Cablegate: Putting Out Brushfires: France and Islamic

Published: Fri 15 Jul 2005 04:04 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 PARIS 005539
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/16/2015
REF: A. STATE 144222
B. PARIS 5203
C. PARIS 4644
D. 04 PARIS 2981
E. PARIS 4750
F. PARIS 1732
ONS 1.4 B/D
1. (C) Summary: Through surveillance, arrests and other
methods, the GOF prevents or puts out brushfires of Islamic
extremism on an almost daily basis, and has been doing so for
decades. According to recent press reports, the RG, France's
police intelligence service, estimates that 6 million Muslims
live in France, approximately 10 percent of the population.
The RG estimates that approximately 9,000 of them might be
extremist. These numbers, coupled with a widespread
recognition that France continues to struggle mightily to
integrate its immigrant/Muslim population, provide a sober
counterpoint to the past success and unquestionable
capabilities of the counter-terrorism apparatus. Although in
the short and medium-term, France clearly can rely on its
police, security and judicial services to aggressively combat
terrorism, in the long-term it must focus on giving a place
to Muslims (be they first-generation immigrants, their
second- and third-generation children, or the growing number
of converts) in the French identity. End summary.
2. (C) In the Muslim community of some six million, 70
percent are estimated to be of North African (Algeria,
Morocco, and Tunisia) origin. Other sizable groups include
Turks and Pakistanis. Within this overall population, the RG
estimates (according to recent press reports) that roughly
9,000 could be considered extremist, or, just over one-tenth
of one percent. The RG also estimated that of the 1,500
mosques and prayer halls in France, fewer than 40 were
considered extremist. GOF officials routinely claim that 90
percent of French Muslims are non-practicing. Among the
minority of French Muslims considered "practicing," there is
a small but distinct current of fundamentalist thought. On
August 5, Poloffs toured a number of Islamic bookshops in
Paris, and found that the literature extolled strongly
conservative views on the role of Muslim women and also
included numerous guides (in French) of how to pray. The
bookstores did not present any moderate alternatives to
conservative dogma.
3. (U) Two specific sources of Islamic extremism are of
special interest. First is the French prison system, with a
population that is estimated at over 50 percent Muslim.
According to another leaked RG report from May 2005, Islamic
extremism here is growing in popularity, with scattered
reports of prisoners hanging up posters of Bin Laden,
destroying Christmas trees and bibles, and cries of joy at
the news of American soldiers killed in Iraq or suicide
bombings in Israel. It is often the shock of prison,
detailed the RG report, that transforms petty criminals into
Islamic extremists. The shortage of Muslim chaplains in
French prisons fuels potential for extremist ideologies to
spread unabated. Radicalized prisoners, once released, are
"time bombs," said the RG report. It estimated that within
the prison system, 200 inmates "merit attention," and 95 of
these should be considered "dangerous." A second source of
Islamic extremism is the growing number of conversions to
radical Islam by European-origin French citizens. In a
report submitted to Interior Minister Sarkozy in June, the RG
profiled new French converts to Islam, and found that most
were young males in urban areas and/or in areas largely
populated by those of North African descent. Of those
converts profiled, the RG reported 49 percent did not have
any diploma, and a full 44 percent opted for Salafist or
Tabligh-inspired versions of fundamentalist Islam. The
unemployment rate among new converts of European-French
origin is five times the national average, according to the
RG report. More than ten percent of the new converts had
discovered Islam in prison. The RG report also revealed that
approximately 3.5 percent of the French military, including
officers, had converted to Islam. (Note: Although this is a
striking statistic, many military converts have presumably
done so in order to marry Muslims, and not necessarily for
ideological reasons. End note.)
4. (S) The sheer number of recent "terrorism conspiracy"
arrests in France involving Islamic extremists underscores
the GOF's counter-terrorism challenges. Since 2002, it has
arrested 322 people linked to terrorism, of whom 91 were
charged and imprisoned. Islamic extremist violence has
struck France in the past, especially Paris. A year after a
failed hijacking attempt of an Air France jet in 1994, the
Algerian terrorist group GIA conducted a wave of bombings in
Paris subway stations and landmarks, killing 8 and wounding
over 200. Spillover from Maghreb-based Islamic extremists
continues to this day, with the Algerian-based GSPC group and
the Moroccan-based GICM group both present covertly on French
soil. Furthermore, French intelligence believes that the
GSPC has increasingly taken on the goals of worldwide
jihadism and is seeking to position itself as a complement to
al-Qaida. A terrorism investigating judge told us recently
that the GSPC is expanding its reach in France, and is
working to take advantage of old connections within the
well-organized Algerian community. As for the GICM, French
judiciary officials told us that those arrested in 2004 were
frighteningly professional and maintain to this day a strict
discipline when interrogated (ref D). (Comment: The GOF
prides itself on its ability to keep tabs on extremist
groups; their discovery of the GICM cell shocked them because
they had stumbled upon it by chance, further evidence of the
GICM group's operational security. End comment.)
