Interview with Hamed Mekrelouf, expert on radicalization and on preventive methods.

TFA met with Hamed Mekrelouf to talk about radicalization, from the origins of the phenomenon and its geopolitical influences, to the methodological approaches to prevent it. The interview was conducted on 7 September 2018.

Hamed Mekrelouf is a trainer and lecturer who has been working for many years with social workers, helping them to understand and prevent religious radicalization. He has been involved in preventing radicalization since the beginning of the terrorism wave that impacted the French territory. He participated, in collaboration with local institutions and field actors, to programs seeking to monitor and work with individuals reported for radicalization. He also intervenes in prison on behalf of the Anti-Terrorist Fight Program (PLAT) [Programme de Lutte Antiterroriste] of the Ministry of Justice and is participating to the implementation of the Municipal Information Network on Radicalization (CMER) [Cellule Municipale d’Echange sur la Radicalisation] alongside local representatives. He is currently finishing a book about his personal and professional experience, which will be published later in 2018 and whose title will be “The Spirit of Cordoba” [“L’esprit de Cordoue”].

Adrien Morin: What are the dynamics at the origin of the radicalization process?

Hamed Mekrelouf: These dynamics are multiform. There are as many radicalization paths as there are radicalized people. The only truth since Mohammed Merah’s attacks in 2012, or even since Khaled Kelkal and the wave of terrorist attacks led by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in 1995, is that all of those who carried out attacks in connection with an Islamist ideology on French soil, were in a cycle “delinquency-prison-recidivism.”

Khaled Kelkal - The Foreign Analyst
A portrait of Khaled Kelkal (Source: Rama / Wikimedia Commons)

An individual is going to radicalize because he is presented with an offer which fits into what we can call “cognitive openings.” These cognitive openings are weaknesses that recruiters can exploit in order to push an individual to adhere to a project. The first of these weaknesses is youth. Most of the people who radicalize are between 15 and 25 years old. This period of life is marked by the difficulties related to the transformation of the body, the relationship with the world of adults and with authority, the quest for an ideal and for a cause to fight for. These difficulties further complicate the elaboration of a life project for young people. In the end, most of the radicalized young people that I encounter are individuals without a project, in a society without a project. Recruiters from Islamist cells are simply going to fill that void by proposing a project with a politico-religious ideal as the end goal, and the acceptance of violence as a way to achieve this end goal.

AM: How do recruiters proceed?

HM: Recruiters are going to approach individuals with cognitive openings that can be exploited. While most people are not likely to radicalize, by targeting a particularly wide audience, recruiters still manage to put their hands on a few and “sell” them a project. These contacts can be done in real life (in mosques, in the professional environment etc.) or, since the middle of the 2000s, through social media.

The message has not changed much since the ‘80s. Salafi preachers for instance, explain to young people that their parents have always been submissive to the “settlers,” that they have been exploited by a minority that rules the world (the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy is a recurring theme), that the French (referred to as the “crusaders” or the “unbelievers”) are racists and that they will never find their place in the society as it is. Recruiters also try to remove the responsibility of their targets by explaining to them that if they fell into delinquency, it is only because society forced them down this path. Generally speaking, these recruiters attempt to convince young people that they have suffered a prejudice and that, in order to fix this prejudice, they are offered the path of God.

the radicalization wave that we have been going through since 2012 was ultimately facilitated by the efforts organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood have put in “radicalizing Islam” in France and in the rest of Europe

AM: How do you explain the radicalization wave that impacted France since 2012?

HM: Among the young people (with immigrant background) who radicalize today, the majority comes from the second and third generations of immigrants. They are the children and grandchildren of those who immigrated to France several decades ago. In the ‘80s, I witnessed the arrival of the first Salafi preachers on Frenchs soil. However, like many other young people of my generation, I have remained impervious to these discourses because my parents, who originated from Algeria, had largely educated us on our cultural and religious traditions. Muslim immigration to France almost entirely originates from North Africa and therefore, is impregnated by Maliki Islam, which has no link with these Salafi movements that come from the Arabian Peninsula. In short, our elders had given us the tools we needed to be aware and protect ourselves from these extremist preachers. Back then, we thought that these dynamics would remain the same for the next generations. We were severely mistaken.

The radicalization wave that we have been going through since 2012 was ultimately facilitated by the efforts organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood have put in “radicalizing Islam” in France and in the rest of Europe. The codes that existed in my youth have been progressively dismantled to the the benefit of those imported by Salafi networks, even though, and it is important to highlight it, Malekism remains predominant in France. As an example, in the ‘80s, we would have never imagined that women would end up walking wearing head covers in public areas.

