Published on 11 July 2014

Yes, the government has proposed a coherent plan of action against terrorism

By Eve Gani        

France, like other countries of the European Union, suffers from so-called “violent radical engagement,” whereby its citizens have been known to join militant activists abroad.  One prime example of this phenomenon is French youth departing to Syria to join that country’s militant groups. This engagement of civilians in insurgent areas "in the name of the ummah" (community) is not a new occurrence, as French citizens have already taken part in the conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq, similarly in the name of jihad. 

What has changed is the magnitude of this issue, with an increase in those affected by progressive distance from their families, schoolmates and friends.  This distance has led to individuals’ transitioning from “the impure to the pure”, and ultimately culminating in their "great departure" to join militant activists. According to the Ministry of the Interior, some 800 French citizens and permanent residents have gone or were willing to go to Syria to join the front lines.

Another recent development in violent radical engagement has been how subjects are getting involved.  Many are being influenced by “self indoctrination,” fueled by conspiracy theories targeting French citizens and delegitimizing the French political discourse.  An unfortunate example of such jihadist propaganda is Franco-Senegalese Omar Diaby’s social media driven campaign for recruiting young radicals. While the international jihadist movement is centered around a self-sacrificial mission calling for the return of the Caliphate" , it has also been successful in creating a “centripetal movement”, propelled forward by these conspiracy theories, as well as practical resources for active involvement including guides and "wikiterrorism” articles.

Given the evolution of this engagement threat in quantity and nature, France could not be confined to its existing anti-terrorism strategy. It had to take further measures to counter this phenomenon.

On April 23, 2014, French officials presented a preventative plan to combat violent radicalization and the joining of terrorist networks.  The approach called for an intervention at the earliest stages possible of the engagement process, the pathway leading to violence.

The plan’s first order of business is to try to nip the engagement problem at the bud by blocking “preachers of hatred.” To complement this effort, groups like the French Council of the Muslim Faith released “The Citizen Convention of the French Muslim”, an important text providing a non-violent paradigm, while others advocated similar alternative messaging against violent radical engagement.

A key feature of the plan is to provide a platform for alerting and reporting potential jihad candidates, either via the internet or hotline.  Reports would be reviewed and analyzed by evaluation groups, whose responsibility it would be to determine the degree of potential danger, under the chairmanship of a designated prefect.  The evaluation groups might propose appropriate alternative social programs for individuals and, if necessary, request that they be prosecuted.  In extreme cases, the groups may request that the court implement a new measure: the legal prohibition of an individual to leave the country.  A bill allowing for this ban will be submitted to the Parliament, stating that any citizen who leaves the territory in violation of the ban may be subject to an international arrest warrant.

The bill will also make “self-radicalization” a new offense and grounds for arrest.  The “radicalization” involved may relate to the teachings of any terrorist organization, whatever its ideological motivations. Furthermore, the offense of "the glorification of terrorist acts and incitement" implemented in 2012 will be reinforced by special investigative techniques.  Their findings will be compiled into a list of sites that will be presented to an independent judge to determine whether they in fact glorify terrorism and should be blocked.

The anti-terrorist plan is part of a new cooperative approach to addressing the problem of violent radical engagement. Based on European and international consultation with experts, the plan shall, at the national level, be enforced by the collaborative action of various government departments, social and religious agencies, and the general public. In a country that is characterized by a “culture of mistrust", particularly vis-à-vis issues of religion, this approach represents a significant cultural shift. Promoting trust and the respect of religious belief is a cornerstone of the plan. For example, the plan could respect the desire of religious principles like zakat, or charitable giving, and does not designate it as a clash of values with non-Muslims but an opportunity for all to participate in the creation of value for France as a whole.  Religious principles can even be the catalyst for social entrepreneurship or humanitarian actions that benefit all.

While the proposed plan will hopefully mitigate the issue of violent radical engagement, the quest for justice on an international level must ultimately rely on a strong state policy.  In the case of Syria, France’s position has at times suffered from a lack of public diplomacy. That is no longer the case.  The message, repeatedly and firmly expressed by Gerard Araud, the Permanent Representative of France to the UN, is now loud and clear: those responsible for massacres in Syria shall be brought to justice by the International Criminal Court, whether these massacres are at the hands of the Assad regime, local militant groups or foreign-national terrorists.

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