How is Europe countering radical Islam?
From mosques to family kitchens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are trying to stem the tide of young Europeans signing up to fight for the self-declared Islamic State. Leaders from around the world are at the White House today for a summit on battling violent extremism.
Amsterdam, Paris, and London — On the ground floor of a redbrick walk-up overlooking Amsterdam’s Amstel River, in his inconspicuous mosque, Muslim cleric Said Akhrif delivers a sermon on tolerance. It is the third in a series of talks that the youthful imam has given to the group of faithful, sitting on a red carpet in front of him, since Islamic extremists slaughtered 12 people at the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
Mr. Akhrif’s message on this Friday afternoon – delivered in Arabic and then translated into Dutch – is that the prophet Muhammad was a man with a cool head. His purpose, the Moroccan-born cleric explains, is to encourage Muslims “to remain calm” in the face of adversity “and not get frustrated.”
That message lies at the heart of a swelling effort across Europe, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, to stop more young Muslims from waging jihad, or holy war. Through sermons and online advertising, from TV studios to family kitchens to psychiatrists’ couches, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are scrambling to stem the tide of young Europeans volunteering to fight with Islamic State (known as both IS and ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, or to wreak havoc at home.
“Our task is to make Islamic extremism as unappealing to young Muslims today as communism is now to Western teens,” says Maajid Nawaz, who runs the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based group seeking to counter radicalization.
That is a hydra-headed job. Young European Muslims can be tempted by or trapped into violent extremism in many ways, say those trying to steer them in a different direction. Some are teen rebels. Some feel motivated by what they believe to be a just cause. Some are excited by the promised thrills of “gangster Islam.” Others get carried away by fanatical utopianism.
Most European governments have decided that “prevention is better than cure,” but only after disasters. The Dutch government launched a slew of counterradicalization programs after an Islamist militant shot and stabbed Theo van Gogh to death as the filmmaker rode his bicycle to work in 2004.
The British authorities set up their own preventive scheme in the wake of suicide bombings in July 2005 that killed 52 people. The French government launched an anti-jihad website at the end of January.
Though Europe’s security services clearly have a key role to play in preventing Islamic-inspired terrorism, they are often overwhelmed by the challenge: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says nearly 3,000 potential French jihadis need constant surveillance but the General Directorate for Internal Security has only 3,800 agents. The government has promised to bolster the security services, adding 1,100 positions over the next three years.
Even that may not be enough. The housing projects where extremist recruiters work “are almost hermetically sealed ghettos for the secret service,” worries Louis Caprioli, a former head of antiterrorism at the French equivalent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We cannot do discreet surveillance there.”
Across the Channel, Britain’s MI5 is also realistic about the limits to the security services’ reach. “We face a very serious level of threat that is complex to combat and unlikely to abate significantly for some time,” MI5 chief Andrew Parker said in January. “We know we cannot hope to stop everything.”
In the end, security experts acknowledge, identifying potential terrorists, tracking them, waiting until they do something for which they can be convicted, and locking them up is not enough.
“There is a pool of thousands” of potential jihadis in Europe, says Mr. Caprioli.
The key is to reach them before they become radicalized.
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Stemming that spread is Akhrif’s top priority, in and out of his pulpit, at Al Kabir mosque. The mosque’s leaders are seeking municipal funding for Internet outreach, planning a Web forum where moderate imams would weigh in and visitors could post their thoughts whenever an explosive event – such as a US drone strike killing civilians – stirs local emotions.
“Let’s teach the Islam of peace, against the so-called Islamic State,” says Al Kabir chairman Mohamed Echarrouti, who speaks in a soft, raspy voice and seems to wear an almost constant smile.
This is not the first time he has done this kind of work. After Mr. Van Gogh’s murder in 2004, Al Kabir worked with 18 mosques, teaching leaders how to spot radicalization and urging them to welcome young men and women at risk into their houses of worship. That was daring: Many mosques shun such people for fear of their influence and the risk they pose to the mosque’s reputation.
“Let’s get them into the mosque instead of on the streets, on the Internet, or with hate imams,” Mr. Echarrouti says.
