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Viewing cable 05PARIS5539, PUTTING OUT BRUSHFIRES: FRANCE AND ISLAMIC

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
05PARIS5539 2005-08-17 08:08 2010-12-01 12:12 SECRET Embassy Paris
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 PARIS 005539 

SIPDIS 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/16/2015 
TAGS: PREL PGOV PHUM KISL AL MO PTER FR
SUBJECT: PUTTING OUT BRUSHFIRES: FRANCE AND ISLAMIC 
EXTREMISM 

REF: A. STATE 144222 
B. PARIS 5203 
C. PARIS 4644 
D. 04 PARIS 2981 
E. PARIS 4750 
F. PARIS 1732 

Classified By: POLITICAL MINISTER COUNSELOR JOSIAH ROSENBLATT, FOR REAS 
ONS 1.4 B/D 

1. (C) Summary: Through surveillance, arrests and other 
methods, the GOF prevents or puts out brushfires of Islamic 
extremism on an almost daily basis, and has been doing so for 
decades. According to recent press reports, the RG, France's 
police intelligence service, estimates that 6 million Muslims 
live in France, approximately 10 percent of the population. 
The RG estimates that approximately 9,000 of them might be 
extremist. These numbers, coupled with a widespread 
recognition that France continues to struggle mightily to 
integrate its immigrant/Muslim population, provide a sober 
counterpoint to the past success and unquestionable 
capabilities of the counter-terrorism apparatus. Although in 
the short and medium-term, France clearly can rely on its 
police, security and judicial services to aggressively combat 
terrorism, in the long-term it must focus on giving a place 
to Muslims (be they first-generation immigrants, their 
second- and third-generation children, or the growing number 
of converts) in the French identity. End summary. 

THE POTENTIAL OF ISLAMIC EXTREMISM 
---------------------------------- 

2. (C) In the Muslim community of some six million, 70 
percent are estimated to be of North African (Algeria, 
Morocco, and Tunisia) origin. Other sizable groups include 
Turks and Pakistanis. Within this overall population, the RG 
estimates (according to recent press reports) that roughly 
9,000 could be considered extremist, or, just over one-tenth 
of one percent. The RG also estimated that of the 1,500 
mosques and prayer halls in France, fewer than 40 were 
considered extremist. GOF officials routinely claim that 90 
percent of French Muslims are non-practicing. Among the 
minority of French Muslims considered "practicing," there is 
a small but distinct current of fundamentalist thought. On 
August 5, Poloffs toured a number of Islamic bookshops in 
Paris, and found that the literature extolled strongly 
conservative views on the role of Muslim women and also 
included numerous guides (in French) of how to pray. The 
bookstores did not present any moderate alternatives to 
conservative dogma. 

3. (U) Two specific sources of Islamic extremism are of 
special interest. First is the French prison system, with a 
population that is estimated at over 50 percent Muslim. 
According to another leaked RG report from May 2005, Islamic 
extremism here is growing in popularity, with scattered 
reports of prisoners hanging up posters of Bin Laden, 
destroying Christmas trees and bibles, and cries of joy at 
the news of American soldiers killed in Iraq or suicide 
bombings in Israel. It is often the shock of prison, 
detailed the RG report, that transforms petty criminals into 
Islamic extremists. The shortage of Muslim chaplains in 
French prisons fuels potential for extremist ideologies to 
spread unabated. Radicalized prisoners, once released, are 
"time bombs," said the RG report. It estimated that within 
the prison system, 200 inmates "merit attention," and 95 of 
these should be considered "dangerous." A second source of 
Islamic extremism is the growing number of conversions to 
radical Islam by European-origin French citizens. In a 
report submitted to Interior Minister Sarkozy in June, the RG 
profiled new French converts to Islam, and found that most 
were young males in urban areas and/or in areas largely 
populated by those of North African descent. Of those 
converts profiled, the RG reported 49 percent did not have 
any diploma, and a full 44 percent opted for Salafist or 
Tabligh-inspired versions of fundamentalist Islam. The 
unemployment rate among new converts of European-French 
origin is five times the national average, according to the 
RG report. More than ten percent of the new converts had 
discovered Islam in prison. The RG report also revealed that 
approximately 3.5 percent of the French military, including 
officers, had converted to Islam. (Note: Although this is a 
striking statistic, many military converts have presumably 
done so in order to marry Muslims, and not necessarily for 
ideological reasons. End note.) 