5. (S) France has also seen Islamic extremist cells appear
with seemingly little to no support from terrorist
organizations such as the GICM and the GSPC. One example is
the eleven "jihadists to Iraq" arrested in January in Paris'
19th arrondissement. Those involved were arrested days
before leaving for Iraq. The DST told USG interlocutors (ref
E) that the suspected ringleader, 23-year old Farid
Benyettou, had never studied theology but by force of
personality, had managed within a few months to convince a
group of teenagers to fight jihad in Iraq. One example that
demonstrates the fluid interconnectedness of many Islamic
extremists was revealed during the trial of Ahmed Laidouni
and David Courtailler, two French citizens convicted and
sentenced in 2004 for organizing recruitment networks for
terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Laidouni and
Courtailler (who converted at the age of 27 to fundamentalist
Islam) have been linked to members of the Beghal network that
were convicted in March 2005 of plotting to bomb the U.S.
Embassy in Paris (ref F). They have also been linked to
extremist circles in the UK. Members of the Beghal network
are suspected of having ties with (among others) members of
the "Chechen" network (a loose grouping of individuals from
Lyon that attempted to develop chemical agents to commit
terrorist attacks), the "Frankfurt" network (which attempted
in 2000 to attack cultural sites in Strasbourg), and Lionel
Dumont, a member of the Islamic extremist "Roubaix gang" that
in the late 1990s terrorized the north of France. Dumont
spent a number of years in Japan, and is suspected of
building links there to Islamic extremism. In short, Islamic
political extremism in France takes on many forms: it has
bubbled up on its own, in cooperation with other autonomous
groups, and also in cooperation with al-Qaida linked groups
such as the GSPC.
6. (SBU) Islamic extremism is connected in the public mind to
the poor suburbs outside of major French cities, especially
Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg and Marseilles. However, pockets of
low-income housing are scattered throughout France, and
recent arrests in Grenoble, a medium-sized university town in
the southeast, and Lorraine, a region near the French-German
border, illustrate the fact that Islamic extremism is not
confined to the suburbs of France's largest cities. French
residents and citizens of North African extraction are
scattered throughout France. The Turkish community is based
largely in Paris and in eastern France, and the Pakistani
community is based almost exclusively in the Paris
metropolitan area.
7. (SBU) Although attention since the July bombings in London
and Sharm el-Sheikh is on new enforcement and security
initiatives, the GOF continues its work to integrate the
Muslim community into what is still a historically Catholic
country. High-profile Muslims in government, politics and
culture are relatively rare, and in general, Muslims are
underrepresented in positions of power. The GOF reached back
into its history of dealing with other religious/ethnic
communities when in 2003 it created the Council for the
Muslim Faith (CFCM), an umbrella organization of various
Muslim groups which serves as the official French Muslim
interlocutor with the government on a range of
civil-religious issues, including mosque construction. The
CFCM includes a broad brush of Muslim groups, including the
fundamentalist-leaning UOIF (considered by some to have links
to the Muslim Brotherhood), the FMNF (also considered
fundamentalist, but backed by the Moroccan government), and
the Tabligh (an ultra-orthodox Pakistani origin group
described as a way-station for some French jihadists). GOF
officials also point out that around 40 percent of French
mosques are not CFCM-affiliated. Moreover, the CFCM is
riddled with internal conflict (ref C), and for many who
espouse a highly fundamentalist worldview, it is considered
too close to the GOF.
