By Pauline Froissart / AFP
PARIS: Muslims in French suburbs remain vulnerable to extremist indoctrination but those lured into radicalism are an “ultra-minority” and the spread of jihadism is declining, experts say.
Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old suspected Al-Qaeda militant of Algerian descent was killed Thursday following a shootout with police, after being linked to seven murders in southwestern France in the last eight days.
The former resident of a Toulouse suburb is believed to have been drawn into radicalism after joining a group of Salafis — an ultra-conservative brand of Islam — and travelling to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Such trips to Afghanistan “were quite common in the 1990s,” amid the euphoria of the mujahedeen victory over Soviet troops who had invaded the country, said Samir Amghar, author of “Salafism Today.”
“A number of people went to Afghanistan and Pakistan to train,” explained the sociology professor at France’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.
“But for several years, we have seen a decline in jihadism because of the strong pressure of the French and European security services,” he added.
He said current estimates put the number of Salafis in France at between 12,000 and 15,000, but “jihadist Salafis are an ultra-minority.”
Gilles Kepel, author of “Jihad, The Trail of Political Islam,” said it was “worrying when the Salafis impose their rules, for example, wearing of the full veil, on other Muslims.”
“When there is a rupture between their values and the values of the French Republic, it makes fertile terrain for radical Islam,” he stressed, adding that extremist recruiters target those “who are marginalized.”
They are speaking “in a general manner to people in working class neighborhoods, but not strictly to the working classes.
Radicals also target “a strong proportion who are from the middle and upper classes. People who have studied, who are university graduates,” Amghar said.
But, he explained, the channels through which extremist recruiters connect with new sympathizers have evolved since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
“In the 1990s, the radical imams, the preachers, were able to recruit in the mosques,” he said.
“After September 11, because of the surveillance of the French intelligence services in the mosques, it became very difficult. The recruitment from then on happened through interpersonal relations, or over the internet.
Bernard Godard, co-author of “Muslims in France,” said probing Merah’s path to radicalization was a crucial next step.
“We’ll have to see how he was initiated, how he was fed jihadism,” Godard said.
Speaking Thursday after Merah was killed, French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to crack down on extremist indoctrination.
He said he wanted legal action against people who regularly consulted jihadist websites or who travelled abroad for indoctrination and an end to French jails being a breeding ground for extremism.
“Henceforth, any person who habitually consults Internet sites which praise terrorism and which call for hatred and violence will be punished under criminal law,” he said in a televised address.