Countering Jihadi Terrorists and Radicals the French Way

Dorle Hellmuth. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Volume 38, Issue 12. December 2015.

The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks warrant a detailed profile of the French approach to countering Jihadi terrorism. Much has been written about the tough French counterterrorism regime, which originated in 1986 and remains unique among Western democracies. There has been less analysis of France’s lengthy list of post-9/11 reforms, and even less discussion of the French approach to counterradicalization. In fact, France was among only few European countries that did not engage in any “soft” counterradicalization programs after the 2004 Madrid and the 2005 London bombings. The mass exodus of foreign fighters to Syria led to a first national counterradicalization plan in 2014. In response to the Paris attacks, much in line with its security-oriented methods and outlook, the French government increased counterterrorism spending and surveillance powers. Various other measures are noteworthy, however, as they focus on prison radicalization and represent an effort to strengthen the counterradicalization campaign.

The January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks warrant a closer look at the French approach to countering Jihadi terrorism. Since 9/11, much has been written about the tough French regime, which originated in 1986. Criticized by some and admired by others, French counterterrorism institutions and policies were considered an important reason for why France did not suffer a Jihadi attack at home after 1996, and until 2012. While an analysis of the foundation and underlying principles of the counterterrorism arsenal is useful for many reasons, it is equally important to note that French counterterrorism tools and institutions were further adjusted, reformed, and expanded after 9/11.

There has been less review and debate of these post-9/11 reforms and even less discussion of French counterradicalization measures. In fact, France’s approach to Jihadi radicalization merits detailed analysis because France was among only few European countries that did not engage in “soft” counterradicalization measures after the 2004 Madrid and Van Gogh attacks, and the 2005 London bombings. In other words, while arresting and prosecuting terrorist suspects on a regular basis, the French government did not attempt to prevent individuals from radicalizing or reintegrate those who have become infected with the Jihadi virus. Only in the context of the recent mass exodus of French foreign fighters to Syria did the government announce a policy review in 2014 and a first national counterradicalization strategy.

The article proceeds as follows: The first part takes stock of French domestic counterterrorism reforms since 9/11. The second part discusses the French perspective on counterradicalization, and the changes that have occurred since 2014. Against this backdrop, the third part evaluates the steps that have been announced in response to the 2015 attacks. Illustrating a familiar pattern and much in line with its security-oriented approach, the French government increased counterterrorism spending and personnel and pledged to strengthen intelligence surveillance powers. Several other measures are of note, however, as they focus on preventing prison radicalization.

Countering Jihadi Terrorism in France

Various scholars have written about the tough French counterterrorism approach after 9/11, drawing particular attention to the seemingly “almighty” investigating judges and their close relationship with one of the domestic intelligence services, the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire). The law of 9 September 1986 reform centralized counterterrorism powers in the position of seven investigating magistrates (juge d’instruction), responsible for leading all preliminary counterterrorism investigations across France. The specialized investigating magistrates combine prosecutorial and judicial powers in one person. Their wide-ranging powers include the rights to investigate, detain, and authorize wiretaps, search warrants, and subpoenas. In theory, they are tasked with leading impartial investigations to determine whether official judicial proceedings should be launched and terrorist suspects be prosecuted. According to Shapiro, however, “in practice, the terrorism magistrates are not impartial investigators, they act like prosecutors but have the powers of a judge.” Despite this impressive array of powers, they still lacked the manpower and logistics to utilize them to the fullest. The investigating magistrates thus struck up a symbiotic alliance with the DST in the 1990s. This arrangement was deemed equally beneficial by the DST agents who not only gained status but also executive powers, allowing them to boost their preventive counterterrorism arsenal. The regime was further enhanced by the “conspiracy to commit a terrorist offense” clause contained in the 1996 reform act that allows French authorities to act preventively against terrorist suspects. Most important, the crime–terrorism linkage allowed for the preventive investigation and prosecution of criminal activities as terrorist acts, provided they were at least remotely thought to be connected to terrorist activity. In addition, criminal offenses that fall into the terrorism category automatically trigger more severe penalties and judicial procedures (e.g., longer pre-charge detention), as well as broader investigative powers.