8. (U) Another GOF initiative to spur the growth of a
moderate, France-centric Islam is to encourage imams to speak
French and learn more about French culture. More than half
of the imams in France either do not speak French or speak it
very poorly. In addition, less than 20 percent have French
nationality. New immigration policies stipulate that those
wishing to attain French citizenship must receive a GOF
certification of French fluency. Although this new policy
does not specifically target imams, their participation is
encouraged. A similar initiative, proposed by PM Villepin
when he was Interior Minister, has been stymied. Villepin
said he would push French universities to inaugurate specific
courses for imams on French culture. Only the Sorbonne
university evinced any interest, although it finally
announced in early August that it would not proceed with the
imam program because it ran counter to the principles of
--------------------------------------------- -------------
9. (U) Notwithstanding the recent spurt of GOF
counter-terrorism proposals (ref B), the French government
and media generally believe the GOF's method of fighting
Islamic extremism works well. A July 12 article in Le Figaro
outlined the two basic approaches, France's "offensive"
strategy and the UK's "communitarian" strategy. Louis
Caprioli, former head of the DST's counter-terrorism bureau
(the DST is France's internal security service), said the
French strategy emphasizes total cooperation between the
security/police services and the specialized
counter-terrorism judiciary. This allows for constant
surveillance of suspects and a focus on maximum disturbance
of Islamic extremists, hence the "offensive" nature of the
strategy. Alain Chouet, former head of the DGSE (France's
external intelligence service), added that the presence of
the RG throughout French territory allows for "permanent
surveillance and penetration of problematic communities."
Furthermore, said Chouet, "It is hard to imagine the
Anglo-Saxon countries imitating our harassment tactics, which
sometimes take place without any real proof of wrongdoing."
(Comment: There is undoubtedly a whiff of traditional Gallic
competitiveness regarding the "Anglo-Saxons" in these
comparisons of counter-terrorism models. Of all those
calling for additional C/T proposals in France following the
July attacks, only the unabashedly pro-Anglo-Saxon Sarkozy
pointedly said France had something to learn from the British
public transport surveillance system. End comment)
10. (U) Although most believe the GOF's "offensive"
counter-terrorism approach has been successful, many consider
that the GOF has failed in its quest to integrate those in
the marginalized suburbs, or "cites". Jean-Marie Colombani,
the editor-in-chief of Le Monde, wrote in a rare front-page
editorial on July 26: "Stories abound of the young, born in
our 'cites,' that incomprehensibly swung from complete
integration to marginalization to then becoming
irretrievable." Guillaume Bigot, a French researcher who
recently co-wrote a well-reviewed book on Islamic extremism
in France, is even more biting: "The Muslim community in massively excluded at the social and economic
level, and is accustomed to a sense of humiliation. These
youth, whose first or last names become obstacles to finding
work, do not have a past or a feeling of belonging to a land,
and have absolutely no future. It is not necessary to invent
a James Bond of Islamist extremism. You only need people who
can be manipulated with a simplistic ideology."
11. (SBU) Poloffs recently visited the northern Paris suburb
of La Courneuve, which has recently become a living metaphor
for violence and Islamic extremism in France. Interior
Minister Sarkozy visited La Courneuve several times over the
past months, and has vowed to make it an example of his new
efforts to foster integration. Members of the "Chechen"
network (see para 6) were arrested there in 2002 with
explosive material and the chemical agent ricin. Originally
a small town independent from Paris, La Courneuve now
features many large HLM (low-income housing projects). The
streets are relatively wide and empty, with little
street-level commerce aside from government services and
larger supermarkets. No one background dominated and we saw
no visible signs of an Islamic presence (we passed only one
synagogue and no mosques). The suburb did not feel
dangerous; instead it seemed more bleak and deserted than
anything else, as if everybody was inside their apartments or
out of town. Satellite dishes sprouted from many apartments.
The presence of planters with flowers and tree-lined
sidewalks gave the impression of a municipal government
trying to improve the area. Indeed, the local government's
slogan was "La Courneuve is inventing another future for
itself." Overall, and despite its terrible reputation, La
Courneuve looked to be a modest, multicultural place. Its
appearance confirmed what statistics report: the overwhelming
majority of Muslims in France (whether from Africa, the
Maghreb, or the newly converted) are moderate. The problem
lies with the one or two apartments that harbor Islamic
extremists hidden within the tens of thousands that do not.
12. (C) Comment: As is widely recognized, the GOF wields a
muscular and effective counter-terrorism apparatus that
identifies potential terrorists and thwarts potential
terrorist operations. Although there is always room for
improvement, the GOF appears to have done what it can in the
short- and medium-term to combat Islamic extremism. Over the
long-term, however, much work needs to be done. France does
not only have an integration/immigration problem; it must
also work to give a place to Muslims in the French identity.
Despite claims that its commitment to secularism nullifies
prejudice against any religion, it is an open secret that
historically Catholic France has heretofore failed to muster
sufficient will and understanding to truly accept Muslims as
French citizens. Although Islamic extremism may never
completely disappear from France, acceptance of Muslims as
full, participating members of French society will go a long
way to minimizing its reach. End comment.
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