Such clear engagement is uncommon in Europe, where moderate Muslim leaders are often uncomfortable dealing with the terrorist fringe acting in the name of their religion. They complain that they are unfairly blamed for the outrages committed by people over whom they have no control.
British Muslim leaders, for example, reacted with prickly defensiveness when Eric Pickles, the minister for Communities and Local Government, suggested recently that they had “a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility, in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.”
“We can’t put an imam behind every believer,” says Lhaj Thami Breze, former president of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which promotes moderate “French Islam.” “And, anyway, these young radicals don’t listen to us. They say we have sold out” to the authorities.
Nonetheless, argues Rashad Ali, a former Islamic radical who now mentors potential jihadis under a British government counterradicalization program, community leaders “should be making the arguments. Extremists might not listen to them but they might engage with people who are not so hardcore.”
Not that mosques appear to be where it’s at anymore when it comes to radicalization. Today a new generation of disaffected Muslims across Europe are finding their religion on the Web, at the feet of “Sheikh Google,” as some Muslims put it.
“They are not being radicalized by real people, but on the Internet,” says Margaret Gilmore, a specialist in security at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
It is not hard, if you know where to look, to follow jihadis in Syria and Iraq on Twitter or Facebook and read of their exploits. YouTube is a ready source of fiery sermons by pro-jihadi self-appointed imams. Social media offer like-minded young people a chance to join groups and forums that reinforce any tendency toward violent extremism.
The Internet provides “a virtual substitute community ... and the primary means of communication” for radical Islamists, says a report issued recently by the Center for the Prevention of Islamic Sectarianism, which works with parents in France worried that their children might be slipping into jihadism.
Governments have had limited success in persuading Google, Facebook, and Twitter to take down pro-jihadi posts and videos, and as quickly as the authorities block a site it comes back up. So counterradicalization activists are taking the fight to the enemy.
“We need to be better Web marketers than ISIS,” says Ross Frenett, who runs the London-based Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network of former Islamic extremists now trying to deter young people from following in their footsteps.
Mr. Frenett’s group uses Web analytics to identify people at risk by the search terms they have used and their browsing history, and then buys ad space to ensure that they receive a message and a link to a website designed to make them think about their religion and their intentions. On Twitter, Frenett pays to target such ads at all the followers of well-known jihadis.
In an even more direct effort to engage people at risk, AVE is organizing former extremists to contact them personally online.
“If you ‘like’ ISIS on Facebook, two people are watching at the moment,” says Frenett. “Someone from the security services and an ISIS recruiter. We want to reach out to them, too.”
Thousands of people are at risk, Frenett says. His pilot program has so far dealt only with a few dozen, and only about one-third of them have engaged in online discussion. “More needs to be done like this,” he suggests.
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If cyberspace is one front line in the battle against jihadism, it’s in real-life communities like Slotervaart, in Amsterdam, where people face the daily challenge of bridging Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Slotervaart, where bearded men and veiled women are as much a part of the well-planned cityscape as traditional Dutch men and women riding their bikes, is one of the most diverse places in Amsterdam. It sits in the New West district, which counts both the largest Muslim and largest youth populations in the city, according to its district chairman, Achmed Baadoud, who was born in Morocco. There are 17 mosques, serving 48,000 people of Turkish and Moroccan descent – a third of the local population.
Those demographics could have proved a potent brew amid the passions stirred by the terrorist attack in Paris. Instead, Mr. Baadoud says, he witnessed a more “emancipated” response from his community compared with the mood a decade ago when Slotervaart was at the center of the maelstrom: The Muslim extremist who nearly decapitated Van Gogh in broad daylight hailed from here.
That calm is no accident. “It has to do with knowledge, with investments in contact and networks,” Baadoud says.
While the Van Gogh killing sparked a wave of Islamophobia that still colors national politics, local governments, religious leaders, and community groups launched a series of efforts to build social cohesion – the fruits of which are still visible today in Slotervaart.
At a cavernous community center called Residents Together, Living Together, a dozen veiled women chitchat as their exasperated teacher tries to coax them to repeat the alphabet in Dutch. After school their children sit in the same seats to get help with their homework. Residents here can request services – such as assistance painting their homes – if they are prepared to do something for someone else in return. For those who cannot do that, the center has started a new program called Sadaqah, the Muslim concept of charity.
