- France - Islamism - security - Toulouse shootings
Forsane Alizza: dangerous jihadists or publicity-hungry youths?
In a massive early morning raid eight days after the death of Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah, French police arrested over a dozen members of radical Islamist group Forsane Alizza. But are the group's actions as menacing as their rhetoric?
Their propaganda videos, still available on YouTube, feature a bizarre vision of a modern France blended with an idealised, ancient caliphate. As a train rumbles over the Loire River, a group of bearded men – some in flowing djellaba robes and keffiyeh scarves, others in hoodies and track pants – proclaim their support for polygamy and the niqab (the full Muslim veil) while ranting against a western media bias.
Since its formation in 2010, radical Islamist group Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride) has gained notoriety for propaganda stunts and provocative demonstrations on issues ranging from “Zionist products such as McDonalds” to the French ban on praying in the street.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant banned the group in February 2012, after a government investigation. But their propaganda videos, some of them featuring improbable scenes of keffiyeh-encased youths engaged in paintball sessions in verdant French woodlands or underground parking lots, are still available online.
French security officials say the group’s arsenal includes a lot more than water soluble dyes and paintball guns.
In a massive, multi-city crackdown on the group on 30 March, French security forces recovered an “impressive lot” of Kalashnikov rifles, tear gas canisters and about eight handguns, according to Bernard Squarcini, head of France’s domestic intelligence agency.
In an interview with the regional newspaper La Provence, Squarcini said the group “appeared to be preparing a kidnapping”, but did not provide further details.
Seventeen people were arrested in early morning raids in Toulouse, Nantes, Le Mans, Lyon, Marseilles and the Paris region, including Forsane Alizza chief Mohamed Achamlane.
The sweep came just eight days after the death of Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah, who claimed responsibility for three deadly attacks in southwest France that killed three paratroopers, a rabbi and three Jewish school children.
Merah, a French national of Algerian origin who was killed after a 32-hour police siege in Toulouse, claimed links with al-Qaeda. French security and intelligence officials say the 23-year-old gunman was a “lone wolf” who was largely radicalised by himself, though they are investigating whether Merah had accomplices.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the arrests were not directly linked to the Merah case, but he has called on police to increase its surveillance of "radical Islam" amid growing concerns of a jihadist threat in France, which is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community.
Pride in jihad, ‘very little knowledge of Islam’
According to Claude Moniquet, president of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, the raids proved “French authorities have decided to fight [jihadist] propaganda, which is very important in the radicalisation process”.
A relatively small group, Moniquet estimates that Forsane Alizza has around “15 or 20 members and a few hundred sympathisers”. However, he adds, “when they post a video on YouTube for instance, you immediately get up to 20,000 people viewing it. So it very clearly has a resonance in the Muslim youth community”.
Headquartered in the western French city of Nantes, from where Achamlane was arrested in the March 30 sweeps, Forsane Alizza calls for the worldwide establishment of Islamic sharia law and for France to become an Islamic caliphate.
Achamlane uses the nomme de guerre Abu Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet, which also happens to be the name of the one-eyed, hook-handed former cleric at London’s Finsbury Park mosque, who is currently serving a sentence in Britain for inciting racial hatred.
According to Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on Islamist groups at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations, it’s “the sort of group we often find in Britain, which is primarily aimed at recently radicalised youth. Forsane Alizza members proclaim their pride and allegiance to Salafism and jihadism, but they have very little knowledge of Islam. It’s a group that wants to get noticed."
Familiar figures in and out of jail
Experts say that unlike Britain, France has an aggressive system of infiltration into Islamist mosques and groups aimed at the early detention of potential suspects.
Shortly after Forsane Alizza first made the regional headlines in June 2010, when the group organised a boycott of McDonalds in the southern city of Limoges, Achamlane received a four-month suspended sentence for incitement to racial discrimination.
In an interview with the Associated Press, an unnamed French police source said the Forsane Alizza members arrested on 30 March included Willy Brigitte, a Muslim convert who was born in the French Caribbean island of Guadaloupe.
Brigitte was convicted in France in 2007 for “criminal association linked to a terrorist enterprise” and sentenced to nine years in prison. He was freed in 2009, because the time spent in pretrial detention counted toward his prison term.
Brigitte is a familiar figure among French intelligence officials, who claim he held physical training sessions in the Fontainebleau Forest south of Paris before his 2007 conviction. Squarcini says he was arrested in Australia and extradited to France in 2003.
Forsane Alizza members dispute that their group as dangerous. In an interview with CNN following the recent police raids, a lawyer representing Achamlane said Forsane Alizza works to challenge perceived injustice and discrimination against Muslims by the French state.
But in many propaganda statements, the group uses language that skirts close to incitements to violence. At a press conference at a Paris mosque before the group was disbanded, Achamlane said “our revolt will be translated into action…we are soldiers of the faith…we are physically preparing for eventual attacks, we do not hide it.”
In retrospect, Achamlane may be wishing the group did indeed hide it. In the aftermath of the Toulouse attacks and especially in the lead-up to this year’s French presidential election, the national tolerance for jihadist rhetoric appears to be quickly disappearing.