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Walking in Molenbeek, Brussels, a neighborhood tied to the Paris and Brussels attacks
Walking in Molenbeek, Brussels, a neighborhood tied to the Paris and Brussels attacks
Farhad Khosrokhavar

PARIS — Jihadism in Europe seems to always be one step ahead of European security services, which despite enhanced cooperation remain fundamentally national operations. Paradoxically, terrorism is unifying Europe with a sense of common identity in the face of the attacks in Paris and Brussels, which seem as if they could have just as well occurred in their own country. Already, this was partly the case after the attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). Yet, since then, many changes have affected the landscape of European terrorism, which we must now consider when developing a more efficient system for combating it.

Note first that what we can call "sub-zones" of terrorism have been formed beyond national borders. The first relevant such sub-zone is Franco-Belgian. Terrorists based in Belgium who prepared the November 13 attacks could be Flemish or Walloon, the fact remains that they showed an anti-French atavism related to their origins, namely the former Algerian and Moroccan colonies.

The second characteristic of jihadist evolution since 2013 is that of multiplication: Some 5,000 young people from Europe have gone to Syria, mainly to join ISIS, including at least 1,200 from France. In the previous decade, the number of French jihadists amounted to fewer than 200. Those who receive training in Syria or Iraq know how to handle explosives far better than those who previously had to rely on online training.

The third feature is the rise of recruits from the middle classes. Previously, most young recruits were from the rough suburbs on the outskirts of European cities. Now they are sometimes wealthier and better educated, providing important intellectual, cultural and financial resources. This also means they cannot be identified as easily through criminal records.

Female factor

Among the jihadists, there are more and more converts now. Their proportion has greatly increased since 2013, constituting up to one-quarter of the total recruits. They convert not only as an expression of grievances toward their disadvantaged social status, but also to make a "humanitarian commitment," that is, using violence to defend victims.

When those of middle-class European background come in contact with poor radicalized youth in Syria, it's an especially dangerous mix, each bringing to the other what it lacks, cultural capital or vengeful motivation. The collaboration of the two groups in attacks like those of Nov. 13 results in greater efficiency, particularly in conjunction with the ideological sacrifice that ISIS demands: The sense of a mission becomes a life's calling. That is, to "punish" a society of unbelievers who oppose the divine will. These young people are inhabited by a euphoric vision of their lives and their future, after death, as blessed martyrs. It is a state of being charged with meaning, and not, as claimed by the late French philosopher André Glucksmann, pure nihilism.

The growing presence of women (around 600 out of the 5,000 aspiring jihadists in Syria,) is also a novelty in the past two-plus years, introducing a whole new dimension to jihadism. Disaffected young women connect with companions who bring meaning to their segregated life. Pregnant, she gives birth, despite the martyrdom of her companion, the future martyr will be her son. Men and women are at the service of an "ummah" (community) that plays the most central role and is embodied by the caliphate — custodian of the sacred. The woman in question may also register for the al-Khansaa brigade, where she is taught to handle weapons, and potentially carry out attacks.

No other utopia

In addition to women, the presence of younger recruits is also notable. Teenagers view joining ISIS as a fast track to adulthood. The exercise of violence becomes a customized passage to end their interminable period of youth in European societies where the age of autonomy becomes increasingly delayed by scant job opportunities. ISIS offers the prospect of passing into adulthood, alongside a political vocation that brings meaning to their lives.

Finally, the marginalized neighborhoods in Europe's poor city outskirts continue to provide abundant candidates for jihad. This fight opens a space in which to invest hatred of society that has been fed by marginalization and stigmatization.

Ultimately ISIS holds out the promise of an extra soul: Without it, the young jihadist would be forced to resort to al-Qaida with its theologically abstruse and boring speeches about a faraway enemy. Within the "néocalifat," heroism is embodied in video sequences, exoticism, emigration and romance. He or she becomes the big hero in a world where the long since disappeared caliphate is reborn — it is a comparable path to the enthusiasm of the youth in the first communist state in 1917.

Two types of jihadists come together under the banner of ISIS, distinguished by their mental landscape. There are those who suffer and seek to impose that suffering on the societies they see as causing their problems. But there are also those who are bored and looking for an intensification of life in a war without mercy, the joy of a festive existence that culminates in a glorious death. This is why some youth experience war in Syria as an endless euphoria, kill-or-be-killed creates a glorification of a life in search of a transgression to an endless fiesta.

The plurality of jihadist profiles shows that European societies are not faced with just one certain type of youth (either suburbs or slums, England or Belgium), but a diversity that now includes a large number of young people, disappointed at life in Europe that lacks an alternative political utopia, in search of excitement and a kind of violent festivity.

Efforts to combat such indoctrination must reflect this diversity. The lack of political utopia makes it more difficult to de-radicalize in a world where the inside (the disenchantment of youth) and outside (the birth of ISIS) intertwine in an explosive mixture, a consequence of mental globalization as the European nation-state grows ever more difficult to control.

*Farhad Khosrokhavar IS director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).

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