Jean-Jacques Courtine: Isis' promises siren song for loners

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Background of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists helps explain why they radicalise — and shows us a way to stop them.
The killing of priest Jacques Hamel in his church illustrates the unpredictability  of terror attacks.  Picture / AP
The killing of priest Jacques Hamel in his church illustrates the unpredictability of terror attacks. Picture / AP

Paris, January 7, 2015: 12 die in attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie-Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket.

Magnanville, June 13, 2015: A terrorist stabs two married police officers to death in their home.

Paris, November 13, 2015: Isis terrorists simultaneously target several public sites, killing 130 and wounding more than 350.

Nice, July 14, 2016: A driver ploughs a 19-tonne truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing 84, including 10 children, and wounding more than 200.

And finally, as if the acme of horror had not yet been reached in Nice, two terrorists burst into a small provincial church last week and cut the throat of an 86-year-old priest celebrating mass ...

This sinister litany illustrates the scale and violence of an unprecedented wave of terrorism in Europe. It has resulted in close to 2000 dead and more than 7000 wounded over the past 15 years.

Most of its recent victims have died in attacks by Isis jihadists in France, which has become the epicentre of terror in Europe.

The message is clear: there is, from now on, no safe haven from terror on French soil. Which begs the question: why France, of all European nations?

A first answer may be found in the profile of the attackers. Most of them are young, male, French and born to immigrant families. They have a low level of education and employment, if any.

They had usually been involved in low-level criminality and spent time in jail. A few of them had travelled to the Middle East to fight in Syria, but most had not. A few followed strict religious rules, others had barely any idea of what practising Islam meant.

As one French social worker visiting them in prison put it: "The vast majority of these young people have a total ignorance of Islam. They know Islam through the web and the propaganda videos they watch in a language, Arabic, they do not understand."

Just have a look at Mohamed Lahouaij-Bouhlel, the Nice mass murderer. He drank beer, ate pork, had a history of psychiatric disorders and was busy taking salsa lessons in a dance club on the eve of the massacre. Not exactly your stereotypical devout Muslim. This is the first paradox we encounter when reviewing these terrorists' profiles: many are fanatics without a cause, committing murders in the name of a religion they know very little about.

So we need to look elsewhere for answers. The social and economic roots of the problem are clear. They are located in les banlieues, the French suburbs of big cities, those vast urban areas of economic deprivation and endemic unemployment, often abandoned by the state.

They are populated by immigrants, many of them having given up being an integral part of the country. These are crime-ridden neighbourhoods: while only 7 to 8 per cent of the French population is Muslim, 60 to 70 per cent of the French prison population is, and it comes from these neighbourhoods.

This is where you find clusters of radicalisation, easily infected by Islamist recruiters, whether it be radical mosques, Salafist preachers or just Isis propaganda over the web. If you throw in the weight of the French colonial history leading many to see these youth as second-rate citizens, the military engagement of France in the Middle East and the rigidity of la laicite, the French law of separation of the Church and the State banning some of the religious practices at the core of Islam, then you have the ingredients for a truck ploughing full speed into a crowd of spectators on Bastille Day.

But again, why France? Part of the answer is the dominant feeling among those 50 per cent unemployed youth that there is no future. This absence of tangible hope is the first cause of radicalisation.

Instead of the common expression "the radicalisation of Islam" we should probably be saying the "Islamisation of radicals", even when this radicalisation proves to be minimal and shallow.

Isis offers each of these disenfranchised youth an imagined glorious future in the paradise of warriors, allowing them to strike back at what they believe is the origin of their misery.

But there is only one promise kept at the end of the day - death.

This also explains the ultimate expression of the terrorist threat; "lone wolves", ideal warriors, nearly impossible to detect.

Though they may not be as isolated as we believe, they have become the main actors of what we can call, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, "liquid terror", which is scattered, diffuse, low-noise, weak-signal, cottage-industry activity.

Carefully staged and unpredictable, its very unpredictability and staging is as terrifying as the damage it causes. This might remain Isis' main contribution to terrorism's business model - the implementation of a home-based franchising of terror.

Is there a need to remind anybody of that here in New Zealand? Certainly, if we keep in mind what defines liquid terror is that it knows no borders.

And that there is one obvious way to fight it - by building an inclusive society.

Jean-Jacques Courtine is a professor of European Studies at the University of Auckland and a professor emeritus at the universities of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III) and California (Santa Barbara).

- NZ Herald

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