Also of note, the French recognized a growing need to facilitate coordination, joint intelligence analysis, and information sharing, at the operational level. The Anti-Terrorist Coordination Unit, UCLAT (Unité de Coordination de la Lutte Anti-Terroriste), was created in 1984 within the Interior Ministry and represents, in several ways, an early forerunner of the British JTAC (Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre) and the American TTIC (Terrorist Threat Integration Center, renamed National Counterterrorism Center in 2004), created in 2002 and 2003, respectively. The UCLAT, generally overseen by a police representative at the rank of commissaire divisionaire but led by the director general of the National Police during times of crises, was designed to strengthen cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence services. Serving as an all-source fusion center for terrorist-related information, it was responsible for threat analysis and also served as a sort of secretariat for the Interministerial Committee of the Fight Against Terrorism, CILAT (Comité Interministériel de Lutte Anti-Terroriste), an interagency platform at the high policy level that convened twice every year.

Even though France already had a substantial counterterrorism arsenal at the time of the 9/11 attacks, the French government continued to boost investigative and preventive powers in the years afterward. Consistent with the previous approach, terrorism legislation passed after 2001 also assumed and targeted links between crime-related activities and terrorism, including money laundering, drug trafficking, and weapons smuggling. Ordinary crimes and delinquency have been purposefully targeted to detect and disrupt potential terrorism–crime nexuses. Below, French post 9/11 reforms are grouped into the four categories of (1) prevention and investigation, (2) disruption, (3) prosecution, as well as (4) coordination and information-sharing.

Prevention and Investigation

Data Collection

Starting in 2001, counterterrorism authorities could monitor bank accounts, and tax records became subject to disclosure requests. Moreover, telecommunications providers were required to store phone, e-mail, and Internet transactional data for one year and make it available to law enforcement services. After January 2006, all wireless Internet access providers, including hotels, cybercafés, and so forth, fell into the same category. Beginning in 2003, the Judicial Police could gain remote access to conduct online searches of private and public databases of financial institutions, telecommunications providers, and government services, if the data was considered “useful to establish the truth.” Also, telecommunication providers could be ordered to retain usage information, this time involving contents, for up to one year. Pursuant to a 2006 law, selected police, gendarmerie, and customs agents could access travel databases with visa, passenger, and passports lists. In addition, airlines, transportation authorities, and travel agents were required to collect records of passengers going to and from non–European Union (EU) countries, especially those with terrorist training camps. The government extended ID checks on trains from the border regions to all of France. New shared databases enabled National Police and Gendarmerie to jointly access personal files beginning in 2002. Starting in 2006, the National Police, Gendarmerie, and the Central Directorate of General Intelligence, DCRG (Direction Centrale des Renseignements Généraux) could also cross-reference database information held at the Interior Ministry, including passport, driver license, ID card, and immigration records. The Judicial Police and the two domestic intelligence services, the DST and DCRG, could access phone and Internet traffic data more easily through a new technical platform beginning in 2007. In July 2013, Le Monde further reported that France’s foreign intelligence agency, the Directorate-General of External Security, DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure), had been collecting and storing Internet, e-mail, and phone communications data of French residents; the data collection was supposedly subject to administrative CNCIS (Commission Nationale du Contrôle des Interceptions de Sécurité) oversight. Airline passenger name records (PNRs) will be collected starting in fall 2015 by means of the “système API-PNR France,” for the purposes of counterterrorism and other national security threats.

Camera Surveillance

Video camera surveillance, with images stored for one month, was expanded across France in 2006. Prefects became authorized to compel any private or public entities (including banks, airports, department stores, nuclear plants, or industrial plants) to install video cameras; the images were subject to law enforcement and gendarmerie review. In addition, pictures of cars, their occupants, and license plates could be stored for at least eight days, and be accessed by gendarmerie, police, and customs services. The number of surveillance cameras in France was further expanded in 2011.


