"The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a belated wake-up call"

Political scientist Hugo Micheron on the origins of Islamist terrorism in France, his conversations with jihadists – and on the trial now beginning against the perpetrators of the 2015 attacks. Interview by Nadia Pantel

By Nadia Pantel

On 7 January 2015, terrorists Said and Cherif Kouachi stormed the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered twelve people.

A day later, Amedy Coulibaly, a friend of the Kouachi brothers, sprang into action. On 8 January he shot and killed a policewoman in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge, and on 9 January he raided a kosher supermarket where mainly Jews shop. Four people were killed in the subsequent hostage-taking.

Five and a half years after the murders, the trial of 14 suspected perpetrators of the attacks has begun in Paris, the assassins themselves having been killed in police operations. Political scientist Hugo Micheron is attending the trial in the public gallery. He is researching the development of terrorist networks in France. In January his book "Le Jihadisme francais. Quartiers, Syrie, Prisons" (lit.: The French Jihadism. Districts, Syria, Prisons) was published in January. The book is the result of his doctoral thesis, for which he interviewed 80 self-declared jihadists in French prisons.

What do you hope to gain from the "Charlie Hebdo" trial for your research? And what do the next 50 days of proceedings mean for French society?

Hugo Micheron: You can see how important the process is by the fact that it will be completely filmed and archived. I myself am interested in understanding how jihadist structures are anchored locally. How it is that such extreme ideas can be considered normal in some environments. For the French population, the process is important because it shows that the state is once again in control.

Photo montage: cover of "Le Jihadisme francais. Quartiers, Syrie, Prisons" by Hugo Micheron | Political scientist Hugo Micheron (screenshot: YouTube)
Political scientist Hugo Micheron: "Contrary to popular belief, time spent in prison is not the greatest possible punishment. Jihadists interpret a prison sentence as a test of God and – because one has time to read – as a chance to educate oneself. It is an opportunity to rise, both intellectually and within the ideological hierarchy. Most of the imprisoned jihadists I spoke to will be released within the next two years"

Five years ago it was as if the country had taken a blow to the heart. The Kouachi brothers were on the run for 48 hours after the assassination, the state seemed powerless. Of course, one of the terrorists' goals is to promote such feelings of bewilderment and paralysis.

In your book you argue that jihadism should not be interpreted as a phenomenon of the suburbs, that is, not as a consequence of poverty and a lack of prospects.

Micheron: The theory that jihadism is a product of social inequality is wrong. In France two camps ascribe to it nonetheless: leftists, who aim to talk down the problem, and right-wingers, who fan the flames of hysteria, equating immigration with crime and Muslims with Islamism. Those who deny there is a problem put 5,000 people travelling from Europe to Syria to join IS down to the fact that Muslims are discriminated against and disadvantaged. The attacks are thus interpreted as revenge on Western society. The hysterical camp, on the other hand, declares every deprived suburb to be a Salafist hotbed.

You may also like: Interview with French extremism researcher Olivier Roy – ″Radicalisation is not the result of failed integration″ But if you take a closer look at where the people who wanted to fight for a "caliphate" in Syria set off from, then a very specific geography emerges. There are actually only ten places from which the majority of the assassins and jihadists were recruited.

These include towns belonging to the Parisian suburbs, but also the small town of Lunel in southern France. At the same time, there has not been a single departure for Syria from the suburbs of Marseille, which in theory boast the main factors of radicalisation: a Muslim majority and high unemployment. I am not saying social discrimination does not play a role, but I am saying that it is only one of several factors.

What are the other factors?

Micheron: Indoctrination and propaganda. Salafism and jihadism didn't just appear out of the blue in France, people were actively involved in spreading these ideologies. For example, I had lengthy contact with members of the Clain family from Toulouse – Catholic converts to Islam – who admit to deliberately establishing a Salafist structure. The family members say of themselves that every single day is a fight to win new followers. To this end, they have founded sports clubs and associations, as well as forging contacts with radical preachers.

Islamist terrorists are often portrayed as madmen, as people who do not really know what they are doing. Even the Clains were mocked by the local community in the beginning. But they still convinced people of their ideology. When Fabien Clain went to Syria, he was immediately accepted within the IS hierarchy because it was clear he had influence in France.

You describe how these networks emerged in France largely unnoticed by the public. How was that possible?

Symbolic image of a deprived Parisian suburb (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Revenge of the disaffected and the disadvantaged? Hugo Micheron does not believe that jihadism is solely the product of social inequality. Other major factors include indoctrination and propaganda. "Salafism and jihadism didn't just appear out of the blue in France, people were actively involved in spreading these ideologies. Every single day is a fight to win new followers. To this end, they have founded sports clubs and associations, as well as forging contacts with radical preachers," argues the political scientist

Micheron: The attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015 was a belated wake-up call. Suddenly Islamist structures that had developed over the course of 15 years became visible. The first jihadists who began to spread their ideas in France were fighters returning from the Algerian civil war and Afghanistan. These were very small groups, three or four people. Their recruitment attempts became easier after the attack on the World Trade Center: 2001 was a turning point.

In France, moreover, the attack by Mohammed Merah helped fuel the ideological blaze. Merah murdered four people, including three children, at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, having previously killed three soldiers. Back then, it was considered an isolated incident, but in 2015 people realised that a series of Islamist attacks had begun.

What role do prisons play in the emergence of terrorist structures?

Micheron: Time spent in prison is viewed by our society as the greatest possible punishment. But in terms of jihadist logic it is not. A prison sentence is interpreted as a test of God and – because one has time to read – as a chance to educate oneself. The jihadists I talked to saw time in prison as an opportunity to rise, both intellectually and within their hierarchies. Most of the imprisoned jihadists I spoke to will be released within the next two years. There are hundreds of people in prison who are considered to be radicalised Islamists.

You may also like: Islamism in Germany – Preventing radicalisation in prisons

How are the prisons dealing with this?

Micheron: France's prisons are chronically overcrowded. Some institutions are accommodating almost twice as many people as there are prison places. Moreover, from 2014 to 2019, those returning from Syria were sent to the particularly overcrowded prisons in the greater Paris area. This has had dramatic consequences. The Fleury-Merogis prison experienced such levels of inmate unrest over several days that the prison administration feared it would lose control of the prisoners.


In terms of de-radicalisation measures, you describe, among other things, how convicted terrorists have been encouraged to stroke ferrets, with the idea of emphasising the value of an individual life.

Micheron: I wrote the book with the firm intention of not making fun either of the penal system or of the jihadists. The subject is far too serious for that. Nevertheless, I cited the ferret example to demonstrate that the de-radicalisation process is far from perfect. Among other things, because the penal system considers those who detonate a bomb to be the most dangerous. Not realising that there are inconspicuous prisoners who deliberately recruit fellow inmates. Both the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were indoctrinated in prison.

Have things improved since then?

Micheron: Today, Islamist prisoners are no longer incarcerated together in specially dedicated wings; they are distributed across more than 70 prisons. This has rectified the situation. The January 2015 attacks revealed a phenomenon that we are still fighting today. There are more terrorists now than there were in 2015, but we are wiser. We know how their networks work and what their ideology is based on. We have caught up intellectually.

Interview conducted by Nadia Pantel

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2020