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Terror in Europe

How France Wields Soft Power To Combat Jihad At Home

Inside the de-radicalization program that began last year in France to undo the indoctrination that pushed young Muslims toward extremism.

Sociologists work in French prisons as
Sociologists work in French prisons as
Christian Lecomte

NICE — Djamel Mesraoui hasn't seen his jihadists since the Paris attacks — government authorities ordered him not to. But the trained sociologist of religion also wanted to keep his distance, for now at least.

Part of the French government program for the fight against Islamist extremism, Mesraoui works in prisons as a "mentor," hosting two-hour-long talking groups — in Paris and elsewhere — with men who went to Syria or Iraq, and are serving long sentences.

"I don't criticize them," he explains. "I listen to them, give them a chance to think about the defining elements that put them behind bars. Deconstructing to rebuild. They still think they did well by leaving to fight. One inmate told me he had done foolish things, that he was a criminal until he joined the jihad that gave him the feeling that he was on the right track."

Mesraoui has French-Algerian roots. "Having the same background is an advantage, we know the social-cultural context," he says. "I tell them I left my family in Algeria and fully live in French society. I experience racism but don't have a feeling of victimization because I look for dialogue."

The sociologist has volunteered in Haiti, Madagascar and Ethiopia. He tells the inmates about the people he met in those countries, people who lost their children, their homes, their land, their animals, and yet still have a strong desire to perservere.

"Humanity then brings us closer," Mesraoui says. "One young man told me, "It's a shame these meeting didn't happen before." They're still very skeptical. For some, you can catch a glimpse of a beginning of remorse. They recently lined up to salute me one by one after the session. It's a gesture of respect."

The "greater jihad"

This past weekend, in Nice, Mesraoui joined some 30 psychologists, lawyers, educators, anthropologists and imams gathered by the Unismed, an Marseille-based association specialized in social mediation. The organization was founded in 2005 after a wave of urban violence in France.

"For the past two years, we've trained more than 2,000 professionals to detect and understand the radicalization processes," says psychoanalyst Alain Ruffion, the director of Unismed. "Long before the Nov. 13 attacks, we decided to shift gears by creating a radicalization prevention group." The group took shape in June, and has members from various European and North African countries.

One of those people, a Danish lawyer with Turkish origins, has been de-radicalizing for the past three years in a city with 300,000 residents. Denmark is one the European countries that has registered the highest rate of would-be jihadist departures for Syria (150 since 2011).

The return of jihadists is done "smoothly, with, of course, prison sentences and a tight debriefing, but also with psycho-social assistance provided and a professional reinsertion plan," the attorney explains. "I spend up to eight hours per day with them, but also with their families, the people in charge of mosques, employers, their friends. It's a whole network."

Hamed Mekrelouf, from the French Anti-Terrorist Fight Program (PLAT), works in prisons in the southern cities of Toulon and Marseille. He immdiately begins talking about Maliki, one of Islam's "mildest and fairest doctrines, one that has real potential of being adapted to modern times."

Mekrelouf says there is much in Islam that young extremists don't know about. "I remind them right away about the French secular and republican values, and I tell them a story of the Muslim religion since the beginning to today. Then I tell them about the "greater jihad," the one I've pursued from the age of 30 by studying, finding a job and having children. It's a good approach in that it makes them think."

Alain Ruffion says the call of extremism is a complicated enemy to fight. "In their eyes, radicalization means going from being scorned to spectacular," he says. "It's an archaic regression that necessarily excludes integration. We try to give them new roots instead that relies both on positive family, as well as social and cultural components."

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