French town of Lunel under spotlight after terrorism raid

CAROLINE ROSSIGNOL , AFP I A video grab taken on January 27, 2015 in Lunel, southern France, shows French GIPN and police officers arresting a person during an anti-jihadist operation.

French security forces arrested five people in anti-jihadist raids on Tuesday in Lunel, a small town in the south of France, from where at least ten young people have left for Syria.


The raid in the town of Lunel began around dawn on Tuesday. Local residents told the AFP that at least twenty policemen were involved in the raid, knocking down doors as they went. At least five people were arrested, according to a police source. Yet this is far from the first time that this small town of roughly 26,000 has been in French headlines in connection with Islamic extremism.

In recent months, at least six men from Lunel died in battle in Syria. Last June, the Hérault regional police office said an estimated 50 young people were thought to have travelled from the Languedoc-Roussillon region to Iraq and Syria. At least ten, and maybe as many as 20 of those, came from Lunel.

Lunel is trying to understand why it has become a case study of France’s homegrown jihadists, while all the time pleading not to be “stigmatised,” in the words of Mayor Claude Arnaud.

Perhaps one part of Lunel’s “why” can be answered by Tuesday’s arrests.

In a statement given on Tuesday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said, "The individuals that have been arrested, aged between 26 to 44 years old and currently in detention, are suspected of active involvement in a jihadist network whose members were recruited and indoctrinated, and who also indoctrinated and recruited several other French youngsters from Lunel."

This may come as an unhappy surprise to some of Lunel’s officials. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mayor Arnaud had said he doubted the existence of such a network, suspecting instead that the young men were self-radicalised from the internet.

'Lost generation'

But even if there is a jihadist recruitment network operating in Lunel, that doesn’t explain why young men and, indeed, women, as at least one young Lunel woman has travelled to Syria are eager to listen to recruiters.

The town is a designated as one of France’s “zones de sécurité prioritaires,” a label used to identify low income communities. Currently, the rate of unemployment among young people is between 20% and 40%. But as Taher Akermi, a counselor at a state-funded youth and cultural centre, told the New York Times, “just because you don’t have work does not mean you are going to blow yourself up or do jihad.”

Languedoc-Roussillon is one of the regions with the highest rate of immigrants, according to Insee, France’s National Institute of Statistics. One of the groups considered most at-risk for extremism is France’s large North African community, especially the ‘lost generation’ of children born in France to North African parents. If they are at risk for extremism, it is because of years of exclusion. Many grow up poor and in social housing, the legacy of restrictive immigration and housing policies imposed on their parents. Many struggle with their identity, feeling rejected and marginalized by a wider France.

“These young people are adrift: they were born in France with a North African heritage. No one told them ‘the red, white and blue flag is yours, too.’ They leave to find a country that will welcome them and [the recruiters] have just the right discourse to bring them in,” Pascal Gomez, who works with local associations, told AFP.

But this can’t be the only answer as this isn’t everyone’s story. One of Lunel’s young men who died in Syria came from a middle class background, had a Jewish father and celebrated Passover as a child. One female convert from  Lunel, who is now in Syria, left France with her husband while expecting her first child. Shortly after her arrival, she was widowed.

"I can’t judge them, only God can”

Some have questioned the role of Lunel’s Al Baraka mosque, which all of the young people who left Lunel for Syria attended at one time. A 2010 study by France’s Institute for Islamic Studies and the Muslim World said the mosque followed teachings “close to Tabligh,” a school of thought that emphasizes the re-islamicization of the Muslim community. The study did not highlight any tendencies toward violence, however.

Lahoucine Goumrin, the former head of Al Baraka, spoke begrudgingly to the press in December at Mayor Arnaud’s behest. While he maintained that the mosque had played no role in the young people’s decisions to travel to Syria, he did not condemn the departures, calling them an individual choice.

“The imam or the mosque played no role in the planning or organisation of these departures. The Muslims who come to the mosque are Lunel residents. There is no problem in Lunel. There is a problem 6,000 kilometres from here and we don’t want to bring it to Lunel,” he said, as quoted in regional newspaper Midi Libre.

"[The departures] are their choice. I can’t judge them, only God can. If we must condemn something, let’s condemn what is condemnable. Why condemn that these young people left in the name of injustice in Syria and not the French who went to kill Palestinian babies with the Israeli Defence forces? Why must a mosque condemn this, while other religions don’t have to?”

According to several journalists who wrote about Lunel in the past months, many members of the local community believe that the young people went to Syria for humanitarian reasons and got caught up in the fighting. Some of the dead’s names were displayed in graffiti around the city. Akermi, the counselor at a Lunel youth and cultural centre, told the AFP that many of the young children he worked with called those who died in Syria “heroes.”

Tuesday’s arrests may bring some answers to Lunel’s questions, but not all. In the meantime, more of its sons and daughters may slip away.


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