The trial began this week in Paris of three young men accused of plotting to attack Fort Béar, a military base in the Pyrenees mountains that is used as a commando training centre. Three Islamists, led by 25-year-old Djebril Amara, a former navy rating who passed through the centre, were arrested in the summer of 2015, shortly before they were set to launch their assault that they hoped would end with the decapitation of the fort’s commander.
They met in a video games forum, and online was where they passed much of their time. “I’m hypnotised,” Djebril admitted to his interrogators. “I eat, live and breathe Isis. I spent my life in my room – YouTube–Isis–YouTube–Isis. That was it.”
The trial will hear how the three men used the internet to make contact with other Islamists in France and learned how to fabricate bombs. It’s not too dissimilar to what is currently being heard in another Paris court, this one sitting in judgement on five men from the Mediterranean town of Lunel who are accused of belonging to a 20-strong jihadist network that fought in Syria. The trial has a long way to run but already there have been admissions from the defendants that Islamist propaganda videos played a significant part in their radicalisation.
Such is the role of the internet in radicalising young French Muslims that Gilles Kepel, the Islamic expert who has advised President Macron on the extremist phenomenon, cites February 14, 2005, as one of the pivotal dates in the West’s war against Islamic extremism. Why? That was when YouTube’s domain name was activated.
It’s not just YouTube that’s been exploited by the extremists. Facebook has been a major recruitment tool for the jihadists and, within a year of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring himself, in 2014, the leader of a caliphate that spanned Syria and Iraq, Isis was posting 40,000 tweets a day in French. In addition, there were 2,600 Francophone websites linked to the Islamist group, prompting the then-Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, to establish “a battalion of community managers”, dedicated to combating Islamist online propaganda.
That didn’t prove very effective and it’s too early to tell whether the announcement, last October, from the G7 member states that internet companies must do more to combat terrorist content on their sites will have any effect. Judging from the findings of a report published last week in France it may be a stable door bolted too late.
Conducted in 21 inner-city schools in four cities over the course of two years, La Tentation Radicale [‘The radical temptation’] interviewed nearly 7,000 schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 16, of whom 1,750 were Muslim.
“Muslims are returning strongly to religious observance, in contrast to the growing secularism of other young people,” said Olivier Galland, one of the authors, in an interview with Le Monde, something he says has created “a cultural divide between young Muslims and non-Muslims”.
This can be seen in the fact that 25 per cent of Muslim schoolchildren asked refused to condemn unequivocally the Charlie Hebdo killings of 2015, while 20 per cent believe it acceptable to bear arms to defend one’s religion. The report also revealed that 81 per cent of Muslims interviewed believed religion was right in explaining the world’s creation; 64 per cent didn’t regard homosexuality as a standard sexual practice; 69 per cent are opposed to the ban on girls wearing the headscarf to school; and 80 per cent believe religion shouldn’t be mocked.
Where are such views formed? Not in French schools, that’s for sure. They come from extremist mosques and internet sites, and the bad news for the West is that such conservative views are becoming the norm. For Macron, the challenge of his presidency is to bridge this cultural divide and, in doing so, prevent the next generation of jihadists.
The size of the task is daunting and neither Macron, nor indeed any Western leader, can draw comfort from the coverage this week of the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. That brought peace after thirty years of terrorist violence but there was always something to negotiate in Northern Ireland. The Islamists’ are uncompromising in their solitary goal: to Islamify Europe.
There are times when I wonder how The Troubles might have panned out if the IRA had had internet access in the 70s and 80s. All those young Brits of Irish extraction, watching skilfully edited videos in their bedroom (set to suitably patriotic music) of the ‘brutalisation and oppression of their people’. They then could have shared their outrage in chatrooms, met other second generation Irish online and downloaded the IRA’s ‘Green Book’, their manual on political philosophy and guerilla strategy. Sooner or later someone from Belfast would have showed up in cyberspace, to groom them, and advise them on how to hit back at the Brits.
I suppose we should be relieved that the only real propaganda platform the paramilitaries’ had were murals; it’s hard to become radicalised by one of those from a bedroom in Kilburn.