FRANCE'S LONG HISTORY WITH ISLAMIC EXTREMISM 
-------------------------------------------- 

4. (S) The sheer number of recent "terrorism conspiracy" 
arrests in France involving Islamic extremists underscores 
the GOF's counter-terrorism challenges. Since 2002, it has 
arrested 322 people linked to terrorism, of whom 91 were 
charged and imprisoned. Islamic extremist violence has 
struck France in the past, especially Paris. A year after a 
failed hijacking attempt of an Air France jet in 1994, the 
Algerian terrorist group GIA conducted a wave of bombings in 
Paris subway stations and landmarks, killing 8 and wounding 
over 200. Spillover from Maghreb-based Islamic extremists 
continues to this day, with the Algerian-based GSPC group and 
the Moroccan-based GICM group both present covertly on French 
soil. Furthermore, French intelligence believes that the 
GSPC has increasingly taken on the goals of worldwide 
jihadism and is seeking to position itself as a complement to 
al-Qaida. A terrorism investigating judge told us recently 
that the GSPC is expanding its reach in France, and is 
working to take advantage of old connections within the 
well-organized Algerian community. As for the GICM, French 
judiciary officials told us that those arrested in 2004 were 
frighteningly professional and maintain to this day a strict 
discipline when interrogated (ref D). (Comment: The GOF 
prides itself on its ability to keep tabs on extremist 
groups; their discovery of the GICM cell shocked them because 
they had stumbled upon it by chance, further evidence of the 
GICM group's operational security. End comment.) 

5. (S) France has also seen Islamic extremist cells appear 
with seemingly little to no support from terrorist 
organizations such as the GICM and the GSPC. One example is 
the eleven "jihadists to Iraq" arrested in January in Paris' 
19th arrondissement. Those involved were arrested days 
before leaving for Iraq. The DST told USG interlocutors (ref 
E) that the suspected ringleader, 23-year old Farid 
Benyettou, had never studied theology but by force of 
personality, had managed within a few months to convince a 
group of teenagers to fight jihad in Iraq. One example that 
demonstrates the fluid interconnectedness of many Islamic 
extremists was revealed during the trial of Ahmed Laidouni 
and David Courtailler, two French citizens convicted and 
sentenced in 2004 for organizing recruitment networks for 
terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Laidouni and 
Courtailler (who converted at the age of 27 to fundamentalist 
Islam) have been linked to members of the Beghal network that 
were convicted in March 2005 of plotting to bomb the U.S. 
Embassy in Paris (ref F). They have also been linked to 
extremist circles in the UK. Members of the Beghal network 
are suspected of having ties with (among others) members of 
the "Chechen" network (a loose grouping of individuals from 
Lyon that attempted to develop chemical agents to commit 
terrorist attacks), the "Frankfurt" network (which attempted 
in 2000 to attack cultural sites in Strasbourg), and Lionel 
Dumont, a member of the Islamic extremist "Roubaix gang" that 
in the late 1990s terrorized the north of France. Dumont 
spent a number of years in Japan, and is suspected of 
building links there to Islamic extremism. In short, Islamic 
political extremism in France takes on many forms: it has 
bubbled up on its own, in cooperation with other autonomous 
groups, and also in cooperation with al-Qaida linked groups 
such as the GSPC. 

6. (SBU) Islamic extremism is connected in the public mind to 
the poor suburbs outside of major French cities, especially 
Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg and Marseilles. However, pockets of 
low-income housing are scattered throughout France, and 
recent arrests in Grenoble, a medium-sized university town in 
the southeast, and Lorraine, a region near the French-German 
border, illustrate the fact that Islamic extremism is not 
confined to the suburbs of France's largest cities. French 
residents and citizens of North African extraction are 
scattered throughout France. The Turkish community is based 
largely in Paris and in eastern France, and the Pakistani 
community is based almost exclusively in the Paris 
metropolitan area. 

THE GOVERNMENT AS FIREFIGHTER 
----------------------------- 

7. (SBU) Although attention since the July bombings in London 
and Sharm el-Sheikh is on new enforcement and security 
initiatives, the GOF continues its work to integrate the 
Muslim community into what is still a historically Catholic 
country. High-profile Muslims in government, politics and 
culture are relatively rare, and in general, Muslims are 
underrepresented in positions of power. The GOF reached back 
into its history of dealing with other religious/ethnic 
communities when in 2003 it created the Council for the 
Muslim Faith (CFCM), an umbrella organization of various 
Muslim groups which serves as the official French Muslim 
interlocutor with the government on a range of 
civil-religious issues, including mosque construction. The 
CFCM includes a broad brush of Muslim groups, including the 
fundamentalist-leaning UOIF (considered by some to have links 
to the Muslim Brotherhood), the FMNF (also considered 
fundamentalist, but backed by the Moroccan government), and 
the Tabligh (an ultra-orthodox Pakistani origin group 
described as a way-station for some French jihadists). GOF 
officials also point out that around 40 percent of French 
mosques are not CFCM-affiliated. Moreover, the CFCM is 
riddled with internal conflict (ref C), and for many who 
espouse a highly fundamentalist worldview, it is considered 
too close to the GOF. 

8. (U) Another GOF initiative to spur the growth of a 
moderate, France-centric Islam is to encourage imams to speak 
French and learn more about French culture. More than half 
of the imams in France either do not speak French or speak it 
very poorly. In addition, less than 20 percent have French 
nationality. New immigration policies stipulate that those 
wishing to attain French citizenship must receive a GOF 
certification of French fluency. Although this new policy 
does not specifically target imams, their participation is 
encouraged. A similar initiative, proposed by PM Villepin 
when he was Interior Minister, has been stymied. Villepin 
said he would push French universities to inaugurate specific 
courses for imams on French culture. Only the Sorbonne 
university evinced any interest, although it finally 
announced in early August that it would not proceed with the 
imam program because it ran counter to the principles of 
secularism. 