“This is the daily practice of Muslims, not of jihad or murdering Van Gogh,” says the center’s director, Hans Krikke. “You build trust and the willingness to cooperate. Then integration is not the issue. It just happens.”
Critics once dismissed such efforts at social cohesion as “soft policies” that amounted to no more than “talking and drinking tea,” says Jean Tillie, who was hired by the mayor of Amsterdam to develop counterradicalization policies, launched in 2006, that were designed to build social capital among communities. But Mr. Tillie says the success of that effort can be judged by the hardest standard there is.
“Since 2004, there’s not been another attack on Amsterdam,” he says. That is particularly remarkable because “the Netherlands remains the most multicultural society” in Europe.
Indeed, though the houses in Slotervaart are obviously poorer than the grand 17th-century canal-side homes of central Amsterdam, the community is nowhere near as marginalized as the banlieues, or outskirts, of Paris, where many Muslims live. Prime Minister Valls shocked his countrymen with a blunt assertion in January that France suffers from “territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid” and that the Paris suburbs resemble “ghettos.”
In the gritty suburb of Seine St. Denis outside Paris, Betty Azocar, project head at the local government’s Mission for the Prevention of Risky Behavior, puts some of the blame for radicalism at society’s door. “Society creates fertile ground for this, with its inequalities, the segregation, and talk about values that doesn’t mean anything,” she says.
France’s strictly secular system also means that social workers do not see faith as a factor that concerns the state. On top of that, says Ms. Azocar, “a young man praying five times a day is seen as less of a problem than a young man dealing drugs. If a young person turns religious, people applaud, parents are relieved. The most worrying thing is when they turn to petty crime or violence; then everybody mobilizes. But practicing Islam is seen as good.”
Now, Azocar predicts, social workers are going to have to take a closer look at the effect of greater religiosity among young French Muslims. “Now we realize that [youngsters slipping into jihadism] is a real social phenomenon,” she says. “We have to respond accordingly, and learn to recognize situations that could go bad.”
As France’s social workers reach out to the community and learn from work that Amsterdam pioneered a decade ago, the Dutch city also provides a lesson in what Paris and other European cities should avoid.
Many of the government-supported prevention efforts were slashed amid political shifts and pressure from the far right, which calls for a tougher response to Muslim extremism. Counterradicalization became part of Holland’s national security strategy, rather than a local social issue.
Many say that has been an error. The program at Al Kabir mosque is just one example of an initiative that lost political support – and funding – in 2012, says Roemer van Oordt, who spearheads the mosque’s deradicalization work. “It’s become a risk-based approach,” he says. “Now they wait until someone has a bomb before they start a project.”
But in the wake of the Paris disaster this is getting a rethink. “It is really back to the policies which were developed after 2006,” says Tillie. “People are rebuilding this prevention as we speak.”
There is only one problem, he warns: It is not easy, after a lapse, to rebuild trust with people. “The building of networks is much more difficult than the construction of a road.”
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However harsh the circumstances in which millions of young European Muslims grow up, social injustice, racism, and poverty do not in themselves explain the lengths to which young men such as the Kouachi brothers, who attacked Charlie Hebdo, were ready to go. Nor does it explain the decision that thousands have made to fight – and very possibly die – with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The typical profile of violent Muslim extremists “generally includes a personal emotional wound somewhere,” says Sonia Imloul, who works with the families of indoctrinated youngsters from a sparsely furnished apartment in Aulnay sous Bois, north of Paris, that she has turned into a family meeting place.
“Extremism is rarely directly about ideology,” adds the AVE network’s Frenett. “It is often about seeking a sense of identity and of belonging.”
Psychologists and mentors working in counterradicalization say that the search often stems from, or leads to, a violent break with parents and other family members. Young people veering toward extremism may suddenly drop their old friends, abandon hobbies such as listening to music, stop eating food prohibited by Islam, change their style of dress, and spend hours in their rooms on the Internet.
It is not always easy, says Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist who advises the French Interior Ministry on counterradicalization policy and who works with indoctrinated youngsters, for parents to distinguish between a child who has simply found religion and one who is in danger of indoctrination by extremist groups.