AM: What are some noticeable characteristics among the young people who radicalize?

HM: While working with radicalized young people, whether it is in prison or elsewhere, we realized that we have a majority of people from “French” and “Christian” origin. These young people are not necessarily all in a situation of moral, social and intellectual misery, but they are all in search of an ideal.

People of Maghrebi descent who could be tempted by radical narratives, will more often than not, find examples around them of different practices of Islam, which will act as witnesses testifying against radical movements. These counterexamples, however, do not exist in the case of individuals from “French” descent, and they will have a tendency to go straight to radical narratives while looking for their religious ideal. For them, the politico-religious project “sold” by recruiters is going to be taken at face value. Moreover, since these young people from “French” descent do not have the legitimate Muslim roots of their fellow citizens with an immigrant background, they will often try to compensate. In sum, they will try to be “more catholic than the Pope.” It is in this category that we find the radicalized young people with the most extreme views. Most of them have “found Allah” in the back of their prison cells.

ultimately, entering prison is usually experienced as a descent into hell, it is in this context that new inmates will attempt to hold on to something

AM: Talking about prison, what is its role within this radicalization process?

HM: When an individual enters prison, he loses everything in an instant: his social life, his job, his bank account, his house, his sexual life. He first finds himself in what we call the “arrival zone,” which is also the place where we witness the highest suicide rate. Ultimately, entering prison is usually experienced as a descent into hell. It is in this context that new inmates will attempt to hold on to something.

The most radicalized people in prison do not want to meet with neither chaplains nor people like me who intervene on behalf of the Anti-Terrorist Fight Program (PLAT) [Programme de Lutte Antiterroriste – PLAT] of the Ministry of Justice. We usually find them well integrated into the “social life” of the prison. They are very social in the common spaces, they do sports and, more importantly, they consider every newcomer as a potential recruit. They are ready to welcome these new inmates and protect them. This is actually one of the most difficult parts of my interventions in prison, because whenever I work with an inmate who entered a radicalization process, I know that other radicalized inmates will then do their best to destroy my work and bring the person back into their cause.

AM: How does such a radical politico-religious project find resonance within a society as liberal as the French one?

HM: Radicalization in its Islamist dimension insists on the concepts of moral and social superiority. A “standard” but potentially fragile individual, subjected to an identity crisis, will be suggested a path that will allow him to reach a status that is not only superior to his own, but also superior to the one of the people around him in the society. This is basically what psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama call the manufacturing of the “Super-Muslim” [understand being “more Muslim than Islam suggest you to”] which essentially consists of bringing an individual from “zero to hero,” and all of this without any effort.

the Islamic State knows how to talk to young people and bring a new project within a society that has none

Effort is, in theory, one of the fundamental values of our society. One need to make efforts in order to achieve something, to be socially recognized. I say “in theory” because the concept of effort has lost a lot of its importance in our liberal societies, only to be replaced by the concept of immediacy. This is what I call the “star-académisation” of the society [from the name of a French talent show – understand the way society mirrors reality TV]. Success and social recognition must be achieved as fast as possible, with or without efforts. Recruiters from extremist cells have well understood this fragility of our society. They suggest a project that promise young people to become superior beings, to become these “Super-Muslims,” within a very short time frame and without any particular effort. This is how one creates supremacists, through a narrative that is very powerful among today’s youth. The Islamic State (IS) knows how to talk to young people and bring a new project within a society that has none.

AM: What role does the internet play in all of this?

HM: First of all, there has been a breaking point in 2005, with the creation of YouTube. At this point, the internet is well into its process of “universalization” and becomes accessible to every household. In the meantime, we are in the middle of the Iraq War and we start receiving the first “unfiltered” images of war scenes. This actually makes me say that the Syria War is probably the first war in the “fully digital” era.

online propaganda helped recruit and send on the battlefield many young people who would not have left with traditional ways of recruitment

During the wars in Afghanistan or even Iraq, the recruitment of fighters was done through human networks, by targeting individuals who were primarily gravitating around places of worship (mosques). From 2005 onwards, Islamist propaganda is going to enter every household. The development of the internet and, more specifically, of smartphones, is going to provide millions of young people with a window on the world, which in turn, is going to be a real opportunity for recruiters to get in touch with individuals, sometime fragile, oftentime easily influenced, at all time and in every location. It was only natural for Islamist organizations to jump on the opportunity. IS created its press agency, Amaq News Agency, in 2014, in order to spread its propaganda around the world. The various communication channels of IS (Amaq, al-Furqan, al-Hayat Media Center etc.) have been the initiators of millions of propaganda messages spread on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Telegram etc.), and more strikingly, have created several videos which used the methods of Hollywood movies and video games (staging, use of GoPros on the battlefield for instance), in order to target young people. In short, online propaganda helped recruit and send on the battlefield many young people who would not have left with traditional ways of recruitment.