Starting in 2001, stationary, parked, and moving vehicles could be stopped and searched without probable cause or warrant, only requiring judicial requisition orders. House searches, subject to warrants, could be conducted on a preliminary basis, and without the resident’s consent. Items that were found but not specified on the warrant could be kept and further investigated. Roving wiretaps were introduced in 2003, based on which computer search warrants extended to networks rather than individual computers. Subject to judicial approval, police could conduct secret computer searches remotely and in real time by means of spyware installations since 2011.

Pre-Charge Detention

The period was extended from four to six days in 2006, to be authorized in two intervals after the first four days and by a so-called freedom and release judge (rather than an investigating magistrate) in the event of imminent terrorist activity or international emergencies.



Starting in 2014, counterterrorism authorities could confiscate passports and identity cards, for a period of six months and renewable for up to two years, if there was “serious reason” to believe that French nationals were leaving France to engage in terrorist activity or terrorist group operations.


Since 2014, security services have been authorized to block Internet sites that incite or glorify terrorism, and without requiring judicial approval. Alternatively, Internet service providers and website hosts could remove the content within 24 hours.


Pursuant to a 2006 law, financial assets of individuals involved in terrorist acts could be frozen for six months by means of Economy Ministry decree, subject to renewal. Individuals engaged in inciting to terrorism could be subjected to asset-freezing since 2012.


To facilitate the deportation of hate preachers, radical nationals could be stripped of their citizenship starting in 2006.



Financial support of terrorist acts and groups became a punishable crime in 2001.

Lone Wolves

Pursuant to a 2014 law, individual terrorist intent suffices as a criminal offense, as opposed to terrorist activities in “association with others.”

Incitement of Terrorism

While the incitement and glorification of terrorism (both written, spoken, and pictorial) have been criminalized since 1881, punishment for online activities condoning terrorism was stepped up as part of a 2012 law as the offense was moved from the press law to the criminal code. Starting in 2014, publishing illegal content became a criminal offense with up to seven years in prison. Targeting lone wolves as well as online recruitment, the 2014 law also criminalized searching, attaining, or creating material that could be used in an individual’s terrorist activity.

Terrorist Training Camps

The act of visiting either military or ideological training camps, or committing terrorist acts abroad, became a criminal offense in 2012 so that individuals could be arrested and prosecuted upon their return, even if terrorist activities did not occur on French soil.

Coordination and Information-Sharing

Regional Representation

Starting in 2002, new regional intervention units, GIRs (Groupements d’Intervention Régionaux), combined National Police (mostly active in urban areas) and Gendarmerie (focusing on small towns and rural areas) units, in addition to customs and tax officers. While targeting organized crime networks, the units had relevance for terrorism because of the aforementioned crime–terrorism nexus. Regional prefects who represent the central government outside of Paris gained requisition order powers for car, database, computer network, and online data searches in 2003. In 2004, permanent taskforces for combating radical Islam were set up in all of France’s twenty-two regions, in an effort to better monitor mosques, hate preachers, and prayer rooms. Led by the prefects and coordinated by the DCRG, the DST, Customs, local police, and others participated in the centers as well.

Interagency and Intra-Executive Coordination

After 9/11, various presidential and prime ministerial advisor positions were created and designed to facilitate interagency coordination across the national government. A new Elysee czar became the head of the Domestic Security Council, CSI (Conseil de Sécurité Intérieur), in 2002, and was supposed to coordinate all ministries involved in fighting crime and terrorism (Interior, Justice, Defense, Budget, Foreign Affairs, Economy, and Finance). A presidential creation, the new format replaced another council previously under the chairmanship of the prime minister and therefore also expanded the president’s reach in the domestic security domain.

Furthermore of note, in 2004 agents from the DST, DCRG, and DGSE were detailed to a permanent center at the DGSE headquarters. This location was chosen so that the services could take advantage of the foreign intelligence agency’s extensive technical capacities. As opposed to UCLAT’s more administrative information sharing and threat analysis functions, so government officials argued, the focus of the new center would involve operational planning among the services. However, the new joint venture was also considered a response to UCLAT’s perceived shortcomings, as UCLAT members had been criticizing the lack of information sharing among the participating agencies for years.

