What makes a young person born and raised in Europe come to identify with Islamist extremism? Why would a young person decide to travel to the Middle East to become involved in war, and in some cases, participate in crimes as monstrous such as mass decapitation?
Luisa María González
How does one explain why a young person returns to Europe to commit attacks within their own country, killing people sharing their nationality? Islam is very far from being the answer to these questions and others.
The phenomenon of young terrorists in Europe, in particular in France, is usually presented as a problem associated with Islam. However, it is much more complex than simply that of a religious question. Extremist groups make use of the most radical interpretations of Islam to justify terrorism; young people and adolescents submerged in psychological vulnerability, social marginalisation or the criminal world become an easy target for recruiters.
With some exceptions, almost all of the perpetrators of attacks in France are born in said nation or in Belgium and are first or second-generation descendants of migrants coming from Arabic countries.
Nonetheless, in the majority of cases, the practicing of Islam did not reach these individuals through family- of which many are in fact atheist or of other religions-, but through other connections such as friends in the neighbourhood, connections found on the Internet, or in prison.
Upon converting, these young people tend to associate themselves with the most radical versions of the Islamic religion, provoked by terrorist groups operating in the Middle East such as Daesh (self-denominated Islamic State- IS) or the Al Nusra Front.
In some cases they travel to Syria or Iraq. Although these figures are approximates, currently the authorities calculates that 700 French nationals have enrolled in these organisations and that approximately 200 died in these actions.
On the other hand, it is estimated that more than one thousand French young people are keen to go to the Levant but remain at home because they were intercepted during their journey, or withdrew because of the reinforcement of control measures in France and other European countries.
The perpetrators of attacks belong to either of the two groups: those who went to the middle East, where they trained, before returning and inserting themselves into the migratory flux; or those who remained at home and acted ‘teleguided’ by IS terrorists. Those planning new attacks also pertain to these two groups.
The words of specialists
A few days ago authorities arrested three people who were preparing an imminent attack on a touristic site within Paris. Amongst the detained was an adolescent girl of 16 years of age and her 20 year old boyfriend, a youth who prepared to sacrifice himself as a kamikaze.
The girl, called Sarah, appears in a recent video in which she swears her loyalty to IS, an image which horrified her mother, who in declarations to the press indicated that her daughter’s conversion to Islam and her radicalization had been a nightmare. The family’s lawyer described the girl as being in a fragile psychological state, ingenuous, affected by her parents’ divorce and easily influenced.
According to the specialists, a history of family problems is repeated in many cases of radicalisation: children of dysfunctional families, of single mothers who dedicate a large part of their time to working, of numerous households with parents who do not manage to give the required emotional attention to their children.
Virginie Leblicq is a Muslim Belgium and works as a psychologist attending to victims of radicalization networks.
In the documentary “Sisters of yihad”, said specialist explains that in her recent patients she always detects a marked psychological and emotional fragility, sometimes because of family issues or other interpersonal issues.
“I would like to emphasise that those targeted by Daesh (IS) for exploitation are not just anybody; the principle figures are not ordered to sacrifice themselves, but rather small pawns, who are psychologically fragile and easy to manipulate, often persons with a tendency for depression”, she points out. The documentary attempts to reconstruct the process of radicalization of young French girls or women. Another common element is that many a time victims feel a sense of confusion and searching for meaning in their lives, before being manipulated and involved in Islamist extremism.
Such happened to an interviewee, who was seduced by a ‘humanitarian’ discourse of a recruiter, since in many cases it all starts with ‘raising awareness’ of ‘potential fighters’ for the problems of their ‘Arabic brothers.’
The witness, who made declarations under a false identity, travelled to Syria thinking she was going to fight a just cause, even taking her five year old son with her, but she ended up horrified by what she found in the ranks of the IS.
Experiencing regret, she managed to escape and return to France, but explained that many other people adapted to life with the extremist groups.
Problems and social setting
Social problems are highly related to psychological issues, and is another factor considered as crucial to the process of radicalization of young people in Europe.
It is not coincidental that a large proportion of French terrorists come from the department Seine-Saint Denis, which beholds the greatest poverty, unemployment and criminality in the entire country. The same occurs in Belgium, where the marginal Molenbeek is considered the crib of extremism. As sociologists and analysts show, in the majority of cases the origins of radicalization is rooted in highly unfavourable socioeconomic contexts, marked by exclusion and discrimination.
Life stories share common factors such as lack of education, unemployment, precarious job situations or delinquency.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud is considered the leader of the commando that attacked various locations in Paris on the night of the 13th November 2015, events that led to a total of 130 fatal victims.
The young Belgian of 29 years of age, who days later was killed by police in a hideout in Seine-Saint Denis, was the sixth son from the marriage of a Morrocan couple living in Molenbeek for various decades.
He grew up in said area alongside his friends, and brothers Brahim and Salah Abdeslam, who also participated in the attacks on the 13th November.
During his adolescence and youth the three brothers were involved in violent robberies, mugging, drug trafficking and other crimes, before entering the network of radical Islamists. Another story repeated is that of common criminals who go to prison and are recruited there. In the margins of penitentiary rigour, there exist real extremist networks controlled by prisoners, who many a time are the ‘bosses’ of the prisons.
This phenomenon paralleling a mafia, very common in French prisons, has been described by numerous journalistic investigations. (PL)
Photos: Pixabay – (Translated by Natalia Davies)