The problem of Islamist radicalization presents a grim challenge to France, and the forces that drive young people to join violent extremist groups remain poorly understood. Far more than the United States, the circumstances that drive average people to become violent affect a far larger proportion of the population.
Often, discussions of the subject devolve into simple platitudes. Radicals must be mentally unstable; religious fanatics; or victims of societal pressure —or all of the above. Grooming efforts by terrorist recruiters, playing on the personal vulnerabilities and shame of French citizens, appear to be the root cause of radicalization.
While there is much argument about the value of deradicalization programs, including their ability to stop attacks, these programs have immense value from an intelligence gathering perspective. They can offer a unique mechanism for intelligence gathering on the jihadist recruitment process. And France provides a useful case study for the self-destructive paths the radicalized take.
The number of French-speaking jihadists worldwide well exceeds that of any other Western language. So it is no surprise that their recruitment efforts are the most sophisticated in France, as observed by CPDSI [Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam] firsthand through extended interviews with more than 1,000 individuals. The CPDSI is a French government entity that works to intervene in the lives of citizens at risk of becoming radicalized.
In France, there is significant evidence that ISIS recruiters utilize standard case officer techniques to broaden their pool of potential recruits well beyond the Muslim population. These recruiters probe for vulnerabilities and opportunities to drive wedges between the recruit and French society.
The vulnerabilities can be along any axis: social, socioeconomic, political, cultural, ethnic, religious, or psychological. The mission of the recruiter is to transform the malaise into an adherence to jihadist ideology. The goal is to manipulate the recruit into believing that such adherence is the only possible escape from their malaise.
The motivations of the recruit depend on their recruiter, but most motivations are pedestrian and banal, rather than ideologically or religiously motivated. For example, the promise to women of a faithful, protective husband holds an alluring pull, as roughly 50 percent of the radicalization cases reported in France involved women. The most common threads all share one thing in common: they promise access to a better world, and perhaps a better self.
Only later, after the recruits have fully radicalized, to their original motivations for this notion of self-improvement become understood and expressed as “submitting to God’s will.”
The recruitment approach depends on the rapport with their target, and involves ideological and emotional aspects. Their manipulative methods are suited to people under the age of 30, since individuals at this point in their lives often search for a peer group and an ideal to pursue. Their emotions also run strong.
A study by CPDSI of over 800 radicalized individuals found that the camaraderie aspect of the radicalization process was the hardest to break during deradicalization; many former recruits talked most about missing their “friends.”
In response to this challenge, in 2014, the French government set up and heavily advertised the so-called “green line,” a toll-free number that people – very often parents – could call if they are concerned that someone is showing signs of radicalization.
Calls to the green line do not result in arrest or any law enforcement action, except if there is an imminent danger of an attack or of the individual fleeing. In addition, concerned parents can inform the authorities that their child might be trying to depart France, or at risk of doing so, and request the government to stop them at the border. Calls from concerned parents have resulted in the apprehension of numerous French teenagers trying to make their way to Syria.
The green line has already received more than 15,000 calls, and to the extent that law enforcement can keep up, they have found the vast majority of these calls to be legitimate. CPDSI alone reviewed the cases of more than 800 French citizens caught at the border. Importantly, CPDSI noted these individuals were at different stages of the radicalization process.
CPDSI tries to pair former jihadists in counseling sessions with recruits who had had the same initial motivations. Through its research, CPDSI identified 7 principal recruiting themes that help diagnose the would-be jihadist. This approach assumes that even if the message of the recruiter has been successfully challenged, the circumstances that lead to their vulnerability to recruitment will still remain.
Each of these recruiting themes has one or more patterns of manipulation recruiters use. For example, in the case of the “Fortress” myth, the recruit starts off with the belief that adherence to jihadist ideology will purify him and cure him of his promiscuity, drug usage, pedophilia, or other vice, and help him to achieve his “best” self.
However, at some point, the individual recruited under this premise will recognize that the problematic urges aren’t going away no matter how many sermons they listen to; only through action could they be delivered from despair. The recruiters leverage this realization to provide the ultimate and rapid escape hatch: kill a “mécréant” (unbeliever) and receive a guaranteed ticket to heaven in which all of the “haram” (forbidden) pleasures become permitted.
Once again, recruiters present this course as the only exit from a lifetime of intense malaise and disaffection. The CPDSI study revealed that recruits at this psychologically primed state had internet browsing patterns that alternated between extremist religious content and pornography – the latter being a preview of rewards to come.