On July 16, Djamel Beghal is expected to be released from the Rennes-Vezin prison in the west of France. Beghal is a well-known figure in the European jihadist sphere. Born in Algeria in 1965, he settled in France in 1987. Ten years later, he moved to the United Kingdom with his French wife and their children. In November 2000, the family left for Afghanistan, a country then governed by the Taliban. In July 2001, Beghal was arrested in the United Arab Emirates and later deported to France: He was suspected of plotting a terrorist attack against the Embassy of the United States in Paris. In 2005, he received a 10-year sentence. He was released in 2009 but returned to prison a year later for his involvement in another case.
In prison, Beghal met other inmates, some of them incarcerated on terrorism charges. He allegedly became a mentor for some of them, like Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, who perpetrated terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015. A few months ago, Algerian authorities warned that they would refuse Beghal’s deportation to Algeria after his release. Following diplomatic negotiations, Algiers’ position seems to have changed. This turnaround is a relief for Paris. Without it, Beghal would have had to stay on French soil under house arrest.
The puzzle of radicalization
Beghal is only the tip of the iceberg. Approximately 500 inmates in French prisons have been condemned or are awaiting trial on terrorism charges. One should also add 1,200 inmates incarcerated for other offenses but who are considered to be radicals. Before the end of 2019, around 50 persons convicted of terrorism and 450 radicals will be released. Most of them are French citizens and cannot be expelled to another country. A recent study published by the French Institute for International Relations focused on a sample of 137 jihadists. Ninety-one percent of them were French, and only 22 percent hold dual citizenship. Homegrown terrorism has become the norm.
The drivers for radicalization are still unclear. Dozens of books and articles have been published worldwide about the push and pull factors that can motivate individuals to join a terrorist group. In France, experts on terrorism have undertaken heated debates. The confrontation between two prominent professors, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, has been summarized by a motto: radicalization of Islam vs. islamization of radicalism. Kepel argues that the development of Salafism creates a fertile ground for jihadism. Roy, on the contrary, holds that socioeconomic factors are much more important than religion in the radicalization process.
Other authors insist on various factors: François Burgat has developed a neo-colonial approach and interprets jihadism as a reaction to Western military interventions in Muslim countries; Farhad Khosrokhavar considers jihadism as a way for discriminated young Muslims to enact social revenge; Dounia Bouzar presents ISIS as a cult that targets vulnerable individuals; Fethi Benslama highlights the importance of psychological dynamics; David Thomson shows that some jihadists consider their experience as romantic and fun, etc.
Deradicalization, disengagement and relapse
As the concept of radicalization is still hotly debated, it is not surprising that no consensus has been reached on the deradicalization process. In September 2016, France opened its first rehabilitation center. This facility was supposed to host 25 radicalized persons, closely monitored by a team of professionals (psychologists, special needs counselors, social workers, and imams). However, the program was not targeting people condemned for terrorism -- it was based on voluntary entry. Two senators visited the center in February 2017. At the time, there was only one radical for 27 employees! Following the senators' critical report, the facility was closed in July 2017.
Another program, called RIVE (Research and Intervention in Extremist Violence), has been tested for the last year and a half. It is compulsory and is dedicated to people involved in terrorism cases. The approach is based on individualized mentoring, so only a dozen persons can be supported at the same time. The first results seem to be positive enough for the French government to decide to create three more programs of the type. This measure was announced in February 2018 in the National Plan for the Prevention of Radicalization. Interestingly enough, the term “deradicalization” is not used in this plan and was replaced by “disengagement.”
This change shows that the government’s objective is no longer to modify the minds of terrorists but to make sure that they leave their violent group and abide by the law. Disengagement is a more modest objective than deradicalization but is not an easy one. It is indeed very hard to assess if someone is really disengaged or if he/she is just pretending. Specialists even have a word for that: taqiya, an Arabic term meaning ruse or dissimulation. Terrorist recidivism is not theoretical. Cherif Kouachi was arrested in 2005 and spent less than two years in jail on terrorism charges. A decade later, he reoffended: With his brother, he carried out the Charlie Hebdo shooting. The next Kouachi may be currently in prison, waiting for his release.