The Central Directorate for General Intelligence (DCRG) estimated, at the end of 2003, that there were over 1,100 converts to radical Islam,a phenomenon that has clearly been spreading over the past three years, and one that is shared by several European countries. This still involves only a small minority, with the total number of converts to the Muslim religion generally estimated at close to 50,000.
For the police, this radical engagement “provides a structure for a certain number of young misfits” and is potentially dangerous. Evidence of this is the referral before the court of Ruddy Terranova, a juvenile delinquent convert accused of having struck a Muslim suspected of having too soft an interpretation of Islam. For researcher Jean-Luc Marret, the conversions represent in some cases “a kind of generational romanticism” in the suburbs.
For the past three years, the number of converts to radical Islam has distinctly been on the rise. In the framework of its assignment to follow high-risk groups, the DCRG identified,at the end of 2003,over 1,100 converts falling into this category. This trend,which is encountered in Germany, Great Britain,and Spain, according to the experts, bears witness to the flourishing of Islamic proselytizing in the suburbs (Le Monde,25 January 2002), in the prison environment (Le Monde,31 October 2001), as well as the vitality of the group phenomenon, which pushes people to imitate those around them.
In the mid-1980s, the intelligence services were only concerned by a handful of individuals. In 1996, the deadly venture of the “Roubaix gang,” led by the convert Lionel Dumont — who was arrested in Germany in December 2003 and extradited to France on 20 May — had revived interest in this subject,but its importance seemed to remain marginal. Today, the phenomenon of the converts in the broad sense is such that it necessarily involves a radical, potentially dangerous minority. In the absence of reliable statistical data, it is necessary to fall back on estimates. The total number of converts to Islam in France most often put forward by Islamic organizations is about 50,000 persons.
‘Screen’ Before Engagement
Several factors explain the growing attraction that Islam exerts. Or rather, it would be more appropriate to speak of “Islams,” since the religious offerings vary so much depending on the training and origin of the cleric. The first factor is the increasing number of mixed marriages,which push the husband or wife to embrace the religion of the spouse. The second factor is the extremely effective proselytizing of the pietists of the Tabligh and the Salafist groups in the suburbs,where they find a fertile breeding ground. The Tabligh,for example attracts a number of young people by proposing to them that they give meaning to their existence,then pass on their fresh knowledge to those close to them. “This is a form of failure for society,the failure of social integration and of the Republic’s school system,” sighs a police official of Seine-Saint-Denis. “This Islam,in its fundamentalist form,provides a structure for a certain number of young drop-outs.”
These proselytizing efforts can constitute a “screen prior to involvement in Jihadist networks,” according to the intelligence services. The Salafists, who demand a pure and original interpretation of the sacred texts, suggest as religious referents clerics from Islamic universities of the Muslim world, notably Saudi Arabia and Syria. Some of them teach a real break from Western values, declared enemies of Islam. The converts, who suffer a deficit in terms of legitimacy compared to those of Muslim origin, sometimes seek to compensate by a total engagement, in studies and in religious journeys.
The infatuation with Salafism has been observed notably among converts of West Indian origin. For the first time, indeed, the West Indian community is getting the attention of the police. The most recent example of such a radical conversion within this community is that of Willy Brigitte, who was arrested in Australia, then expelled to France in October 2003. Australian investigators are persuaded that this person of West Indian origin was preparing an attack on their soil.
Willy Brigitte converted to Islam in the mid-1990s, following a second marriage; he notable attended a mosque in Epinay-sur-Seine (Seine-Saint-Denis). He left for Yemen, then Afghanistan,where he spent time in a training camp, shortly after the 11 September attacks. He also participated in physical training courses in Fontainebleau Forest, which today are the subject of an investigation.
Another example is that of Johan Bonte, born in Corbeil-Essonnes (Essonne) to a Breton mother and a West Indian father. He converted to Islam in 1999, through his association with his brother-in-law, Djamel Beghal. The latter is accused of being the brains behind an Al-Qa’ida cell suspected of having prepared an attack against the US embassy in France. Another convert turned up in this same case, Jerome Courtailler, a 28-year-old Savoyard butcher who converted to Islam in 2000 and was released in December 2002. His brother David, on the other hand, was sentenced on 25 May to two years in prison in the “Afghan networks” case. Johan Bonte met a judicial fate similar to that of the first of the Courtailler brothers. After having been indicted and imprisoned in September 2001, he was recently released for lack of sufficient facts against him.
“The converts are increasing in number, to be sure, but there is generally a limit to their engagement,” says a police officer who specializes in monitoring of Islamists, tempering their significance. “One does not often find them in the hard core, among the activists.” They may make a logistical contribution, however. Some of them declare several lost passports within a short period, and the documents in question are transmitted to other activists to allow them to travel under a French banner.
According to the intelligence services, the young age of the converts is a constant. Many of them have a past of petty crime. “The young white boy of the suburbs is often isolated,” notes attorney Michel Kohitz,who has defended several Islamists prosecuted in terrorist cases. “To be accepted, he must become either a boxing champion or a Muslim. For some, that can become a revelation, a way of not resigning themselves to the void.” But it can also happen that students with diplomas, with no personal or family problems, stand out among them.
Another surprise: Radical Islam also turns up, in some parts of the Portuguese community. In 2003, during preliminary investigations of authorization to obtain a job at sensitive sites such as airports, the Seine-Saint-Denis police handled about 10 sensitive cases of converts within this community. The last new element is the appearance over the past several years of female converts to Islam, within fundamentalist organizations, either because it is the thing to do, because of social pressure, or indeed because they are the wives of radical militants.