On 16 November 2014, ISIS released a video showing the murder of the US hostage Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig and 18 Syrian soldiers. France was appalled to see two 'enfants de la patrie' physically lead the hostages to their deaths. Particularly alarming was the signal their presence sends of ISIS' increasing ability to recruit from the middle class, beyond the traditional recruiting ground of the marginalised working-class suburbs: the banlieues. France is learning that viewing radicalisation solely in terms of social exclusion is insufficient. Other European states should swiftly make this lesson theirs.
France has consistently underestimated its 'jihadi problem'. Despite French citizens being the most populous European nationality among ISIS ranks – more than 900 are known to have travelled to the Syrian civil war – French policy makers have maintained that jihadism sprouts in the suburbs, a product of the harsh conditions that the second-generation immigrants who live there contend with.
In these areas, changes in manufacturing since the 1970s wiped out thousands of low-skilled jobs, stripping entire districts of many local services. Here second-generation immigrants are frequently brought up by parents living on the welfare system, with social mobility frozen and drugs and criminality a chronic feature.
Michel Dos Santos, one of the two French fighters to appear in the ISIS video, personifies such a banlieue-bred jihadi. He was born 25 years ago in the eastern Parisian banlieue of Champigny-sur-Marne to Portuguese Christian parents. They separated, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother, both in low-income jobs.
Salafism's indictment of the West as sole culprit for society's ills has made its appeal soar.
Friends introduced him to a local Salafi group. Like many others, he found the alternative society presented by the often Saudi-funded preachers appealing: a community in which solidarity and piety replaced the depraved Western values of competition and materialism, 'values' that had led to his own hopelessness. In deprived areas across France, including in Marseille, Lyon and the banlieues of the Paris region, Salafism's indictment of the West as the sole culprit for society's ills has made its appeal soar.
The other French jihadi standing by Peter Kassig as he was murdered was Maxime Hauchard. But far from the hard realities of the banlieues, Hauchard was born in 1992 in Le Bosc-Roger-en-Roumois, a rainy middle class village of 3,000 inhabitants in Normandy. Described by a friend as "weak and easily influenced", he converted aged 17 after watching videos on the internet; there are neither mosques nor known Salafi networks in the vicinity of Hauchard's home village.
Hauchard is not an exception, but rather the emerging trend. In pioneering sample-based research released in November 2014 and led by Dr Dounia Bouzar, a leading French Islamic studies expert, recruits like Hauchard upset the typical profile of the banlieue-bred terrorist. Of the sample – which does not claim to be representative – 80 per cent of ISIS' French recruits are the offspring of secular parents, of whom 60 per cent are financially comfortable. Furthermore, French media reports that as many as 20 per cent of French jihadis are converts who left for Syria within a few months of conversion.
The West are still groping in the dark for an explanation for ISIS' recruiting power.
ISIS has demonstrated unprecedented state-building and propaganda skills for a terrorist group. But France and the West are still groping in the dark for an explanation for the group's recruiting power cutting across culture and class, and even, as in the case of converts like Michel Dos Santos and Maxime Hauchard, across religious lines.
It is apparent that there is no clear terrorist profile anymore. Parallel to the radical forged by social exclusion, there is another emerging who simply seems to be looking to give meaning to an otherwise empty existence. Many – usually aged between 18 and 21 – indicate a desire to do something to help create a better world. Many of them have pre-existing psychological instabilities.
ISIS is successfully reaching this audience through the internet, bypassing local imams. Dr Bouzar notes the shared characteristic of many propaganda videos uploaded to YouTube and other platforms of drawing on anti-Semitic tropes to speak of vast conspiracies of world domination. The economic crisis, 9/11, HIV and the vaccine industry are all alleged to be part of a Zionist plan to subjugate the human race. The clips aim to instil anxiety and build a persecution complex, and the solution the propagandist suggests is a universalist, millenarian and messianic vision of Islam. To the intended recruit, it is apparent that they must join the few, like them, whose eyes are truly open: to help build the Caliphate, the only entity that is capable of battling the conspiracy. This inevitably means cutting ties with their family and friends, who are incapable of seeing the looming threat.
It seems that this phenomenon – the conversion of non-Muslims directly to Salafi-jihadism through the internet – has as much to do with psychology as political ideology. But with such a terrorist profile, a focus on social exclusion and deradicalisation programmes alone as a response to jihadism will be incomplete. Without recognising the varying backgrounds that jihadis are drawn from, and the varying causes of radicalisation, this phenomenon cannot be halted. The French executive recently put the issue on top of its domestic agenda. Other European countries should do likewise.
First published on 9th December 2014.