Radicalization Behind Bars: Reexamining Extremism in Post-Attack France

Have you stopped playing sports? Do the TV shows you used to love no longer interest you? Are you spending more time alone or thinking of abandoning your career goals?

If you answered in the affirmative to one or more of these questions, a new French government-issued infographic suggests that you could be a budding jihadist.

The infographic, which encourages French citizens to look out for these potential warning signs, was produced as part of a £320 million campaign to combat extremism and has been the butt of more than a few jokes. Some French citizens have taken to Twitter to write responses like, “I stopped doing sports… Can I be considered a jihadist?” or, “The government invites you to be wary of those who do not eat baguettes.”

But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a more serious conversation about a possible indicator of radicalization has emerged. Instead of asking French citizens, “Have you changed your eating habits?” a more crucial question to ask might be, “Have you spent any time in a French prison lately?”

Though prison radicalization and prison Islam (or “Prislam”) are hot-button issues in the United States and the United Kingdom as well, the scale, complexity and history of the phenomenon in France call for special scrutiny.

Muslims account for only about seven to ten percent of France’s total population but make up more than half (some estimates have suggested up to 70 percent) of France’s incarcerated population of approximately 68,000.  Leaving aside the fact that the sheer numbers suggest a problem, the conditions under which Muslim prisoners are forced to live have drawn repeated complaints of discrimination and could be contributing to increased radicalization.  This process is closely related to broader tensions between the French government and its Muslim population that have been revealed in the wake of the Paris attacks, and is a byproduct of both France’s colonial history in North Africa and its more recent policies on immigration and assimilation.

Islamic radicalization in French prisons is an enormous issue, unfortunately brought to light by the terrorist attacks in Paris last month. Two of the suspects in the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo were products of the French penal system, and one of them, Chérif Kouachi, seems to have gone from pizza deliveryman with seemingly far-fetched ideas about radical Islam to violent jihadist in his 20 months behind bars in Paris’ southern suburbs.

Kouachi was first arrested while boarding a plane to Iraq in 2005. He was 22 years old and fed up with seeing images of US troops humiliating Iraqi Muslims, so he decided to leave his life as a pizza deliveryman in France and face American soldiers himself.

Ironically, the real deepening of his radicalization began when French police stopped his amateur attempt at jihad. He spent 20 months awaiting his trial inside the Fleury-Mérgois prison, the largest prison complex in France, which is notorious for its poor conditions. There, he connected with a jihadist who trained in one of Osama bin Laden’s camps, a top operative for Al Qaeda, and a formerly non-religious convicted robber, Amedy Coulibaly, who was later responsible for the siege inside the kosher supermarket in Paris in the days following the Kouachi brothers’ attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Kouachi’s experience mirrors that of countless other cases of prison radicalization, which follows a relatively simple gang logic. Groups of extremist prisoners offer their protection to vulnerable newcomers in an overcrowded and dangerous confined space, and appear to provide an escape for younger, more vulnerable prisoners.

Although Muslims are a majority in the large urban prisons that house mostly petty criminals, many continue to feel victimized.

But in prisons like Fleury-Mérgois, the presence of radical jihadists is particularly rampant, and perhaps exacerbated by the complaints of Muslim inmates regarding discrimination and mistreatment.  Although Muslims comprise a majority in the large urban prisons that house mostly petty criminals, many continue to feel victimized. French Muslim inmates have complained of  prison officials who have misconceptions about Islam, a low number of Muslim guards, few religious services compared to Christian cellmates, and the lack of halal meat despite the presence of kosher options. There are an estimated 169 Muslim imams who regularly work in the French prison system, compared to 655 Catholic and 317 Protestant chaplains, and most are volunteers. Just six months before the attacks, the national organization for Muslim chaplains in prison issued a press release asking for an official recognition of their profession and seeking some type of compensation more than a stipend to cover their commute.

These grievances have sometimes resulted in heated confrontations. French Muslim inmates have protested their perceived lack of religious services by violating prison rules to hold group prayers in the common grounds and staging cellblock protests demanding halal food. Perhaps most significantly, despite French prisons scrambling to increase halal food offerings and to hire more Muslim imams to hold prayers and meet with inmates in their cells, many Muslim inmates maintain that these options are still not available to them. Whether that is the result of blatant misconceptions on the part of Muslim inmates or continued more subtle discrimination on the part of prison officials is arguably less important than the fact that they continue to feel and voice their oppression, and thus appeal to new Muslim inmates who may arrive in prison wanting to join in a fight against the same stigma they have experienced outside of prison walls.

Laila Fathi, a Muslim activist in Paris, recently compared high rate of Muslims currently living in French prisons to the disproportionate incarceration rates for African Americans and Hispanics in the United States, and suggested that they bear similar repercussions.  But before comparing the two phenomena, it is necessary to place the current reality in France’s prisons in historical context, starting with French colonial history in North Africa.

Although France granted independence to Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, the French insisted that Algeria was a region of France and not a colony. The French government responded to Algerian uprisings with massive force, killing thousands over decades of conflict and finally pulling out in 1962. When the French left, nearly the entire Jewish population in Algeria was granted French citizenship and departed the country for France. Muslim Algerians and other native Algerian minorities were left with a difficult path to French citizenship and the tragic aftermath of decolonization.

This colonial legacy is reflected in France’s more recent history, particularly in its perceived failures of immigration and assimilation for many North African immigrants. Activists, sociologists and Muslim leaders have argued that French policies have placed and kept North African immigrants in pockets of impoverished Muslim neighborhoods with high unemployment, inferior schools and substandard housing. Most second-generation North African immigrants have grown up on the outskirts of large French cities, notorious for their high crime rates since the 19th century, and are more prone to delinquency given their limited opportunities for social and financial advancement and related lack of regard for French policy and authority.

Muslims account for only about seven to ten percent of France’s total population but make up more than half of France’s incarcerated population of approximately 68,000.

The fact that this extreme marginalization of a specific population has such deep roots in French society alters comparisons of the Charlie Hebdo massacre with other acts of terror. When we consider the attacks in Paris alongside 9/11, one of the obvious differences is that in the case of the Paris attacks, the gunmen were French citizens, born and raised in France. For this reason, the attacks in France have sparked an especially panicked introspection about the origins of “homegrown terrorism.” French government officials and citizens alike have been forced to ask, how and where could this have happened here?

One place French authorities have begun to look is towards prisons. Experiments with isolating Muslim radicals — grouping them in cells away from other inmates — have begun, and the government has announced that it will train 60 additional Muslim ministers to work with inmates. Though these reforms are a vital starting point, they are also not enough.

After the siege at a Sydney café in December, in which terrified hostages were held at gunpoint and forced to hold an Islamist terror flag against the window of the Martin Place mall, Australians offered to commute to work with Muslim neighbors for fear of Islamophobic backlash, using the hashtag #illridewithyou. In France, that type of broad-based support for French Muslims and refusal to blame the actions of an individual on an entire community have not yet surfaced.

The French government, then, has an opportunity to provide that support. More specifically, it has both an opportunity and an obligation to reexamine some of the facets of its society that cause Muslims to feel such disillusionment, which has in turn led to acts of crime, imprisonment, and radicalization. Those in power should look to the French Muslims who have grown up in crime-ridden outskirts of cities and been called “immigrants” all their lives despite having been born in France. It is easier for someone to do harm to a society that they never felt a part of, and for many Muslim extremists in France, it seems feelings of isolation and resentment are likely to start long before a prison sentence.