Serge Hefez, a psychiatrist who heads the family therapy unit at La Pitié-Salpêtrière, the largest hospital in Paris, says he treats indoctrinated young Muslims much as he would a young drug abuser or anorexic patient.
“The key question for me is not why someone has engaged with radical Islam, but why he felt the need to break so violently with his family,” Dr. Hefez says. “I try to help him find his place in his own family, not the jihadi family.”
Ms. Imloul’s tactic, when the Interior Ministry assigns her a family worried enough about a youngster to have called an official hot line, is to surreptitiously arrange a meeting between the potential jihadi and a mentor who can strike up a relationship and try to change his or her mind.
“We use the same methods as the radical preachers,” she explains. “They don’t say upfront that you are going to cut people’s heads off in Syria. They start with an emotional approach, offering support, friendship, and fellowship, and then step by step draw you in. But there are no magic wands or miracle solutions.”
In Britain, mentors working with the government’s Channel program do not act anonymously, but many say they also try to establish an emotional rapport with young people at risk before they get into religious or ideological issues.
In the British system, young people who catch the eye of a teacher, doctor, social worker, or policeman will be referred to Channel, and an expert panel will assess the risk of the individual turning to violent extremism. Until March 2014, the last date for which figures are available, 3,934 people had been referred to Channel; 20 percent of them were taken into the program.
Rashad Ali, a soft-spoken young man who picks his words carefully, is one of the mentors whom a potentially dangerous young Muslim might be asked to see. Mr. Ali, whose parents moved to Britain from the Indian subcontinent, was once an Islamic extremist himself, a militant with Hizb ut-Tahrir for eight years before he lost faith in the group’s vision of an Islamic caliphate.
In the world of counterradicalization, says Frenett, “the singer is as important as the song. No one is more credible than someone who has been involved himself.”
Even so, Ali says, the relationships he strikes up with the young people he works with “always start off surrounded by suspicion; you only gain credibility by gaining their trust.” And that happens, he says, only if “it is very clear that you have their best interests at heart.”
Only when that emotional relationship is firm does Ali get into discussions about what Islam demands of a believer, or about politics. He is well placed to do so, with a master’s degree in economics and Islamic jurisprudence. “You can’t tackle this without an appreciation of the ideology, the theology, and the politics” of Islamic extremism, he says. “You have to know what you are dealing with.”
Ever cautious, Ali is reluctant to claim outright success. “All you can measure is whether the risk factors have been reduced,” he says. “But generally speaking, that is the case. Most of the time it works.”
That modest judgment seems supported by the facts. None of the people who have gone through a Channel program have subsequently been arrested.
Young Muslims can be drawn toward violent extremism down several paths, says Ali: personal frustration or political grievance, a radical reading of the Quran, or emotional difficulty. Each case is different, and each demands a different response.
Some counterradicalization activists are working at the social level to build trust between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, or to promote moderate voices within European Islam. Others focus on individuals who are at risk, to turn them away from a path that can lead all too easily to self-destruction.
Whichever approach they take, they all share a common goal: to “fill the void before the radicals fill it,” as the Quilliam Foundation’s Mr. Nawaz puts it. “Because prevention is easier than cure.”
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As Friday services end at Al Kabir mosque in Amsterdam on a sunny wintry day, Noufel Azra, one of the worshipers, heads back to his job as a computer programmer, saying he feels hopeful. Having sat through the full three-part series about the life of the prophet given by imam Akhrif in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, he believes such simple lessons are not only the best tool to prevent future violence but a way to attract more people to his religion.
“After such incidents, people start to learn about Islam; they start to ask questions,” says Mr. Azra, a 30-something who wears a trendy black jacket and sports a long beard. “If you know the real Islam, you have to like it because it is something good.”
His mosque is setting out to disseminate that knowledge, against what he believes is a strong current of extremists manipulating their religion and a media that misunderstands it. Their new program, called fittingly “Peaceful Jihad,” builds a religious element into work they’ve done for years in deradicalization.
“These young people think they know a lot about Islam; they think their parents know nothing,” says Mr. Van Oordt, the mosque’s preventive work overseer. “They have no religious scholarship; they just quote people that are really dangerous. A good religious discourse in the mosque prevents them from becoming victims.”