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Terror in Europe

Can France 'Cure' Its Aspiring Jihadists?

Just a few months before the Paris terror attacks, and arguably late to the game, France launched a "disindoctrination" program for Islamist radicals that relies on social and religious approaches.

French policemen in front of the Paris supermarket attacked on Jan. 9
French policemen in front of the Paris supermarket attacked on Jan. 9
Soren Seelow

PARIS — One winter afternoon, Ahmed left to run an errand. The 26-year-old who hails from Hauts-de-Seine, on the outskirts of Paris, was supposed to pick up something his ex-girlfriend Dounia, the mother of his children, had purchased online. But Ahmed didn't come home that day.

It wasn't until three months later that he turned up in the middle of the night looking disheveled, his sneakers in tatters. He had been to Syria.

Dounia looks a little lost. On the dining room table is a bowl filled with oriental sweets, as the coffeemaker brews away in silence. Sitting across from the mother is Carole, a psychologist who encourages her to keep telling her story.

"He wasn't raised in Muslim culture," Dounia says of Ahmed. "His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother who was of Italian origin. He never prayed, not even during Ramadan. And then suddenly he left, like a traitor."

Since his return, Ahmed has been making every effort to convince Dounia to go with him to Syria with their two girls, aged five and seven. "He describes Syria as if it were paradise," she says. "He says that over there I'd have a house that it would take me years to buy here."

Ahmed, a petty criminal, tried again twice to leave France to join the ISIS terror group in Syria. Each time, he was turned back at the airport and placed in police custody. "He's not afraid of death or of going to prison," his ex-girlfriend says. "He feels like Superman, but he's completely lost."

In October, Dounia decided to notify police out of fear that Ahmed would take their daughters hostage and try to leave with them. This rather late reflex was the reason the young woman was sitting on this winter morning in the offices of the cellule de désembrigadement ("disindoctrination cell"), an experimental structure of the Maison de la Prévention et de la Famille (the "House of Prevention and of the Family") located in a discreet apartment building in Seine-Saint-Denis.

In early October, Paris police charged the association with tracking religious radicals, helping their families, and managing the cases of jihadists returning from Syria. Aware that a single, repressive response would not be enough to resolve the phenomenon of jihadist departures for Syria, the Interior Ministry asked police to create monitoring cells. Paris organized its cell around the different institutional actors that meet every month to prioritize files according to degrees of danger.

(We now know that though these efforts were underway in the fall, Islamist radicals Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibalywere nevertheless able to perpetrate the January terror attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo staff and a kosher supermarket, a terror wave that left 17 people dead. This article was written eight days before those attacks began.)

Prevention as innovation

The most delicate cases are handled by justice authorities, but the major innovation here is prevention, which has a three-pronged approach: to help families, to "treat" unstable radicals and, most sensitively, disindoctrination.

The first part of the disindoctrination method is aimed at drawing up a profile of the radical based on accounts from people close to him to determine the religious "faction" that indoctrinated him and his "social, familial and psychological weaknesses," explains Sonia Imloul, founder of the Maison de la Prévention et de la Famille. This stage makes it possible to furnish detailed notes to police on the individual's "course of radicalization," and to personalize the strategy.

The second phase of the process has been more difficult for authorities to accept. Among the mediators the cells employs is a quietist Salafist, someone who favors a rigorous reading of Islam but is against armed jihad. His job is to approach the radicals around mosques and get them to read the texts in a more healthy way, putting them in touch with imams if necessary.

"Radicals only trust people who look like them, at least physically," Imloul explains. The cell therefore plays on these resemblances to exploit the tensions between the religious factions: the quietist Salafists and the "tabligh" — preachers who do not call for jihad — are in competition with the "takfiri," who legitimize violence to impose sharia. The quietist mediator is well-versed in the techniques of disindoctrination, and relies on his appearance and his knowledge of Islam to "turn around" the radicals.

Late to the game

The religious approach explains why France is late to this deradicalization work. "The slowness of the French response as compared to Great Britain or Denmark is linked to secularism," explains Pierre N'Gahane, Secretary General of the Interministerial Committee Against Delinquency, one of the architects of the system to fight radicalization set up by the Ministry of the Interior. "Where do you place the cursor between fundamentalism and violent radicalism? How do you get involved with personal beliefs without falling into the trap of distinguishing between the good and the bad Muslim?"

If such questions have long inhibited response from the French government, the necessity of integrating the religious dimension has now been recognized. "We're no longer in a uniquely police approach," a Paris police spokesman explains. "The religious question doesn't sum up the phenomenon of indoctrination, but it is important. We've evolved on that score. We've become more pragmatic."

This pragmatism makes it possible for the cell to turn indoctrination techniques against the jihadists. "The recruiters take a social approach before they take a religious one," Imloul explains. "They seduce the weakest ones by promising them assistance before taking them into their vision of religion. We inverse that method: We approach radicalized individuals via religion before proposing solutions for joining society."

This attempt at "resocialization" constitutes the last phase of the work of deradicalization. "When you get a radical to come back down to earth, what do you offer them instead? You have to fill the void," Imloul continues. Depending on the profiles, the cell is in contact with the university, the employment center Pôle emploi, and the prison system for social reinsertion and probation, so that the individual can be helped with any number of options ranging from academic study, vocational training, obtaining a driver's license, or finding a job.

To this day, one case, the first one Imloul's cell handled, offers encouraging signs. G., a 22-year-old delinquent who was radicalized in prison, had announced his intention to leave for Syria, much to his mother's chagrin. Today, he's training to be a tiler and has a girlfriend.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Bibi Blinked: How The Ceasefire Deal Could Flip Israel's Whole Gaza War Logic

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed ahead a deal negotiated via Qatar, for a four-day truce and an exchange of 50 hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners. Though the humanitarian and political pressure was mounting, Israel's all-out assault is suddenly halted, with unforeseen consequences for the future.

photo of someone holding a poster of a hostage

Families of Israeli hostages rally in Jerusalem

Nir Alon/ZUMA
Pierre Haski

Updated Nov. 22, 2023 at 8:55 p.m.


PARIS — It's the first piece of good news in 46 days of war. In the early hours of Wednesday, Israel agreed to a deal that included a four-day ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas — 30 children and 20 women — in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, again women and children. The real question is what happens next.

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But first, this agreement, negotiated through the intermediary of Qatar, whose role is essential in this phase, must be implemented right away. This is a complex negotiation, because unlike the previous hostage-for-prisoner exchanges, it is taking place in the midst of a major war.

On the Palestinian side, although Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is present in Doha, he does not make the decision alone — he must have the agreement of the leaders of the military wing, who are hiding somewhere in Gaza. It takes 24 hours to send a message back and forth. As you can imagine, it's not as simple as a phone call.

And on the Israeli side, a consensus had to be built around the agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right allies were opposed to the deal — in line with their eradication logic — even at the cost of Israeli lives. But the opposition of these discredited parties was ignored, and that will leave its mark.

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