Essay by Islam expert Gilles Kepel

The new jihad and its mentors

Islamist attacks such as those that took place in Paris this last autumn evidence a new kind of perpetrator. In place of individual terror organisations, networks appear to have emerged that sermonise on the cultural rift and provoke radical acts. By Gilles Kepel

On 3 October 2019, a computer technician working at the police headquarters in Paris responsible for combatting jihadism, attacked five colleagues with knives, killing four of them before being himself shot dead by a police officer. Mickael Harpon, born in the French Antilles and partially deaf, had converted to Islam in 2008.

In the small town of Gonesse, where he lived, he was a devout member of a mosque congregation where the chief imam represented a group associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – the Conseil Theologique des Musulmans de France. Another imam, a Moroccan national responsible for leading daily prayers at the same mosque since 2017, had already been blacklisted by security agencies and should have been expelled in 2015 owing to his radical Salafist preaching.

But the deportation was rescinded and the imam arrived at the Mosquee de la Fauconniere in Gonesse, after being sacked by a nearby Muslim place of worship because he "had caused chaos at the mosque with the rabble" – the words of the former regional mayor and current parliamentary representative of the constituency.

Due to a coincidence that is by no means unusual for jihadism, this act of violence took place on the same day as a trial in the court building next door against the female commando accused of trying to detonate a car bomb on 4 September 2016 – not far from Notre Dame cathedral and also very close to the police headquarters.

Too much emphasis on the religious aspect?

On that morning, the court was also dealing with the case of a female convert to Islam accused of attacking a police officer with a knife as he tried to arrest her. The Islamic State (IS) in Raqqa claimed responsibility for this attack. The group had manipulated its perpetrators – women of low intelligence, some of whom were suffering from severe psychological problems.

Even 10 days after Mickael Harpon's act, neither the IS nor any other jihadist group claimed responsibility.

French President Emmanuel Macron during the funeral for the four murdered police officers (photo: Reuters)
A European jihadism of the "fourth generation"? The attacker who killed four people in the Paris police headquarters was, according to the French anti-terror prosecutor's office, a supporter of a radical form of Islam. According to the public prosecutor's office, he had a radical view of Islam and had had contact with members of the radical Islamic Salafist movement

As far as the killer's thought processes can be reconstructed, it was a decision he came to of his own accord. Commentators on Islamism in France are now debating the question of what drove this person to carry out the violent attack of 3 October – a man who faced additional mental pressure due to his partial deafness. Was it the cultural rift between the values of the "infidel" society that the Salafist or Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated imams are trying to incite (without explicitly calling for violence), or is the religious dimension of his crime being subjected to over-interpretation?

Should the first hypothesis turn out to be accurate, the university lecturer and playwright Rachid Benzine believes there is a danger that a fundamental mistrust of Islam per se – and not just of militant Islamists or jihadists – could take hold in society. A mistrust that will only be further exacerbated by all those who claim the crime has "nothing to do with Islam".

Ideologues of the cultural rift

In France, the European country where the Muslim share of the population is the largest, we are seeing a debate like the one currently being conducted in Germany. In the case of France, where the secular- and progressively-inclined intelligentsia still likes to hope that religious affiliation is not a key determinant of identity and that socialisation results in an emancipation that allows compliance with the core values of the Republic – liberty, equality and fraternity – the Harpon affair throws up a larger problem.

How should "radicalisation" be defined? Does the concept have an operative meaning? Or is it simply a fuzzy generic term that prevents us from imagining an ideological continuum that extends on the one hand from the cultural rift between the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood and the values of western democracy in the name of Sharia, to the deployment of violence on the other?

In his book "Milestones", to this day the most influential manifesto in Islamist politics, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's most influential theorist Sayyid Qutb pointed to the tactical difference between the "phase of weakness" (istid'af) and the "phase of strength" (tamkîn) in the fight to create the Islamic state during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

As long as the community of Muslims is too weak, it must not resort to armed conflict for fear of annihilation, he wrote. But should this balance of power shift, it is right to switch approach and destroy the "infidels", establishing the Islamic state on the rubble of the battlefield.

This ideology, generally represented in the Muslim Brotherhood milieu, makes the opportune judgement (maslaha, which means "for the common good") a criterion for the transition to violence. For a decade now, the development of the Jihad on European soil is primarily being fuelled in line with the teachings of the most influential jihad ideologue of the third generation, Abou Moussab al Souri – a former Syrian Muslim Brother who studied engineering in France, played a role in Britain's Londonistan, was arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and finally handed over to the Damascus regime by the Americans (his fate is unknown).

Sayyid Qutb (photo: picture-alliance/AA/I. Yakut)
Islamist recourse to Sayyid Qutb: the most important theorist of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, in his book "Milestones", the most influential manifesto of Islamist politics to date, pointed out the tactical difference between the "phase of weakness" (istid'af) and the "phase of strength" (tamkîn) in the struggle to create the Islamic state at the time of the Prophet Muhammad

In his call for global Islamist resistance, he campaigned for an uprising of European Muslims in working-class neighbourhoods. There, he called for the creation of autonomous enclaves that could trigger a civil war aimed at the inevitable destruction of the West.

Souri took the view that for the Muslims of Europe, the time had come to enter the "phase of strength". Very few people read this lengthy and rambling manifesto, but its uncredited doctrines crop up in numerous texts doing the rounds of the social networks of the "Islamosphere" – the easily-accessible Islamist web.

Blurring the current perception of terrorism

Could it be that the European jihadism of the "fourth generation" (after the Afghan-Algerian-Egyptian-Bosnian phase of 1980 to 1997, the al-Qaida phase of 1997 to 2005 and the IS phase until the fall of Raqqa in October 2017) is in the process of establishing itself from these enclaves, from the social networks and the Salafist or Muslim Brotherhood preachers, without reliance on a jihadist-structured organisation in the proper sense – thus far viewed as the criterion for a "radicalisation"?

Is Mickael Harpon perhaps the first and most spectacular bearer of this new development – an IT technician in the service of the intelligence agency charged with the fight against jihadism in the sacred sanctum of the Paris police HQ?

The question that poses itself at this juncture (a question that is set to be thoroughly examined in two new works; a book by Bernard Rougier on "the territories captured by Islamism" and a volume by Hugo Micheron, who interviewed 80 jihadists in French prisons) – is whether in place of the usual organisations, an "ecosystem" has emerged in which individuals are, under the influence of an environment characterised by a cultural rift defined in religious terms, gradually being persuaded to perpetrate acts of violence as a result of their own personal circumstances?

If these hypotheses prove to be true, it will become clear that our societies and institutions must undertake a fundamental review of the problem of terrorism. In these circumstances, faith in the ability of state agencies to spot signs of "radicalisation" with the use of algorithms will be significantly eroded.

Also in need of a similarly fundamental re-think would be the responsibility of political actors on a local level, who sometimes perceive the Salafists and Muslim Brothers to be actors of "social peace" and try to win their support in elections by granting them greater freedoms in their sermonising on the cultural rift.

These are serious questions that we need to raise with our Muslim fellow citizens, because they affect them first and foremost. After all, they should not become hostages of a debate conducted in their name, a debate which would see them penned in between the jihadists on the one hand and the Identitarian right-wingers on the other – a situation that could in itself bring us a step closer to the realisation of Abou Moussab al Souri's grimmest prophecies.

Gilles Kepel

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Gilles Kepel is a director of the Middle East and Mediterranean Chair at the Universite Paris Sciences et Lettres, based at Ecole Normale Superieure.

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