A very French jihad: hundreds head to Syria and Paris fears their return

Mohamed Merah, home-grown jihadist, haunts French anti-terror policy. EPA/Ian Langsdon

To date, approximately 500 jihadi fighters in Syria have come from France, making it the leading European supplier of insurgents to the Syrian conflict. In response, the French authorities have adopted a new strategy to fight against jihadist “recruitment” – but it is likely to run aground.

French jihadism has its roots in the Algerian civil war (1992-2002), when the more radical ideas of the Algerian islamists began to spread across the Mediterranean. In 1993, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) was formed; a year later, on Christmas Eve 1994, it hijacked Air France flight 8969. It continued its program of terror by recruiting French youths to launch terrorist attacks on home soil.

This era marked the appearance of a whole new generation of young French people and long-time residents who embraced the jihadist cause, sometimes joining the ranks of al-Qaeda, especially after 9-11. Their cause was to fight against France and its allies, and their main motive was a sense of resentment and vengeance. They wanted to “punish” France because of its military presence in Afghanistan and its support of dictatorial regimes throughout the Arab and Muslim world; then came France’s “anti-veil” legislation in 2003, which attracted jihadist threats from all over the world.

The Arab Spring

But a major turning point came with the Arab Spring. Indeed, the series of Arab revolts in the Maghreb countries drove a significant shift in perception among the French youth with immigrant origins. These third or fourth generation descendants of immigrants mainly from Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco, were connected for months, through the media and the Internet, to the revolutionary events unfolding on the other side of the sea. This connection totally changed their perception of their countries of origin – and of themselves.

Any sense of inferiority that these Maghreb-originating youths had had diminished considerably after the first months of the Arab Spring. It was replaced by intense pride, and a strong desire to participate in the protest movement in their “origin country”. They no longer felt like “rascals”, but more like worthy cousins and brothers of the Arab revolutionaries.

The hype around the Arab Spring in the French press and media has only fed this pride. It gave the impression that the revolution was favouring the Islamist side. In this triumphant atmosphere, many French men and women began to “migrate” south to re-establish themselves in the lands of their ancestors, convinced that a new era was beginning and that a better life awaited them on the other side of the Mediterranean.

It was in this heavily loaded context that the Merah incident occurred.

The “Battle of Toulouse”

Mohamed Merah was a young French man of Algerian origin who spread terror for weeks in 2012 by killing several soldiers and civilians (including children) in and around his hometown region of Toulouse. Beforehand, he made several trips to the Arab and Muslim countries to supposedly “meet with the brothers”. Finally, in Pakistan, he met Moaz Al Garsallaoui, an al-Qaeda recruiter, who promised Merah his actions would be claimed in the name of al-Qaeda if he succeeded.

The intelligence services’ mismanagement of the case led to a hasty reform of homeland security in the face of general disbelief. For its part, al-Qaeda claimed Merah’s actions and glorified the “Battle of Toulouse” in a statement.

This “battle” is a crucial turning point in French jihadism. Merah blew a psychological lock by indiscriminately attacking fellow citizens and soldiers on French soil and by being so determined to die for his cause. Recordings he made during his 32-hour long siege showed that his motivations were a confused mix – but nonetheless, a new generation of jihadists was born.

The new crop of French neo-jihadists are a product of both the Arab Spring and of French public education. They have inherited an explosive mixture of French revolutionary spirit and an appreciation of the rebellion as a symbol of freedom, with a belief that radical change is possible at any time by anyone. They also share a strong sense of injustice directed against the “system” as a whole. Cultivated by French education and by the media, this has perpetuated the idea that these young immigrant-born people are “victims of the system”.

Under the guise of advocating for “social movements”, many figures in French public debate have tried to justify unacceptable actions. For some young disenfranchised people, the fact that the perpetrators of these actions usually go unpunished reinforces the desire to revolt – even by fighting on forbidden battlefields.

The paradox for youth

The French government’s firm stance against the Syrian regime has paradoxically left many French youth feeling like leaving for Syria was a legitimate act, and that they were participants in a fair war. The government’s failure to intervene and to provide any effective help to the Syrian people has galvanised many young people into doing something about this impotence.

Finally, the coincidence of the war in Syria occurring during a time of social and economic crisis in France meant that for some, leaving to fight was simply more interesting and useful than sitting idle in France and watching national politics descend into farce.

The government’s Syria policy really stopped making sense when it began simultaneously calling for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and prohibiting any departure to Syria. This contradictory position still seems incomprehensible to many of the French, many of whom consider the rebels’ actions legitimate. To them, this is a noble fight against a dictator who is slaughtering his people and illegally using chemical weapons; they consider it their duty to help the Syrian people get rid of him.

This phenomenon extends to young people who see a chance to fight in Syria as a way of finding purpose for their lives – an opportunity to escape from adolescent crisis by investing in an ideal of solidarity and liberation. Many of these young people do not have familial ties or historical links to Syria. They are not even fully radicalised when they depart; that happens in Syria itself, where the only groups that welcome them are the Islamist groups with the most dangerous jihadist leaders (the ISIS Brigades and the al-Nosra Front).

These groups work hard to convert young recruits and make them embrace the doctrine of jihadism – even if they barely speak Arabic and do not know that much about Islam. Their journey is reframed as an act of Islamic migration (hijra), and many are made to establish themselves in Syria through marriage in accordance with sharia. Their reward is the promise of a life of justice under an Islamic regime.

Revolutionaries, terrorists or victims?

The French authorities’ main concern about the new jihadists is their potential return, and the possibility they will commit terrorist attacks in France. But this worry betrays a set of serious misperceptions. While European neo-jihadists see themselves as revolutionaries fighting for the liberation of the Syrian people, the European authorities see them as threats to domestic security. The main question is how to prevent them from departing to Syria in the first place.

But the vast majority of these fighters are not thinking about coming back. To them, there are only two options: victory followed by the establishment of an Islamic state, or a martyr’s death in the battle against the Syrian regime.

So far, only a minority are returning, and largely for reasons that have nothing to do with revenge or terrorist plans. Many of them are returning because they are disappointed with the roles they ended up playing, because they failed to impress their jihadist leaders, or because their romantic idea of war was overwritten by the horrors they experienced.

In many cases, these “returning ones” are more victims of regimentation and indoctrination than determined terrorists ready to carry out attacks.