ALTHOUGH CONFIDENT IN ITS "OFFENSIVE" C/T STRATEGY, FRANCE 
STILL STRUGGLES WITH INTEGRATION 
--------------------------------------------- ------------- 

9. (U) Notwithstanding the recent spurt of GOF 
counter-terrorism proposals (ref B), the French government 
and media generally believe the GOF's method of fighting 
Islamic extremism works well. A July 12 article in Le Figaro 
outlined the two basic approaches, France's "offensive" 
strategy and the UK's "communitarian" strategy. Louis 
Caprioli, former head of the DST's counter-terrorism bureau 
(the DST is France's internal security service), said the 
French strategy emphasizes total cooperation between the 
security/police services and the specialized 
counter-terrorism judiciary. This allows for constant 
surveillance of suspects and a focus on maximum disturbance 
of Islamic extremists, hence the "offensive" nature of the 
strategy. Alain Chouet, former head of the DGSE (France's 
external intelligence service), added that the presence of 
the RG throughout French territory allows for "permanent 
surveillance and penetration of problematic communities." 
Furthermore, said Chouet, "It is hard to imagine the 
Anglo-Saxon countries imitating our harassment tactics, which 
sometimes take place without any real proof of wrongdoing." 
(Comment: There is undoubtedly a whiff of traditional Gallic 
competitiveness regarding the "Anglo-Saxons" in these 
comparisons of counter-terrorism models. Of all those 
calling for additional C/T proposals in France following the 
July attacks, only the unabashedly pro-Anglo-Saxon Sarkozy 
pointedly said France had something to learn from the British 
public transport surveillance system. End comment) 

10. (U) Although most believe the GOF's "offensive" 
counter-terrorism approach has been successful, many consider 
that the GOF has failed in its quest to integrate those in 
the marginalized suburbs, or "cites". Jean-Marie Colombani, 
the editor-in-chief of Le Monde, wrote in a rare front-page 
editorial on July 26: "Stories abound of the young, born in 
our 'cites,' that incomprehensibly swung from complete 
integration to marginalization to then becoming 
irretrievable." Guillaume Bigot, a French researcher who 
recently co-wrote a well-reviewed book on Islamic extremism 
in France, is even more biting: "The Muslim community in 
France...is massively excluded at the social and economic 
level, and is accustomed to a sense of humiliation. These 
youth, whose first or last names become obstacles to finding 
work, do not have a past or a feeling of belonging to a land, 
and have absolutely no future. It is not necessary to invent 
a James Bond of Islamist extremism. You only need people who 
can be manipulated with a simplistic ideology." 

11. (SBU) Poloffs recently visited the northern Paris suburb 
of La Courneuve, which has recently become a living metaphor 
for violence and Islamic extremism in France. Interior 
Minister Sarkozy visited La Courneuve several times over the 
past months, and has vowed to make it an example of his new 
efforts to foster integration. Members of the "Chechen" 
network (see para 6) were arrested there in 2002 with 
explosive material and the chemical agent ricin. Originally 
a small town independent from Paris, La Courneuve now 
features many large HLM (low-income housing projects). The 
streets are relatively wide and empty, with little 
street-level commerce aside from government services and 
larger supermarkets. No one background dominated and we saw 
no visible signs of an Islamic presence (we passed only one 
synagogue and no mosques). The suburb did not feel 
dangerous; instead it seemed more bleak and deserted than 
anything else, as if everybody was inside their apartments or 
out of town. Satellite dishes sprouted from many apartments. 
The presence of planters with flowers and tree-lined 
sidewalks gave the impression of a municipal government 
trying to improve the area. Indeed, the local government's 
slogan was "La Courneuve is inventing another future for 
itself." Overall, and despite its terrible reputation, La 
Courneuve looked to be a modest, multicultural place. Its 
appearance confirmed what statistics report: the overwhelming 
majority of Muslims in France (whether from Africa, the 
Maghreb, or the newly converted) are moderate. The problem 
lies with the one or two apartments that harbor Islamic 
extremists hidden within the tens of thousands that do not. 

12. (C) Comment: As is widely recognized, the GOF wields a 
muscular and effective counter-terrorism apparatus that 
identifies potential terrorists and thwarts potential 
terrorist operations. Although there is always room for 
improvement, the GOF appears to have done what it can in the 
short- and medium-term to combat Islamic extremism. Over the 
long-term, however, much work needs to be done. France does 
not only have an integration/immigration problem; it must 
also work to give a place to Muslims in the French identity. 
Despite claims that its commitment to secularism nullifies 
prejudice against any religion, it is an open secret that 
historically Catholic France has heretofore failed to muster 
sufficient will and understanding to truly accept Muslims as 
French citizens. Although Islamic extremism may never 
completely disappear from France, acceptance of Muslims as 
full, participating members of French society will go a long 
way to minimizing its reach. End comment. 
Hofmann