture of solidarity after the murder of a priest on Tuesday.

Fr Jacques Hamel was killed in his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen by two men who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

France’s Muslim council, the CFCM, urged Muslims to show “solidarity and compassion” over the murder.

“We are all Catholics of France,” said Anouar Kbibech, the head of the CFCM. [Continue reading…]

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French media explores ways of reducing ‘hero effect’ in its reporting on attacks

The Associated Press reports: Some leading French media outlets pledged Wednesday to stop publishing the names and images of attackers linked to the Islamic State group to prevent individuals from being inadvertently glorified, following a spate of attacks in France over the past 18 months.

The decisions, part of a wider French debate about how the news media might be contributing to the extremist threat, come as the French parliament debates whether to enshrine in law restrictions on the way the news media can cover “terrorist acts.”

The director of Le Monde, Jerome Fenoglio, said in an editorial that his newspaper would stop publishing photographs of attackers in a bid to prevent the “possible posthumous glorifying effects” and called for news media to exercise more responsibility. The newspaper already has a ban on publishing extracts of Islamic State propaganda or claims of responsibility emitted from IS’s media wing. [Continue reading…]

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Jacques Hamel, 85, a beloved French priest, killed in his church

The New York Times reports: Like many people who enjoy their work, the Rev. Jacques Hamel did not want to stop. At 85, he was well past retirement age, but he kept in shape and kept on going — baptizing infants, celebrating Mass and tending to parishioners in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, the working-class town in Normandy where he had spent much of his life.

“He could have retired at 75 years old, but seeing how few priests were around he decided to stay and work, to continue to be of service to people, up until it all ended, tragically,” the Rev. Auguste Moanda-Phuati, the parish priest of the Église St.-Étienne, where Father Hamel worked as an auxiliary priest, said in a phone interview. “He was loved by all. He was a little like a grandfather. We were happy when he was around and worried when we hadn’t seen him in a while.”

Father Hamel was celebrating Mass on Tuesday morning when two men with knives entered the small church and slit his throat, an attack that horrified people across France and the world. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that the two assailants — who were shot dead by the police — were “soldiers” retaliating against the United States-led coalition fighting the group in Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]

The Age reports: On Tuesday, [Adel] Kermiche was identified by prosecutors as one of the young men who slit the throat of a Catholic priest during mass in a church in northern France. He was shot dead by police with an accomplice after they entered the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church near Rouen on Tuesday morning, cut the priest’s throat and seriously injured another parishioner.

Kermiche was a local teenager, born in 1997, who had tried to join IS in Syria, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said – though he failed in two attempts and instead served jail time in France.

His mother, a teacher, told the Tribune de Geneve in 2015 that the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015 had “acted as a detonator” on a teen who had been cheerful, kind, sociable, music-loving and a regular mosque-goer.

“He said we could not practise our religion in peace in France,” she said. “He was speaking with words that did not belong to him. He was bewitched, like he was in a cult.” [Continue reading…]

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Attacker in Nice had support of several people, French prosecutors say

The Wall Street Journal reports: The man who killed 84 people in Nice on Bastille Day had the support of several people and appeared to have been plotting his attack since last year, French prosecutors said Thursday.

Paris prosecutor François Molins said he asked a judge to place five people under investigation on preliminary terrorism charges. The five are in police custody.

“The investigation has not only provided more confirmation of the premeditation of the murderous attack of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, but also establish that he had support and complicity in preparation of his criminal act,” Mr. Molins said.

Meanwhile, antiterror police conducted raids in a Paris suburb on Thursday, police officers said, as France attempts to sweep up weapons and people suspected of links to terrorism networks after the July 14 attack in Nice.

Police locked down a neighborhood in Argenteuil, a suburb 7 miles northwest of Paris, as they raided three sites, searching for weapons and explosives, one police officer said. Around 20 people were detained in the raids, another said. [Continue reading…]

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Jihad and the French exception

Farhad Khosrokhavar writes: Whether Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who killed more than 80 people during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, was an agent of the Islamic State or an unhinged loner who borrowed the group’s jihadist symbols, the slaughter raises the same fundamental question: Why do so many more attacks of this magnitude occur in France than in other European countries?

Belgium has also been hit recently, but less often. In Britain and Spain no terrorist attack has killed more than 10 people in over a decade. In Germany, there hasn’t been a major attack at all.

Failures in the French security and intelligence services cannot account for the difference, because communication problems afflict such services throughout Europe. The answer lies elsewhere: When it comes to jihad, too, there is a French exception.

France’s distinctiveness arises in part from the ideological strength of the idea the nation has had of itself since the French Revolution, including an assertive form of republicanism and an open distrust of all religions, beginning, historically, with Catholicism. This model has been knocked around over the years, first by decolonization, then by decades of economic hardship, the growing stigmatization of cultural differences, the fervent individualism of new generations and globalization, which has narrowed the state’s room for maneuver.

Above all, France hasn’t been able to solve the problem of economic and social exclusion. Its system, which is too protective of those people who have jobs and not open enough to those who don’t, breeds angst all around. Young people in the banlieues, marginalized and with few prospects, feel like victims. They become prime targets for jihadist propaganda, often after a stint in prison for petty crimes. [Continue reading…]

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Nice attacker had fascination with extreme violence

The Wall Street Journal reports: The man who killed 84 people in Nice was a violent drinker and drug taker with an “unbridled sex life” who developed a fascination with Islamic State and other terrorist propaganda, prosecutors said as they deepened their probe into whether a broader network fostered his radicalization.

François Molins, the chief Paris prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the Bastille Day attack, said Monday that police haven’t found any evidence that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel explicitly pledged allegiance to Islamic State or had links to any people associated with the Sunni Muslim militant group.

However, the prosecutor painted a picture of a man who underwent a rapid transformation in the weeks leading up the massacre and became suddenly enthralled with extremist messages and ultra-violent images.

Data recovered from Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s computer included pictures of militants draped in Islamic State flags and corpses as well as photos of Osama bin Laden and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the head of an al Qaeda-aligned group called Murabitun. His computer also turned up searches for “horrible car accidents” and “shock videos,” Mr. Molins said. [Continue reading…]

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Police and academics search Nice attacker’s history for a motive

Jason Burke writes: Lahouaiej-Bouhlel certainly matches the classic profile of French violent Islamic extremist in many ways – though he is a relatively recent arrival rather than born in the country of immigrant parents, as is more usually the case. He was a young, male petty criminal. He was also not devout, all witnesses so far agree. He did not fast during Ramadan, ate pork, drank, and was never seen at any local mosque.

This lack of piety among militants may seem confusing. It is, however, the rule rather than the exception. It was true of the dozen or so French and Belgian young men involved in bombings and shootings earlier this year, and of Mohammed Merah, who committed the first major attack in France in 2012. Other examples beyond France include that of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 in a Florida nightclub last month.

This apparent paradox has prompted a keen debate among experts. The argument has major policy implications. In France, it has been bitter. Olivier Roy, a well-known French scholar currently at the University of Europe in Florence, suggests those drawn into violent activism are already “in nihilist, generational revolt”. This is why so many are criminals, or marginal. Extremist Islam gives them a cause and frames anger and alienation in the way extremist leftwing ideologies did for some in the 1960s and 1970s. The new militants are thus not victims of “brainwashing” by cynical and fanatical recruiters. This is the Islamisation of radicalism, Roy says, not the radicalisation of Islam.

Many disagree. Some say Roy naively ignores the impact of intolerant and reactionary doctrines on Muslim communities in the west. Others suggest he underestimates the historical impact of western colonialism as well as that of more recent western policies in the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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