The French Interior Ministry has released a report pointing to massive intelligence failures in the handling of Mohamed Merah, the young Pakistani-trained terrorist from Toulouse, south-western France, who killed seven people including three Jewish children last March and who, according to his conversations with the police, planned to attack the Indian Embassy in Paris. Vaiju Naravane talks to Mathieu Guidère, Professor of Islamic Studies and Culture at the University of Toulouse. Mr. Guidère is also the author of The New Terrorists (in French) and The Historical Dictionary of Islamic Fundamentalism (Scarecrow 2012). He led the Strategic Information Centre at the French Defence Ministry from 2003 to 2007. Excerpts.
According to you there appears to have been a shift in the type of persons attracted by terrorist activity. If Mohamed Atta and the 9/11 attackers were all well-educated, sophisticated young men, the new terrorists come from deprived and often criminal backgrounds. Could you explore that thesis?
The emergence of “new terrorists” can be traced to the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda, when the ideologues of al-Qaeda along with the leaders of some radical Pakistani Islamic movements, reflected on a new strategy that could keep them active, relevant and at the centre of the international scene. They viewed the Arab Spring as a development that could marginalise them and they argued that the best way to remain at the forefront of the Islamic and world stages was to promote what they called “global proxy terrorism” as against the “global terrorism” they had practised earlier. Simply put, this means that organisations such as theirs that are unable to carry out attacks far away from home territory use outsiders to perpetrate such attacks for them. These individuals are not an integral part of such terrorist outfits (they could be monitored and traced back to the parent body and therefore pose a risk) but they are given designated targets so that the terrorist organisation can then claim responsibility for the attacks. So the new trend is towards “global proxy terrorism” of implanted urban terrorists who are remote-controlled by distant terrorist outfits, mostly in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan or between Pakistan and India on the Kashmir front. The other aspect of this trend is that many of these “home-grown” terrorists come from deprived backgrounds and have a history of early criminal activity. So the violence linked to criminal activity is then converted into terrorist activity.
Coming to the recent arrest of terrorists in France, were you surprised that these cells were located in cities as far flung as Strasbourg in the north east, Cannes in the south, Toulouse in the south west or the Paris region in northern France? Do you find this disquieting?
This is not a new phenomenon at all. The United States has experienced similar developments since 2009 with terrorists there having similar profiles. You might recall the cases of Nidal Hassan, Shazad from Pakistan and most recently the Bangladeshi terrorist Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis arrested in the U.S. All these persons were remote-controlled by handlers in Asian countries. What is new in France is the shift from criminal activities to terrorist activities. Also new is French citizens moving against targets in France (whether French or otherwise), for the benefit of terrorist organisations located outside France.
How does someone who is reasonably low on the social scale, a petty delinquent or a criminal get transformed into a terrorist? What is the radicalisation process? What, for example, happened to Mohamed Merah?
In this process we should distinguish between the triggers and the motives. These are two different things. The trigger is mostly an international geopolitical event such as a drone attack in Pakistan or Israeli acts in Gaza or French action in Mali or elsewhere. This is the trigger that makes a person shift from being a normal person or a delinquent or criminal to being a terrorist.
As for the motives, they are both psychological and ideological. The psychological motive is linked to the notion of revenge for something or someone. The dynamics of revenge is either for oneself or for lost family members or acts against the Umma. There is a feeling of resentment, of being wronged.
The ideological motives are articulated against the concept of hegemony. This is based on the terrorists’ perception that there is a hegemonic power or state that is keeping them down and in a state of subjection — India versus Pakistan, U.S. towards Egypt, France towards Algeria. The hegemonic power in their minds can change. Until 9/11 it was almost always the U.S.
If one looks at the “new terrorists” such as Mohamed Merah and their profile, these are people who come from deprived backgrounds, with low schooling, a history of delinquency and living on the margins of society. Do they reason in terms of intellectual concepts such as hegemonic power or do they simply have a grouse against society, which finds its outlet in terrorism?
I do not agree with the notion of social determinism as an explanation for terrorism. Many studies, including my own, show that many very poor and marginalised people, whether in France, India, the U.S. or elsewhere, have not shifted to terrorism. Social determinism can be used as an alibi, an excuse for terrorism but it’s not convincing as an argument. If this was true, it would lead millions of people to radicalism and that has not happened. I also do not agree that these people are intellectually poor, incapable of conceptualising. Police transcripts in the case of Merah show us that although he was marginal, and poorly educated, his level of understanding was very sophisticated. People might not have degrees or formal education, but they read a lot, especially on the internet and the web plays a major role in how the radicalisation process takes place.
How worried are you about this phenomenon in France? How big is it? After all, France with some five million Muslims has the largest Muslim population in Europe.
In France the problem is probably huge. It’s a new phenomenon, we have little knowledge of it and it is growing because the geopolitical environment is not under control. By that I mean that on the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea you have countries like Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya where weak, pro-Islamic governments have come to power after the Arab Spring. They are no longer in control of society and more importantly, they are not in control over the internet propaganda machine. This uncontrolled terrorist, Islamic fundamentalist internet propaganda is spreading across the world and given the proximity between the two banks of the Mediterranean, this propaganda has begun infecting French society. That is why the influence of this trend is growing and could lead to more radicalisation in the near future.
Given the fact that Mohamed Merah told the police he had wanted to target the Indian embassy, do you think that India could become a target in France or is already a target because of the Pakistan-Afghanistan link? Merah visited both these countries and received terrorist training there.
The security services know that India is already a target here just as it is a target in the U.S. because of the conflict between Pakistan and India on Kashmir. This is not new. What is new is that Indian interests in the West are being targeted by western people. In the past the perpetrators were either Pakistani/Afghan or Bangladeshi. Now the problem is that certain westerners are joining hands with them to target Indian interests in the West.
How would you describe the cooperation on counterterrorism between India and France? Are the Indians aware of this new emerging threat?
I think the Indian government is not fully aware of the new threat. It knows that Indian interests abroad are targeted by Pakistani services and people but they are not fully aware of the kind of threat posed by western forces here — home-grown terrorism in the West. The cooperation on counterterrorism is good. It’s really good.