French jihadists return home.
Last February, French authorities broke up a terrorist plot they described as “imminent,” seizing nine hundred grams of explosives from the apartment building of a twenty-three year-old Islamist recently returned from Syria where he was suspected of having waged jihad. Two men escaped the police raid, in which several wills were also found, one belonging to a 25-year-old man described as “a candidate for the jihad.”
“This case is emblematic of that which one has always feared,” a police source close to the investigation told the French newspaper, Le Figaro, at the time, explaining that young French Muslims who had participated in the Syrian jihad and returned “radical, trained, hardened” with a terrorist project in mind are France’s newest terrorist threat.
This fear became a reality for French authorities when Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, a French Muslim and veteran jihadist of the Syrian war, was arrested Friday in southern France “in possession of firearms and large quantities of ammunition.” Nemmouche is suspected of having killed three people in a shooting rampage in Brussel’s Jewish museum on May 24. After the arrest, police apparently found a video he made, claiming responsibility for the attack.
The French government’s growing concern about the danger posed by returning jihadists to France (and now to other countries) manifested itself last April when Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced a plan to prevent young French Muslims from leaving home for Syria. Once there, they join the al-Qaida-connected al-Nusra Front to battle the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Some also enlist in the even more extreme terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). All of which only deepens their radicalization and hatred for the West.
The French government’s plan contains about 20 measures, chief among which is a “green number”, active since April 29, which people can privately inform authorities about potential jihadists. In its first ten days of operation, the anti-jihad “green number” was reported in the French media to have registered 24 cases (18 by phone and six by internet) of interest to authorities. They involved people between the ages of 14 and 34, of which eight were women and 16 men.
“These calls have already established five actual departures for Syria,” an interior ministry source told Le Figaro.
But opposition political leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front Party called Cazeneuve’s plan “cosmetic.”
“It does not attack the root of the problem, the speech in some mosques that are genuine calls to jihad,” Le Pen told a French radio station. “Nor does the plan attack recruiters and funding from foreign countries known to support terrorist fundamentalism, such as Qatar.”
What triggered France’s sudden concern for citizens and residents taking part in the Syrian war three years after its outbreak was not security issues but rather the deaths of two young brothers killed there last December. They were part of a group of 12 young French Muslims that had left France to fulfill their jihad duty in Syria. The brothers’ deaths and this group’s departure “unleashed a mobilization against jihadist indoctrination” in France early this year.
But another, perhaps more important, reason regarding the French government’s sudden interest in returning French jihadists concerns numbers. Cazeneuve revealed the disturbing fact that the number of Syria-bound French jihadists has increased 75 percent over the past few months. Security officials are calling this “an unheard of exodus.” Altogether, according to Cazenueve’s figures, 285 French Muslims are currently involved in “the Syrian quagmire,” 120 are in transit, a further 100 had returned to France and about 30 have perished in the conflict.
These are astonishing numbers when compared to the approximately 50 French jihadists intelligence officials identified as having taken part in the Afghanistan jihad from 2001 to 2011. In total, about 2,000 European Muslims are believed to have reached the Syrian battlefields, according to the military news website strategypage.com. About 100 Americans jihadists are also believed to be in Syria, one of whom last week became the first American suicide bomber there.
And as if all this wasn’t cause enough for concern, French authorities have admitted they will not be able to keep track of the expected large numbers of returning jihadists, stating that surveillance “is going to cost a fortune.” In other words, they will be overwhelmed - if they aren’t already. One observer perhaps illuminated this unsettling situation best when, using dark humour, he commented that, at this rate, there will be so many former French jihadists from the Syrian war the government will have to build a veterans homes for them.
The extent of the France’s jihadist problem is actually worse than Cazeneuve portrayed. There are also French citizens waging jihad in North Africa as well as in Yemen where two French nationals were recently arrested in connection with the war al-Qaeda is waging against Yemen’s government. So the number of current and former French jihadists is actually estimated by some at about 800. But this may not include those flying under the radar and as yet unknown to authorities.
To give an idea of the extent of the European jihadist phenomenon, according to strategypage.com, Turkey, a major entry point to Syria, currently has a list of about 4,000 European Muslims that their governments believe are jihad bound and have asked be detained. Turkey has caught and returned about 500 so far.
Some of the French jihadists have been arrested upon their return to France and put on trial for associating with a terrorist group. But, if convicted, the punishments they receive are usually light. And if they are minors, then none at all.
One of the problems the French legal system faces in prosecuting returned jihadists is that they have not committed a crime on French soil. It is also sometimes difficult to establish whether they actually joined a banned terrorist group when abroad. Some of the accused have said they had left France simply to go on holidays. Le Figaro reports that there are currently 40 cases before the courts regarding French jihadists. Some concern crimes, such as armed robbery, committed by jihadi hopefuls before leaving France to finance their trip to the Syrian battlefields.
Some of the reasons offered for jihad’s attraction for young French Muslims range from poor integration into French society (between 50 and 60 percent of men in French prisons are Muslim, although Muslims make up only ten percent of France’s population), testing the limits of authority of a society that has set few for young people, and the doctrine of Islamic supremacy. The latter is inculcated by radical preachers who do not like non-Islamic societies and do not accept that other religions are equal to Islam. Rather, France and other western countries must become Islamic, by force if necessary.
Because of the large numbers of French Muslims taking part in the Syrian jihad and the resulting danger they represent, many in France are now questioning the meaning of French citizenship. This issue may now become a burning one after Nemmouche’s arrest.
It is currently argued that returning jihadists may be French nationals, but are citizens only on paper. In addition, many French jihadists, like the two arrested in Yemen, possess dual citizenship, often from an Islamic state. As one observer commented, they are not French “neither by culture, nor by their mode of living, nor by any attachment to France.”
“They have only a French identity card,” stated another. “It is the difference between being and having.”
As a result, it has been proposed that French jihadists not be allowed to return to France because of the increasingly visible security risk. Some believe they should not even be prevented from leaving the country, only prevented from returning. This argument was given a boost when four French journalists, kidnapped and held eleven months by ISIL, said after their release last April that some of their captors spoke French. This topic will probably receive greater attention after the Brussel’s tragedy.
Gilbert Collard, a National Front federal parliamentarian, put forward the non-return argument on French television last April after the kidnapped journalists’ homecoming. He prophetically stated it is necessary to prevent the jihadists’ re-entry into France in order to avoid more killings like those committed by Mohammed Merah, a French Muslim terrorist who murdered three Jews and four soldiers in France in 2012. Regarding the danger these jihadists pose, Collard said one would have to be “completely mindless, decerebrated, not to be worried.”
“One is going to have …people who have left to conduct holy war return to French territory trained, equipped and who are going to be unmanageable,” he said.
Unfortunately, due to an unshaken belief in multiculturalism and an attachment to the Muslim vote, France’s socialist government will most likely never adopt Collard’s common-sense, life-saving proposal, especially since he belongs to the party French socialists love to hate. But this unwillingness and inability to look reality in the face and confront the danger radical Islam and jihad pose to France, insures that returning jihadists do not have much to fear in the future, while law-abiding French and European citizens, especially Jewish ones, do.
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