We can actually make a parallel with the arrival of the satellite dish to France , near the end of the ‘80s. Everyone from Maghrebi descent was enthusiastic about the perspective of getting a satellite dish to access channels from all over the world, and especially those from their country of origin. Unfortunately, nobody had anticipated the influence satellite channels originating from the Persian Gulf could have on French households of Muslim immigrants. These channels started to spread a politico-religious propaganda that nobody was prepared to receive. There are indeed many satellite channels based in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the UAE, which insidiously spread a fascist and supremacist ideology, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism, or Wahhabism more broadly. This insidious propaganda has played an important role in redefining the codes of Islam within Western societies, and by extension, facilitated the radicalization of many people.

To conclude, we can say that the internet came as a complement of satellite television for radical Islamist networks. While the satellite dish has influenced French Muslims with an immigrant background, the internet and social media have allowed these networks to target an even wider audience and reach out to French people with “Christian” origins and no immigrant background. Some people in charge of IS propaganda sometime talk about the technique of the “drifting net” [a fishing analogy]. This technique consists in “flooding” social media and online forums with propaganda messages. Although most people do not “bite,” there are always some “fishes left” when the “net is pulled out,” that is, these individuals more receptive to radical messages and with whom recruiter can start their work. Obviously, these kind of techniques are a little less efficient today because we are in a process characterized by people coming back home rather than leaving for the Iraq-Syria theater. The offer is thus less attractive than it was between 2014 and 2016.

AM: It seems undeniable that the emergence of radical and violent movements within Islam is inseparable from a particular geopolitical context. What are the main characteristics of this context?

HM: First of all, we must insist on the fact that for most of its history, Islam has been spared by political and ideological constructions such as Wahhabism [founded in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and which became a State religion in Saudi Arabia through a political alliance with the House of Saud, and following their military conquests across the Arabian Peninsula in the 20th century] and the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood [created in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, in Ismailia, Egypt]. The main purpose of these politico-religious movements is the Islamization of the societies they are infiltrating.

In the case of the Muslim brotherhood, for instance, there is a program with seven steps, designed to seize power. Schematically, this process, sometimes referred to as tamkin [to “make possible” in Arabic], roughly goes as such: 1) Islamization of the individual; 2) creation of a Muslim stronghold; 3) initialization of the Islamization of the society as a whole; 4) implementation of an Islamic power with the enforcement of sharia law and the deployment of a “morality police;” 5) re-creation of the Caliphate; 6) re-conquest of the Western world; 7) finalization of the process with global domination as an end goal.

In the ‘50s, this project was opposed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was following a secular and socialist political line. This opposition eventually led to the ban of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and to the arrest of Sayyid Qutb, one if its main ideologists. Qutb played a crucial role in redefining the codes of Islam within the fundamentalist movements, especially by insisting on the concept of offensive jihad, which according to him, was to authorize (or even compel) Muslims to wage a holy war until global supremacy is achieved.

Sayyid Qutb - The Foreign Analyst
Sayyid Qutb in 1965 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Muslim Brotherhood networks started to establish themselves in Europe at the end of the ‘70s. In France, it coincided with the 1983 liberal turning point [a policy of economic restraint initiated by the Socialist administration of François Mitterrand]. The restructuring of the French economy directly impacted industrial jobs at the “bottom of the social ladder,” which were overwhelmingly held by citizens with immigrant backgrounds. At this time, I remember that most people from Algerian descent were ready to go back to Algeria, on the same model as what happened following World War I [many immigrants who fought for France or worked in French factories during World War I went back home after the war]. Instead, these populations were retained in France and gathered in neighborhoods which became areas of social exclusion. From my point of view, it is around this period that the Muslim Brotherhood put down roots in these neighborhoods, at the same time as the Front National [today known as the National Rally, the French far-right]. While the far-right “retrieved” the “grassroot French” by selling them a political program based on immigration as the source of the all their problems, the Muslim Brotherhood “put its hands” on a portion of the Maghrebi population and started its Islamization. For what result today? These same neighborhoods where our mothers and grandmothers were strolling uncovered, are imposing social pressure on our sisters and daughters to exhibit nothing but their religiosity.

