By Walied Shater
NOV. 19, 2015
AS a security professional with counterterrorism experience, I understand the threat posed by religious extremism. As a former Secret Service agent who has taught about radicalization to the C.I.A., the N.S.A., the Department of Homeland Security and the United States military, I have seen up close how Muslims are treated in European society, especially French society.
I was a Secret Service agent on the 2004 visit to France by George W. Bush, who was then president, and my responsibilities included obtaining cars, hotel rooms, cellphones and translators for a small army of agents who would arrive in advance of his trip. Two weeks before, I ordered 20 cars and 20 French drivers for members of the Secret Service advance team. The cars and drivers lined up in front of a five-star Paris hotel where members of the Secret Service, United States military and White House staff were staying.
All of the drivers were dressed professionally in suits, but only one was stopped and questioned each day by the French police. His name was Ahmad and he was clean-shaven, about 25 years old, born in France and of Moroccan descent. Almost daily I would be summoned to the outside of the hotel to verify that he was part of our team. After a few days of this, I offered to contact the police and try to stop the constant and redundant checks. He smirked and told me, “You cannot change French society.”
Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, The Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.
What seemed most strange to me was that Ahmad never complained about the police intrusion and actually accepted it as a fact of life. When I drove with Ahmad through the streets of Paris, he was stopped three times by police officers at roundabouts and traffic lights. Each time he produced identification, explained the car was not his and that he worked for a limousine service. Within minutes the police let him go, and they were always professional and polite. But while he didn’t complain, Ahmad felt humiliated, like an outsider. Not truly French.
Many French Muslims have no feeling of ownership or belonging toward their homeland. They use France as long as needed to live, become educated and take care of their families, but it is a transactional relationship. France may be less repressive and may offer more opportunities than their native or ancestral Arab homelands, but many of them have no real stake in French society. Like the driver who rents a car but cares little about its long-term condition, they make little investment and have minimal loyalty to the country. It is no coincidence that more French citizens have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State, or ISIS, than citizens of any other European nation.
For Ahmad, France was a rental car. He spoke of the French not as “us,” but as “them.” By contrast, as a Muslim American, when I spoke of my countrymen, I used “we,” and Ahmad noticed the contrast. “America is different,” he would say.
I understood then how a feeling of exclusion and disrespect could provide fertile soil in which anger could grow and militancy could take hold. If we are to prevent future attacks, we must understand how radicalization can result in violence, and the central role disenfranchisement plays in radicalization.
Both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State exploit those feelings of disenfranchisement, but there are differences. Radicalization under Al Qaeda was a simple proposition: Innocent Muslims were being killed around the world; the Americans, Christians, Europeans, Jews, Shiites and heretic Sunnis were to blame; there’s something you can do about it, join the Qaeda franchise to defend the ummah (the community of Muslim believers). This path to radicalization could take several months or years, often require traveling to a training camp before successful recruits joined the cause, as Al Qaeda was particular about vetting new members.
By contrast, the Islamic State sales pitch is both more aggressive and simpler. One, we are strong. Two, we are righteous. Three, we are the Islamic State. Strength is communicated in slick videos showing disciplined fighters in military uniforms holding large guns with armored personnel carriers or Humvees as backdrops. Righteousness comes with fighters usually holding a copy of the Quran or with Islamic texts and music accompanying each video. The final part of the pitch reaffirms the strong group identity: Supporters are drawn by the mystique of the Islamic State brand.
But the Islamic State’s path to radicalization takes only a few weeks. Yes, some recruits go to training camps in Syria, but the Islamic State inspires followers mainly online and it is less doctrinal about what constitutes being a member. It tells followers not to focus on big attacks, but to create violence and cause damage even if it’s against just one person. More so than Al Qaeda, the Islamic State offers the chance to quickly transform feelings of alienation into action.
As France and other European nations begin a justified crackdown to identify and arrest other terrorists before they strike, they also need to look at the soft side of fighting terrorism, addressing the humiliation that citizens feel that can lead them to radicalization. This means not declaring war on Muslim citizens or refugees within their borders, even if doing so may feed an immediate political purpose or satisfy a thirst for revenge. Instead, the fight requires openly embracing Muslims, some of whom have been French for two or three generations, as full citizens of France to directly address the issues of alienation and disenfranchisement. In the wake of last week’s carnage in Paris, revenge is easy. Changing a culture will be difficult.
Walied Shater, a security consultant, was an agent with the United States Secret Service from 1995 to 2007.