As I’ve previously reported, France stands on the front lines of Europe’s struggle against the Salafi jihad, with numerous violent incidents in the country in recent years perpetrated by terrorists who radicalized while they were at home, not abroad. The urgency of the situation has been clarified by the revelation that French national Mehdi Nemmouche, who murdered three Jews in Brussels, was a notorious torturer for the Islamic State while he waged jihad in Syria. Reports that Nemmouche had much bigger plans, including a terrorist attack on the Champs Élysées parade on Bastille Day, have hardly calmed nerves in Paris.
Calmness is not in order in France now, as the number of its citizens waging jihad in Syria and Iraq, mostly on behalf of the Islamic State, is without precedent. While earlier jihadi campaigns in Bosnia in the 1990s or in Iraq a decade ago, for instance, attracted a few dozen French nationals apiece, the current wars in the Middle East have involved nearly a thousand French citizens — 942 in Syria over the last two years, according to French intelligence, which tracks the involvement of these fighters as best it can. Paris believes that about 350 French citizens are waging jihad in Iraq and Syria at present, and French security services are simply overwhelmed by the number of extremists — known jihadists, would-be jihadists, plus returning jihadists — they need to track.
This dire situation is clarified in a new interview in the Parisian daily L’Opinion with Marc Trévidic, a counterterrorism magistrate with long experience in dealing with jihadists. Known for his frank talk about terrorism, Trévidic minces no words, portraying French intelligence, police, and courts as “disarmed” in the face of a new and more dangerous domestic extremism scene that is now directly tied to Syria and Iraq, as well as the Islamic State. His recent words to the media paint a disturbing portrait:
Everything is different these days! Before, would-be jihadis had a smattering of instruction. There is no religious background now; it is the image that wins them over. The appeal is to their feelings, not to their intellect. The explosion is due to the Internet. The youngsters we have to deal with are overexcited, not intellectually radicalized … The profiles are completely disparate. Some are impossible to check out. Never before have we come up against women and minors! Before long, the only age group missing will be the very old…
Neither is Paris equipped, legally or operationally, to deal with the hundreds of jihadists, seasoned in battle, who are returning home:
We can no longer sift them or monitor them as before to find out what their intentions are. We are forced to arrest them as soon as they set foot in the country. We need to know what they have been through. On the whole, they have been through horrendous experiences. We lack the evidence needed to probe them properly. However, some of them are potentially dangerous, all the more so in that they are forced into waging an individual jihad in the attempt to escape detection.
“We lack teeth,” explained the frustrated judge, as the legal system is simply not equipped to handle so many extremists, including large numbers of teenagers without prior criminal history. Trévidic leaves little doubt that France is facing a terrorism threat without precedent in its history, with hundreds — and soon thousands — of radicals that intelligence has difficulty tracking and the police and courts have difficulty arresting and keeping in custody before they kill innocents, as happened in the Merah and Nemmouche cases. The threat is the same in most of Western Europe, and most of those countries are even less equipped to deal with it than France is.