This evolution is all the more striking as it applies to people originating from North Africa and, therefore, originally practicing Maliki Islam. Unlike Salafi movements, Maliki Islam has historically been accepting of other religious streams and their differences and, in the meantime, was also accepted by these same streams together with its differences. Unfortunately, some young people from the second and third generation of immigrants did not necessarily inherit the same cultural and religious codes as their elders and fell into the trap of supremacist narratives which pretend to preach the “real Islam.”

AM: How do we fight radicalization? We sometimes hear about “deradicalization,” what do you think about this term? What difference do you make with other concepts such as “disengagement?”

HM: I refute the term “deradicalization.” As far as I am concerned, I work on disengagement, disaffiliation and reinsertion, in a notion of path [understand a journey into a new social project]. It is a long process, with multiple stages, and whose end goal is to redefine a project for an individual who does not have one anymore. A parallel can actually be made with sectarian hold. The recruitment process within radical Islamist cells is comparable to the one in sects [cults]. The fundamental difference has to do with the idea of ideological supremacy in the public arena and with the acceptance of violence as a means to achieve it, which are promoted by politico-religious groups; whereas sects have the tendency to simply live isolated from society. In any case, the disengagement and disaffiliation process that we are implementing with radicalized individuals is fairly similar to what could be done with people under sectarian hold. After some time and for various reasons that we struggle to fully understand, these individuals sometime start to “see daylight.” It is at this moment that we can start our work with them.

I refute the term “deradicalization,” as far as I am concerned, I work on disengagement, disaffiliation and reinsertion, in a notion of path

We follow a maieutical approach [from Maia, the Greek goddess of childbirth], which consists of pushing people to “give birth” to their own solutions, to be the main actor of their evolution. Explaining to a young person that his/her way of thinking is wrong and that he/she needs to deradicalize by accepting a new system of thought, is counterproductive. Ultimately, it is like brutally depriving someone of his/her own resources. By comparison, the maieutical approach is a long process where the very source of change is going to be time and patience. While recruitment and radicalization are usually fast, disengagement and disaffiliation from a radical project is, by contrast, particularly long. Failure is, unfortunately, also part of the reality of our job. It is for these reasons that we never brag about “deradicalizing” people, because giving up a radical politico-religious project in favor of a new life path can only be verified after several years.

As a matter of fact, this work is so complex that one of my colleagues from the University of Toulouse, Alain Ruffion, has written three books about the methodological approaches to preventing radicalization.* His latest book is built around an analysis of over 5,000 cases of radicalization across Europe, which is a first in the field and opens the way to the design of real resilience strategies based on a serious diagnostic of the phenomenon.

Alain Ruffion - The Foreign Analyst
A book about the methodological approaches to prevent radicalization, written by Alain Ruffion

In any case, the central notion is “the project.” We are trying to replace a radical politico-religious project by a new life project, and to do so, we work on every aspect of the individual: self-esteem, relation with authority, professional perspectives etc. By integrating all of these components into a global approach, we can succeed. I often say: “they sold them a project, let’s sell them a better one.”

I often say: “they sold them a project, let’s sell them a better one”

AM: What does this new project that you are trying to “sell” these people look like?

HM: It is going to be different from one person to another. The first step is to identify the cognitive opening through which the radicalization process started to take form. By taking into account the triggering factor(s), we are going to try to (re)build a global life path for the person, which will include both professional and relational dimensions, and which will be integrated into a resocialization process. Depending on the person, we are going to use different vectors such as sport, education, and more specifically, formation coupled with inclusion into a professional environment which will insert the individual into a space of socialization, among people with various lives and characters.

one of the most difficult parts of our job is to make sure that traumatic events do not recreate cognitive openings which would (re)initiate the radicalization process

Just like in the case of drug addiction, we are never completely safe from the possibility of relapse. In our case, relapses can, for example, occur during a sentimental breakdown or after losing a job. One of the most difficult parts of our job is to make sure that these traumatic events do not recreate cognitive openings which would (re)initiate the radicalization process.

It is still important to note that, today in France, we are not capable of reproducing the Danish or Canadian models, which have implemented reinsertion programs with professionals who can react right away to any psychological weakness detected in any of the people included in these programs. In Canada for example, people coming out of prison benefit from a comprehensive reinsertion program, with the possibility to get in touch with professionals who can talk with them or even come to meet them in person, in order to give assistance if the individual is in a situation of weakness.

AM: Bouncing back on this, where does France stand in its combat against radicalization? What are the weaknesses of the French counterterrorism arsenal when it comes to fighting radicalization?

