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JIHADISTS

Is France really home to ‘100 Molenbeeks’?

A French minister has struck a raw nerve after stating France is home to 100 Molenbeeks – referring to the Brussels suburb known to be hotbed for jihadists. But is he correct?

Is France really home to '100 Molenbeeks'?
Photo: AFP

“Today, we know that there are 100 neighbourhoods in France that have potential similarities with what happened in Molenbeek.”

These were the words of French communities minister Patrick Kanner which have caused a storm in France.

Kanner was answering a question on radio about the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, which was the home of several of the jihadists who attacked Paris last November and since then has developed a reputation for being a hotbed of Islamic extremism.

“Molenbeek… where there is an enormous concentration of poverty and unemployment, an ultra-communitarianist and mafia system, with an underground economy where public services have almost disappeared and the elected officials have given up,” said Kanner.

The statement was welcomed by those on the right and far right, where similar views have long been offered.

The National Front’s number two in charge, Florian Philippot, even thought Kanner’s estimate of 100 was too optimistic, but called his words “lucid”.

“For once we have a minister, Mr. Kanner, who has lifted the veil of blindness that covers the eyes and mouth, that is speaking a truth clearly…” Philippot said.

And Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who made waves in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting by talking of the problem of “social and ethnic apartheid” that is the scourge of some French cities, partly supported Kanner.

While he said the comparison with Molenbeek wasn’t appropriate he accepted that “a process of seclusion, communitarianism and radicalization does indeed exist” in certain areas.

In the past Valls spelled it out in clearer terms: “The risk in these territories is that extremism, criminality and radical Islam find fertile ground”.

However Kanner’s statement was greeted with anger on the left with head of the Socialist Party Jean-Christophe Cambadélis who lamented the fact that Muslims in those neighbourhoods or towns will feel “stigmatized”.

Socialist MP Julian Drey criticized the statement for bearing “no real information.”

With Kanner not specifying all the areas he was referring to, politicians and media have taken it upon themselves to identity France’s very own Molenbeeks.

BFM TV chose to point out where all the French jihadists killed fighting in Syria hailed from (see map below).

Many came from the suburbs around Paris, with Trappes in the south and Sevran in the north being named as potential Molenbeeks.

There is also the small town of Lunel in southern France, which was identified as a hotbed for jihadism after it emerged that around 20 residents had left for Syria.

The neighbourhood of Les Izzards in Toulouse has also been mentioned. This “quartier sensible” became notorious in 2012 as the home of self-proclaimed Islamist Mohamed Merah, who gunned down soldiers, a rabbi and Jewish children in a shooting spree.

A police source told AFP there were “plenty of little Molenbeeks” in France.

“It's not exclusively suburbs but areas where we see the significant influence of Salafists and hubs of radicalisation. It tends to be beyond the control of security forces,” the source said.

But experts have pointed out that jihadists have left France came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds before heading off to Syria and from all kinds of villages, towns and cities to fight in Syria.

The example of Maxime Hauchard has also been given. Hauchard, a convert to Islamist extremism at the age of 17, was from the tiny village of Bosc-Roger-en-Roumois in Normandy. He has featured in several of the Isis execution videos used for propaganda.

The elected officials in charge of some of the towns and neighbourhoods picked out as potential Molenbeeks in France have reacted furiously.

“If we begin stigmatizing towns, where will this end?” said the mayor of the poor Paris suburb of Sarcelles.

Yves Jego, the furious mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne (Seine-et-Marne) a town to the south east of Paris, stressed that towns should not be stained by actions of a tiny minority.

“The vast majority of those living in Molenbeek or in our suburbs are just citizens like all the others who respect the laws and values of Europe,” Jego said.

France’s former specialist counter-terrorist judge Marc Trévedic warned against identifying certain areas, insisting that extremists can come from anywhere, even the plush “16th arrondissement of Paris”.

“The nice areas can also act as a hiding place, which would be a good strategy for someone to conceal themselves,” Trévedic told BFM TV.

Experts have also warned against reducing the problem to a link between poverty and extremism.

