Less than a week after French teacher Samuel Paty was murdered and beheaded, Paris is uncovering the extent of the radicalization and hate networks that led to the unprecedented murder.
While France has dealt with extremism for years as well as many brutal murders, such as Ilan Halimi in 2006, the attack on the Toulouse Jewish school in 2012, the Bataclan massacre and the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, the country appears jolted by an attack on a teacher.
This goes to the heart of the Republic and France's attempt to maintain its traditions of freedom and secularism against a rising tide of religious extremist hate linked to Islamist intolerance. The country has known about these problems for years, and often ignored the pool of hatred that extremists could draw on, whether resentment in the banlieues that led to mass riots in 2005, or the 2016 Normandy attack where a priest was beheaded.
France also knows that thousands joined or sympathized with Islamic State across the country, which led to mass murders such as the Nice truck ramming attack in 2016. The network linked to the recent killing includes a pro-Hamas group. Hamas has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, although the Gaza-based group has denied a connection to the Paris group linked to the killing.
Now the security services are conducting a full-court press, not just against those linked to the murder of the teacher, but civil society groups that appear to be behind radicalization, as well as hate preachers who give cover for fatwas that justify murder.
This comes in the wake of French President Emmanuel Macron's comments that Islam is in a crisis relating to radical Islamist movements. The Islamists, particularly Turkey's ruling party, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has slammed Macron for his criticism. Ankara has mobilized state media to attack the French president, with articles at Ankara's government network TRT accusing Macron of "obsession" with Islam.
Turkey has mobilized scholars and media against France's leading politicians and policies. In this struggle, France's Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has gone after NGOs and educational institutions that are accused of supporting extremism. On October 14, Paris said that 73 extremist mosques and private schools had been shuttered in the "fight against radicalization."
The fight came too late for Paty, a teacher who showed cartoons in class that led to a parent inciting against him. It is now believed that this pool of incitement led to the murder. France reported that the father of a student exchanged text messages with Abdullah Anzorov, an 18-year-old of Chechan origin who had received asylum as a child in France. Darmanin has ordered the closure of a mosque in Pantin that had posted a video inciting against the teacher to some 1,500 worshipers.
France is going all out to stop worse attacks, including taking on "cyber-Islamism." That means holding social media to account. Many social media companies have hosted extremism for years. Despite deleting millions of posts and closing accounts, it is still possible to see comments in various language by extremists calling for beheading or killing "kuffar," one of the terms Islamists used for what they see as infidels or subhumans who are to be destroyed the way ISIS did to minorities.
France's National Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer says that Paty, the victim, will be awarded the Légion d'honneur. In doing so, France is doing what most Western countries refuse to do: honor the victims. Victims of terrorist attacks in other countries, whether the UK, US, Germany or elsewhere, are often forgotten as part of national attempts to downplay extremism or excuse it.
For instance, attacks on US soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009 by a supporter of extremist Anwar al-Awlaki were excused as "workplace violence," while the US described a targeted attack on a Jewish kosher market in Paris as "random people" being killed, when it was actually a targeted attack on Jews. The FBI in the US even censored the Orlando nightclub shooter's pledge of allegiance to ISIS in 2016, before an outcry by news organizations got it to release the full transcript.
The US has generally sought to downplay Islamist hate groups as "violent extremists" to obscure the support networks they have and turn each attack into a kind of "lone wolf" incident, quickly deleting social media accounts or any discussion of where the killers are radicalized. Media are encouraged not to provide many details – and victims, such as those of the San Bernardino attack, are often either forgotten, not honored or even subjected to criticism in the media.
The difference in approach between France and the English-speaking or northern European countries appears to be more linked to a view of how to manage society: whether the goal is treating society as a whole with certain values, or whether most issues boil down to the individual. France, for instance, is preparing to expel some 231 extremists in the wake of the attack.
Many other European countries have tended to go so far as to provide asylum to hate preachers. The UK has hosted, educated and fostered numerous extremists in this mold, from Abu Hamza al-Masri, the infamous "hook" preacher, to Anjem Choudary, the preacher convicted in 2016 of "urging support for ISIS," and whose "propaganda motivated at least 100 people to pursue terrorism," according to The Guardian.
Paris appears to view these kinds of preachers as now needing to be curtailed, as opposed to enjoying the widespread freedoms they have had in other countries in Europe. This French method appears to be like that used to crack down on extremism in some countries in the Middle East, where governments are monitoring more closely how people become radicalized.
France appears to now think that there is an "enemy within" of extremists – and that they can be confronted. While thousands rallied across France to remember Paty, the security services launched "dozens of raids." Darmanin says the point is to destabilize extremist networks, with police interviewing 80 people linked to incitement messages posted supporting the murder of Paty.
In addition, some 51 associations are being investigated for allegedly condoning the attack. These include organizations that use the guise of being involved in human rights campaigns to mask Islamist views. For years this has been one of the tactics of groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood: to try to tap into left-wing and progressive tendencies in the West to exploit lack of understanding of the "other" in order to push more radical religious extremist agendas.
One of the challenges in the past throughout Europe has been that security services often know about radicalization, even tracking the movements of those who joined ISIS and returned, but that the volume of extremists is so large they can't all be interdicted. A recent attack near the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, even while a trial is under way for the 2015 attack, illustrated the problem last month.
French authorities appear shocked that students at the school helped the murderer find the teacher. This despite the fact the teacher had provided students freedom to leave class if they found the presentation "offensive."
It is unclear whether this is merely a knee-jerk reaction, or whether France will continue the pressure, seeking to expel extremists and close organizations that excuse killing.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.