HM: First of all, I would like to highlight that I remain optimistic regarding our fight against radicalization here in France. One of the primary missions of my work has to do with formation and sensitization. I work with the full spectrum of French public services, from security forces and teaching staff, to health professionals and social workers. The good news is that all of these people that I work with are eager to learn, to know and understand the phenomenon in order to approach it in the most efficient manner, in their respective areas of expertise.

Unfortunately, there are not enough of us to carry out this work of formation and sensitization. Most of the people working in the French administration in contact with young persons have little or no knowledge about and formation on the dynamics of radicalization. More generally, they only see the tip of the iceberg (terrorist attacks, claims of responsibility in the name of Islam) without knowing or understanding the complexity of the issue (different schools of thought within Islam, influence of Salafi networks etc.). This ultimately leads to the articulation of the debate around the place of Islam in the French society and to amalgams between Islam and terrorism.

in France, we tend to focus solely on the consequences of radicalization while we do too little about the causes

That being said, I think the most negative aspect of our approach to radicalization in France is linked to our global strategy. We tend to focus solely on the consequences of radicalization (what do we do with radicalized people?) while we do too little about the causes (how and why young people radicalize?). Today, radicalization takes place in mosques, in sport clubs, during socio-cultural events and on social media, but France has not yet invested enough resources to fight against the phenomenon in a preventive manner. One day, we will have to find the courage to implement real measures to intervene in these spaces.

Talking about sensitive topics, there are a number of realities that we still refuse to see in France. First and foremost, I want to get back to the Muslim heritage in France, which is historically Maliki. The Maliki school of thought (which we can also call “Cordoba Islam”) is the only Islamic school of thought in the entire Maghrebi and West African regions. This unicity clearly differs from the situation in the MIddle East, where the different Islamic schools of thought have often been in conflict with one another. I think it is necessary that France starts working on promoting and rehabilitating the Maliki heritage of its Muslim population, which is characterized not only by moderate religious practices, but also by a very rich cultural background. This “Cordoba Islam” has been one of the main vectors in the transmission of knowledge from the ancient world (Mediterranean, Mesopotamian, Persian, Asian civilizations) to the West, which in turn helped Western civilization enter what I call the “enlightenment centuries.” A young person who radicalizes today is going to reject these heritages. In sum, he/she is ignoring the heritages common to the Western and Muslim worlds. This entire process would not be possible without the active participation, tolerated by the Republic, of politico-religious actors who are both radical and illegitimate. I personally cannot understand why the majority of imams in France today are self-proclaimed, with links to fundamentalist movements which have themselves violent variations.

The secular French Republic is not anti Muslim, to the contrary, she protects Islam. Similarly, Islam has its place in the French society, and notably because of these common cultural heritages that I mentioned. However, this is not the case for extremist politico-religious movements inspired by Wahhabism or the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. The number of Salafists in France is estimated at around 150,000 people, among whom 30,000 are considered activists [out of an estimated 6 to 8 million Muslims]. This gives us an idea of how a minority of radicals has taken the majority of French Muslims hostage. Personally, my fight is for this silent majority which has remained truthful to the values of the Republic. As long as we do not have a societal project that fully includes republican Islam, recruiters will continue to have a rosy future. I am aware that this way of seeing things can sound like breaking the status quo [understand the noninterference in domestic religious affairs], but I think that the French Republic has responsibilities to take in this domain.

my fight is for the silent majority of Muslims who have remained truthful to the values of the Republic

AM: To conclude, France has not experienced large-scale terrorist attacks since the 2016 Nice truck attack. Should we conclude that we are getting nearby the end of the radicalization phenomenon?

HM: It is very difficult to answer that question. While I obviously hope that we do not experience new terrorist attacks, which are traumatic experiences for our country, we are never fully safe. The radicalization process and these forces which are facilitating it, are still active in France.

The positive aspect is that we are probably back to what France was at the era [from the ‘80s to the early 2000s] of judge Jean-Louis Bruguière [former judge specialized on counterterrorism], when we had some of the best counterterrorist services in the world. France has lost some precious time when its intelligence community was reorganized [mainly at the end of the 2000s], but she largely made up for it today. However, only the future will allow us to evaluate the efficiency of our intelligence services and our way of dealing with radicalization. Regarding the latter, there is still much to be done in my opinion.

 

* The books (published in French) in question are published by La Boite à Pandore, Brussels:

  • Méthodes d’intervention en prévention des radicalisations (Volume 1 on the methodological aspects and Volume 2 on the tools and resources)
  • Les Orphelins de la république : comprendre les failles qui mènent les adolescents vers les radicalités
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