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Spotlight on troubled suburbs amid terror fears

Fears of homegrown terrorists are on the rise in France following a recent crackdown on suspected terror cells, with some questioning whether there is a link between the country’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods and religious extremism.


French authorities have long known that crime is a problem in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods on the edges of Paris. But now it looks like the capital's suburbs might be at the root of a whole new problem: homegrown terrorism. In the wake of a nationwide crackdown on suspected French terror cells that left one person dead, some are wondering whether there might be a link between delinquency and religious extremism.

Jérémie Louis-Sidney, France’s latest poster child for homegrown terrorism, died in a hail of bullets on Saturday after opening fire on police as they stormed his apartment in the northeastern city of Strasbourg. The 33-year-old, who was a suspect in the Sept. 19 bombing of a kosher grocery store in the northern Paris suburb of Sarcelles, was one of 11 other people targeted by nationwide anti-terrorism raids the same day.

Louis-Sidney, a recent convert to Islam, was staying in Strasbourg with one of his two "religious wives” at the time of his death, Paris prosecutor François Molins said. After searching the premises of his home, police uncovered a list of Jewish organisations in the Paris area as well as a copy of “Inspire”, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language magazine, which encourages Muslims in the West to take up jihad. Police said Louis-Sidney had been under surveillance since last spring.

‘Radical Islam is seen as a salvation’

Among the 11 people who were taken into custody following Saturday’s anti-terrorism raids, many – like Louis-Sidney – were recent converts to Islam who had already had minor run-ins with the law. This profile also closely resembles that of Mohamed Merah, a self-styled jihadist who shot and killed seven people in the southern French cities of Toulouse and Montauban in March.

Claude Moniquet, director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, explained that the phenomenon of disenfranchised individuals turning to religious extremism is nothing new in France.

“Becoming a jihadist allows these young thugs to glorify themselves,” Moniquet told FRANCE 24.

Some turn to extremism because it allows them to escape being defined merely by lives of crime or violence.

“For these individuals, radical Islam is seen as a salvation that will help them get out of drugs, delinquency and petty crime,” Mathieu Guidère, a professor of Islamic studies and author of the 2010 book “New Terrorists”, told FRANCE 24.

According to Moniquet, some turn to extremism in France’s impoverished housing estates while others do so in prison. In both scenarios, conversions generally take place at an extraordinarily difficult moment in a person’s life, after a series of failures leaves them feeling helpless, pushing them over the brink into radicalism.

“They’re hopeless and see jihadism in heroic dimensions,” Moniquet said. “In housing estates, social groups are built on affinities and the emotional aspect plays a significant role – if one person becomes radical, he will influence the entire group.”

‘More psychological than religious’

While many of France’s suspected home-grown terrorists are converts to Salafism, Moniquet explained that religion is not always the most important factor.

“I think that the phenomenon is more psychological than religious,” Moniquet said.
Moniquet is not alone in his assessment. Alain Chouet, former head of the Directorate-General for External Security, a French intelligence agency, shared this point of view.

“These people are more sociopaths than religious,” Chouet told FRANCE 24. Chouet went on to emphasise that the number of people who turn to religious extremism in France remains small.

“According to estimates, there are no more than 100 to 200 [of them], but sadly, we can’t keep an eye on all of them, all of the time,” he said. “They’re mostly young people who feel lost, and who see [radical Islam] as the solution to their problems.”

Some trace the potential rise in home-grown terrorism to Merah’s shooting spree back in March, noting that it could inspire others to follow suit.

“The Merah affair blew the lid off by making the jump from ideology into action,” Guidère said.

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