Katerina Papatheodorou, psychology Ph.D. student at Georgia State University and Graduate Research Assistant in the Violent Extremism Research Group.
The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Georgia State University.
In a tweet communicating his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that the Islamic State (IS) has been defeated. Administration officials and Syria experts, however, disagree. Not only is IS still active in Syria, the group has also launched attacks in Europe recently.
The latest was on Tuesday, December 11th, when Cherif Chekatt opened fire on a crowd in Strasbourg’s famed Christmas market, killing three and injuring 14 more. Though wounded, Chekatt managed to escape and led authorities on an international manhunt before being killed the following Thursday.
In a press conference about the shooting, French prosecutor Rémy Heitz declared that the 29-year old alleged perpetrator “had been incarcerated multiple times and was known to the prison administration for his radicalization and his proselytizing attitude.” Chekatt was released from prison in 2015 after a sentence for unrelated offenses but was previously flagged as potentially radicalized and a known associate of Islamists.
Since the declaration of the caliphate by the so-called Islamic State in the summer of 2014, there have been more than 15 jihadi attacks in France, and, unfortunately, statements like Heitz’s latest are all too familiar.
Furthermore, in 2016, the French authorities were monitoring around 15,000 individuals suspected of potentially being radicalized and having ties to Islamists, and that number recently rose to an estimated 20,000. Last year, officials admitted that individuals who were monitored or known to police successfully perpetrated three major attacks.
To address radicalization more effectively, France should consider implementing programs to Prevent and Counter Violent Extremism (P/CVE).
Specifically, policymakers should concentrate on targeted interventions which can help in cases where individuals have yet to commit ideologically-driven crimes, allowing authorities to focus on the more urgent cases. Such activities may include after-school social or educational plans, mentoring, or psychological support and counseling. These programs can address factors in an individual’s life which might be causing distress or leading him or her to feel marginalized and disenfranchized, which are feelings often cited in accounts of radicalization.
The French government, though slow to respond, has not been idle in the fight against extremism and has taken some steps toward P/CVE. Following the January 2015 attacks by al-Qaeda at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, for example, officials launched the Stop Djihadisme campaign to educate the public and to provide resources for understanding radicalization, terrorism, and France’s role in the coalition against IS. The project also includes an anonymous hotline for community members to refer individuals whom they fear might be radicalizing.
The plan also included a partnership with anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, a controversial figure in France, who was at the time working with families of radicalized individuals. The collaboration resulted in the first deradicalization center which, according to Bouzar, handled more than a thousand cases between 2014 and 2015. However, the center was abruptly closed in 2016 and the reasons remain unclear. Bouzar claims it was due to her disagreement with proposed legislation to strip terrorists of their French citizenship. However, there is speculation that the program was terminated because a former participant subsequently joined IS.
Following the closure of the deradicalization center, the government announced the creation of so-called Prevention, Insertion, and Citizenship Centers for at-risk individuals. Experts criticized the idea behind the centers since they would fundamentally act as military-style boarding schools, where participants would be required to wear a uniform and salute the French flag every morning. Though the government insisted that it was still interested in implementing P/CVE programs, the only operating center was closed a year later in May 2017. Several politicians who saw deradicalization as a pipe dream and a waste of money called the centers a ‘fiasco.’
While encouraging officials to include P/CVE in their counterterrorism policies, implementation has been sparse, and programs have been fleeting. Additionally, P/CVE is of course not a silver bullet against terrorism, nor is it infallible. Civil rights groups, for example, have criticized programs for supposedly acting as intelligence-gathering operations for governments, and many fear that they indiscriminately target all Muslims, whether they are extremist or not. It is also true that scholars cannot predict who will mobilize to violence. Furthermore, we still lack the right tools to assess the efficacy of P/CVE programs, and many of the current efforts have yet to undergo independent evaluations.
However, France has had one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters joining jihadi factions in Iraq and Syria, and Europol has stated that it “remains high on the target list for IS aggression.”
Salafi-jihadi terrorism is not the only extremist ideology imperiling the safety of the country either. Recent years have seen a rise in populist ideas across Europe and North America, and France has not been immune to the threat. This is evident by the current pervasiveness of extreme right-wing political ideologies and the rise of politicians like Marine Le Pen who espouses an openly anti-Islam and anti-immigrant ideology and is known for frequently using terror attacks to justify her hardline positions.
Considering the state of polarization and the popularity of radical political beliefs on both sides of the spectrum, and the fact that the government is currently monitoring 20,000 individuals suspected of having ties to extremists or being at risk of radicalizing, France needs to commit to taking P/CVE seriously.