Also in 2004, a new Domestic Intelligence Council, CRI (Conseil du Renseignement Intérieur), was formed. Led by the prime minister, it convened monthly and brought together members of the domestic intelligence and law enforcement community, including, inter alia, the DST and DCRG, the Judicial Police, and the Gendarmerie. Critics again called attention to its resemblance with UCLAT, while the government refuted these comparisons, arguing that the CRI was tasked with crafting strategic guidelines for information sharing and cooperation for UCLAT, which by contrast, was a permanent forum responsible for information sharing and threat assessment at the operational level. Be that as it may, both CSI and CRI were replaced in 2007: The CSI was merged with its defense counterpart, and formed the new Defense and National Security Council, CDSN (Conseil de Défense et de Sécurité Nationale). In doing so, President Sarkozy sought to break the “traditional borderline between domestic security and external security” he considered “largely obsolete.” He suggested creating a National Security Council, very much based on the U.S. model (which, ironically, at the time was separate from the domestic-oriented Homeland Security Council), which would coordinate and decide all issues of national security. Representing a truly transnational approach, it was supposed to be responsible for all homeland security, public safety, and international and defense issues. Not surprisingly, the council was to be chaired by the president himself. Officials on both sides of the political divide supported the plan—however, the Ministry of Defense was concerned about becoming marginalized and insisted on expanding the national security focus to emphasize defense as part of the council’s title and portfolio.

Serving as a specialized formation of the CDSN, the CRI was renamed National Intelligence Council, CNR (Conseil National du Renseignement), to be chaired by a presidential intelligence advisor, and therefore under presidential leadership as well. The new intelligence council and coordinator were tasked with coordinating intelligence services, in particular with regard to developing intelligence strategies and collection and analysis priorities, implementation, and sharing; allocating resources; and overseeing the legal framework for intelligence operation. Once again, this move illustrated the presidential claims and power expansion in the domestic security arena and continuing marginalization of the prime minister in counterterrorism matters. Critics warned against the “concentration of power in the hands of the head of state … [which] multiplies the violations of the principle of political accountability,” as the arrangement lacked parliamentary scrutiny and went against the principles and traditions of the republic. Others questioned the nature of the relationship between the existing UCLAT, responsible to the Interior Ministry and, therefore, the prime minister, and the new presidential council. Yet others voiced concerns about how political cohabitation could have detrimental effects on this arrangement in the future—as UCLAT and CNR would be overseen by a prime minister and a president belonging to different parties. However, it must be noted that the latter scenario seems unlikely ever since the constitutional reform of 2000 aligned presidential and parliamentary terms and elections.

Finally, as part of a considerable institutional reform in 2008, the DST and DCRG were folded into a new Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence, DCRI (Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur), renamed Directorate-General of Domestic Security, DGSI (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure), in 2012. Security officials had been stressing the need to increase cooperation among or even merge the two domestic intelligence services, DST and DCRG, since the 1990s, when a plan drawn up by Prefect Jacques Fournet was withdrawn at the last minute due to “political snags.” Merger optimists were quick to point out that the pooling of resources and expertise would help reduce redundant missions and functions and represent a win–win situation for both services. The DCRG’s impressive regional representation included more than twenty outposts; the DST could point to its established relationship with the investigating magistrates that set it apart from all other services. While the complementary features of the two services were generally recognized or at least assumed, reorganization pessimists warned against “brutally forc[ing] these two services together … [as] the sharing of resources would be a major step,” further emphasizing that “one must understand the benefits of retaining different competences and cultures.” Whereas the DST had a more international focus and representation, having traditionally engaged in counterintelligence and targeted foreign intelligence and terrorist activities on French soil, the DCRG and its extensive network of regional outposts traditionally focused on homegrown terrorism and surveillance of French citizen suspects. The 2012 rebranding entailed a few more changes designed to increase technical resources and the small cadre of radical Islam experts. Most important, it was supposed to strengthen information sharing between the former DCRG and DST services, as the DCRG appeared to have become increasingly marginalized after the merger.