“If we compare social characteristics, we will find French neighbourhoods that look like Molenbeek, from the point of view of poverty and unemployment, but that doesn't mean there's an automatic and simple link between poverty and groups engaged in jihadist ideology,” said Antoine Jardin of the Centre for European Studies at Sciences Po university in Paris.

 

POLICE

Paris police attacker adhered to ‘radical strain of Islam’

A staffer at Paris police headquarters who stabbed four colleagues to death in a frenzied attack adhered to "a radical vision of Islam", an anti-terror prosecutor said Saturday, amid a gathering political storm over security safeguards.

Paris police attacker adhered to 'radical strain of Islam'
Photo: MARTIN BUREAU / AFP

The 45-year-old computer expert had been in contact with members of Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, and defended “atrocities committed in the name of that religion”, Jean-Francois Ricard told reporters. 

Three police officers and an administrative worker — three men and one woman — died in the lunchtime attack on Thursday at the police headquarters, a stone's throw from the Notre-Dame cathedral in the historic heart of Paris.

READ: Paris stabbings investigated as possible terrorist attack

The assailant, named as Mickael Harpon, was shot dead by a policeman, who was a trainee at the police headquarters.

The attack sent shock waves through an embattled French police force already complaining of low morale and has raised serious concerns over security procedures.

Harpon, born on the French overseas territory of Martinique in the Caribbean, converted to Islam about 10 years ago, the prosecutor said.

He had no police record but was investigated for domestic violence in 2009.

Sources said he had worked in a section of the police service dedicated to collecting information on jihadist radicalisation.

Harpon held a high-level “defence secrets” security clearance, which authorised him to handle sensitive information of national defence importance and would have subjected him to regular, stringent security checks.

'No nervousness'

On the morning of his “extremely violent” attack, Harpon bought two knives — a 33-centimetre long kitchen knife and an oyster knife — which he kept hidden, Ricard said.

He showed “absolutely no signs of nervousness” as he circled back to police headquarters, according to CCTV footage examined by police, the prosecutor said.

The attack, from his return to the office, the killings and his death by police bullets, lasted seven minutes, Ricard said.

He first killed a 50-year old police major and a 38-year old guard who worked in the same office as Harpon and were having lunch at their desks.

He then went to another office on the same floor where he killed a 37-year old administrative worker.

Having failed to enter another office, which was locked, he went down into the courtyard where he stabbed a 39-year old policewoman who later died of her wounds.

He then injured two other people, before the trainee policeman killed him with two shots.

Shortly before the attack he had exchanged 33 text messages with his wife.

The messages exclusively concerned religion, and the attacker ended the conversation with “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”) and told her to “follow our beloved prophet Mohammed and meditate on the Koran”, according to the prosecutor.

She was being held by police on Saturday. Harpon, who supported the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, had changed his attire in recent months, shunning “all Western clothes in favour of traditional garments to visit the mosque”, Ricard added.

He also wished to no longer “have certain kinds of contact with women”.

'Storm coming'

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has described the attack as a “veritable tragedy”, will lead tributes to the victims on Tuesday, the Elysee announced on Saturday.

Sources at the Paris prosecutor's office said on Friday the case had been passed to the anti-terrorist prosecutor's office (PNAT).

After Saturday's news conference by the anti-terror prosecutor, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner came under pressure from political opponents who demanded his resignation.

They also called for an inquiry into how Harpon could have failed to attract the attention of security services in the run up to the attack.

“It's going to be hard to explain how he kept below the radar” of anti-terror units, said one police source.

“There's a storm coming,” the source said.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe meanwhile expressed his “full confidence” in Castaner. But in an interview with weekly JDD to be published Sunday, he also said that procedures for the detection of signs that anti-terror agents may themselves have been radicalised would be probed.

Paris's top policeman Didier Lallement said there was no reason to question security arrangements in police headquarters.

French police have been a recurring target of jihadist groups, such as Islamic State, behind a wave of attacks since 2015 — from large synchronised assaults to isolated knife and gun attacks.

In June, a parliamentary report on radicalisation within the public services spoke of 30 suspected cases out of the 150,000 police officers and 130,000 gendarmes in France.

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