On May 25, a 21-year-old soldier named Cédric Cordiez was stabbed in the neck in the La Defense district of Paris. He survived, but the aggressor's intention was clearly to kill him (possibly even to sever his head). Four days later, a suspect referred to as Alexandre D., a 22 year-old-convert to Islam, was arrested. He confessed to having acted "on religious grounds."
The Cordiez case is quite similar to the public killing and beheading in London of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, on May 22. One of Rigby's murderers, Michael Adebolajo, a 28-year-old British-African convert to Islam, claimed to have acted in order to retaliate against the British military operations "against Muslims" in Afghanistan. "It is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," he said before being arrested by the police. "We swear by Allah Almighty that we will never stop fighting you."
Manuel Valls, the French interior minister, drew another, even scarier, parallel: he mentioned Mohamed Merah, the deadliest jihadist terrorist to have operated in France so far.
A French citizen of Algerian descent, Merah shot eight people in eight days last year, from March 11 to March 19: seven were killed on the spot, one survived as a quadriplegic. The victims were selected according to clear criteria. Merah first targeted "defectors ": young men of North African or Caribbean origin serving in the French military (and thus likely to fight or to have fought other Muslims in places like Afghanistan or Mali). Then he murdered Jews (since Jews are deemed to be, as a race, enemies of Islam): three preteen children and a teacher at a Jewish school.
"There are several dozens, perhaps even several hundred, potential Merahs in our country," Valls somberly observed during a press conference on May 29. Indeed, investigations linked to the bombing on September 19, 2012, of a kosher shop in Sarcelles led the police, one month later, to a ramified Islamist network involved in stockpiling weapons and explosive material and in gathering information about Jewish personalities and organizations. Sources say that several other networks have been found since then.
However, some wonder whether the French police and security agencies are indeed "discovering" radical and seditious groups and individuals or just dealing more seriously with groups and individuals they already knew. The fact is that both Merah and Alexandre D. had been followed closely for years and identified as security risks prior to their crimes. The police and the agencies were aware that Merah had extensively traveled to no less than 25 Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Far Eastern, and African countries, including Afghanistan. They even had been briefed negatively about him by the Pakistani and American security agencies. Nevertheless, they had not taken steps against him.
As for Alexandre D. — or Abdelillah, as he insisted on being called after his conversion — Le Monde reports that he was put on file as early as February 20 by SDIG, the special branch of DCRI (the domestic security agency) that monitors Islamist activities. Nothing was done to prevent him from taking action.
Why not? One answer is that democratic countries are not supposed to arrest or intern citizens on the mere suspicion that they might be involved in crimes in the future. Another answer is that preventive action can be counterproductive, as any police department knows: as soon as you arrest suspects, other suspects, or criminals yet undetected, go into hiding.
There are more in-depth explanations as well. Like many other Western security agencies, DCRI and its twin sister DGSE (the French equivalent of the CIA) seem to have difficulties adjusting to a new society inside (multi-cultural, multi-ethnic) and new geopolitics outside (a multi-polar or even apolar world, rather than the Cold War bipolar system). Regarding the specific issues of terrorism and sedition, recent parliamentary reports have pointed to the need for more personnel, including religious experts, translators, psychologists, profilers, and computer wizards. The reports also recommended broader powers of investigation, including electronic investigation, and more inter-agency cooperation.
The ultimate explanation for the French security agencies' shortcomings or inconsistencies may be the extent to which radical Islam, a philosophy and a way of life that rejects democracy and the open society, has grown among the French Muslim minority. Elisabeth Schemla, one of France's most respected journalists, just published a thorough investigation on French Islam, Islam, l'épreuve française (Islam, The French Test). According to her, there are at least 7 million Muslims in France. But the relevant point, Schemla says, is that, by all accounts, about one third of that community — 2 million people at least — "is embracing radical Islam." And this subgroup is clearly expanding, either by winning over more Muslims or by attracting converts.
To use the language of nuclear physics, this is very much like a "critical mass," the point where changes in quantity translate to changes in quality, and where fusion is made sustainable. A democratic government can handle lots of security issues when it enjoys the near unanimous support of its citizens. Things are much more difficult when a sizable and growing part of the nation is in a state of virtual secession, if not virtual civil war. Radical Muslim preachers indoctrinate scores of young French citizens into the concept of jihad (which may mean either religious militancy or holy war). Transnational networks provide for actual military or terrorist training in terrorist camps and facilities all over the world, from the Mahghreb to Syria to Afghanistan or even further. At the end of the day, "dozens and probably hundreds" of new Merahs come back to France.
Manuel Valls must certainly be praised for bluntly appraising the jihadist threat in his country. However, will the global policies of the socialist François Hollande administration, to which he belongs, be helpful? The administration is going to pass a law to allow foreign residents to vote in local elections. This is a reform likely to turn more cities into Muslim enclaves, and to consolidate the grip of radical Islam all over the country.
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think tank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.