New Trends in Violent Radicalisation in France and the Failure of Securitization and Secularization

European cities have experienced an increase in the number of terrorist attacks over the last 12 months. In particular France, which has traditionally been praised internationally as an example of multiculturalism and integration, has registered the highest number of attacks and casualties, and produced one of the highest numbers of home-grown terrorists.

While 78 per cent of deaths caused by terrorist attacks worldwide occur in just five countries, none of which are in Europe, the recent escalation in France warrants attention. This commentary reveals three new interrelated trends in violent radicalization, and argues that current policy responses that seek to securitize and secularize are counterproductive.

Three New Trends

As the first trend, the large-scale attacks have moved from Paris (January and November 2015) to Nice and Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. Similarly, the most recent violence in Germany has occurred in Würzburg, and Ansbach.  The location of an attack is typically strategic and revealing. Terrorists have traditionally targeted capitals as they form the political, economic and cultural heart of a state. With most European capitals already under high security alert, the shift to small urban areas could be one way to circumvent surveillance. More profoundly, the decentralization of violence suggests radicalization has become more localized and endogenous.

Second, it is significant that some of the recent perpetrators had weak affiliations to Daesh. Cases like the deadly attack in Nice have since been coined ‘remote radicalisation’, involving attackers radicalized from a distance and without travelling to, for example, Syria or Iraq. This shift has led to more complex threats because they are more difficult for European states to detect and prevent. The perpetrators are often from deprived socio-economic contexts, often young people, as in the case of the two young killers responsible for the killings in Normandy, which security forces were unable to stop despite receiving a tip-off on a possible attack.

This brings us to the third trend – the proliferation of drivers that lead to violent radicalisation. While researchers look for paradigms to understand radicalisation processes as a sequence of phases and levels, the diverse profiles of the recent attackers’ indicate very different and often layered causes, ranging from mental instability to religious fanaticism, to social and economic marginalisation. In the examples above, all the perpetrators claimed loyalty to the same terrorist organisation but for very different reasons. For instance, the Nice attacker was described by the prosecutor as a violent man who lived a life “far from religion” and who started sympathising for Daesh only shortly before committing the massacre.

Together these three trends point to a heightened level of unpredictability and terror within violent radicalization in France and for some other European states. This commentary asserts that the new trends should lead authorities to reassess current responses.

Assessing the Response to Violent Radicalization

France, as the epicentre of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, has largely invested in strengthening security measures, which included a prolonged state of emergency. In light of the expansion and decentralisation of terrorist activities, this approach for some has become obsolete and ineffective. For example, of the 3,242 raids carried out in March 2016, only four resulted in criminal investigations for terrorism-related offences. Further, the disproportionate investment in securitization has had perverse social effects by increasing xenophobia and stigmatization towards Muslim and Arab communities in the country. It has created a vicious cycle of repression, discrimination, alienation and social isolation, which according to several experts, are the key factors that drive radicalization, especially among young people and in relation to remote radicalisation.

Education is often held as a way to mitigate and even prevent the causes of violence, and specifically in recent times, to counter the drivers of violent radicalization. In France though, which is not alone, the education system has had a primary role in entrenching cultural and social divisions. Recent studies, indicate that primary and secondary schools continue to be segregated along ethnic, cultural, and religious lines despite the efforts of the Ministry of Education to foster integration, including the establishment of Priority Education Zones (1984). Further, access to quality education remains a challenge for many citizens with foreign origins. According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index 2015, non-EU-born citizens in France are mainly ‘low’ (40 per cent) or ‘medium’ (31 per cent) educated, and only 5 per cent reach university level.

Many of the policies designed to unite French society have largely been criticized for imposing the assimilation of secular and republican values rather than embracing and integrating diversity. Education policies to prevent radicalisation have taken a similar direction, such as the policy adopted after the Paris attacks by the Ministry of Education to promote French republican values in the curricula. The large focus on secularisation to prevent radicalisation fails to recognize that religion, as demonstrated above by the third trend, is not necessarily a cause.

The rise of violent radicalisation is confronting France and many other European countries with the difficult reality of high levels of inequality and segregation. Despite the attempts to implement pro-integration policies, these have focused on encouraging immigrants to adapt to mainstream cultural norms. The new trends in radicalization ultimately challenge the confines of a state-centric approach to security. While counter terrorism has a necessary role to play in preventing attacks, the state must demonstrate its commitment to a more integrated and equitable society.

Dr. Johanna Ospina is an independent researcher and former junior consultant at The Hague Institute.

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