Summing up, the overall scope of French reforms after 9/11 is of note, especially when considering France’s extensive prior counterterrorism experience, which culminated in various major counterterrorism reforms in 1986 and ’96. In fact, French investigating magistrates and other security services, the DST in particular, had even specialized in countering Jihadi terrorism. Regardless, French presidents and prime ministers consistently sought to adjust and expand the existing counterterrorism arsenal after 9/11. All in all, French governments passed more than seven domestic security laws after 2001, three of which were specifically formulated to counter terrorism. New counterterrorism measures broadened data collection and disclosure powers of security services, in particular those of the “regular” police forces. Preventive policing powers and criminal law provisions were strengthened, while judicial checks on law enforcement powers continued to fade. Many of the new counterterrorism provisions were consistent with France’s unique approach to purposefully target ordinary criminals, delinquents, or immigrants, and any of their activities, in an effort to identify or disrupt potential terrorism–crime linkages. Similarly, the overall trend was consistent with French counterterrorism tradition where the “barrier between prevention and punishment is not airtight.”

In terms of institutional reforms, the 9/11 attacks presented an opportunity for various presidents to assume the leadership role in the domestic security realm, traditionally considered prime ministerial turf. The creation of numerous new coordinative mechanisms, including the 2001 Elysée security czar, the 2002 Domestic Security Council (replaced by the Defense and National Security Council and the National Intelligence Council in 2009), and the 2004 Domestic Intelligence Council (which became obsolete due to the DCRI merger), reflects this struggle over domestic counterterrorism power, as well as presidential expansionism under presidents Jacque Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Largely created by and for the president, the mechanisms were intended to strengthen the presidential hand and domestic reach. President Sarkozy also oversaw and determined the details of the DCRG/DST merger into the new DCRI, followed by President Francois Hollande’s more recent DGSI modifications.

While French counterterrorism forces were able to disrupt and prevent various attacks between 2001 and 2014, also with the help of their counterterrorism arsenal, in 2012 France suffered its first domestic terrorist attack in sixteen years: Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah killed seven people in a series of attacks across the country. French authorities were not unfamiliar with him: he was deemed a security threat by the DCRG due to his travel interests in the Middle East and South Asia, had been questioned by the DCRI after he was picked up by Afghan security forces in 2010, and was subject to DCRI surveillance after returning to France in 2011. French authorities also were not clueless with regard to the 2015 attackers. A variety of counterterrorism surveillance measures involved the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly before the attacks: their phones were tapped, their interactions with radical imams known, as were their visits to terrorist camps in Yemen.

The French Approach to Jihadi Radicalization

While equipped with an extensive, if not impenetrable, counterterrorism arsenal that centers on repression and prosecution, until 2014 France did not view Jihadi radicalization as an issue that ought to be tackled separately and by means of also “soft” counterradicalization measures. According to Marret, a good argument can be made, inter alia, that this noticeable absence can be attributed to France’s overall counterterrorism success—preventive measures that have allowed France to quickly arrest and prosecute terrorism-related crimes and put Jihadi terrorist suspects behind bars. However, there is a growing concern that the large number of Jihadi prisoners will proselytize and radicalize others. What the 2012 and 2015 attackers, Merah, the Kouachi brothers, and Coulibaly, had in common, apart from launching attacks on French soil, was the fact that their radicalization trajectory appeared to have been significantly influenced by their prison experience. One of the two brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack, Chérif Kouachi, spent twenty months in the Fleury-Merogis prison, where he met Amedy Coulibaly, responsible for the killings in the Jewish supermarket. While Coulibaly and Merah, who went on a shooting spree in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, first became radicalized in prison, Chérif Kouachi was thought to have hardened his Jihadi convictions while behind bars.

What exactly is meant by radicalization? Like terrorism, radicalization is difficult to define as it is in the eye of the beholder and very much dependent on subjective interpretation, norms, and judgments. “Different political, cultural and historical contexts, in other words, produce different notions of ‘radicalism.'” In 2011, Coolsaet referred to radicalization as “ill-defined, complex and controversial.” Just as it is impossible to profile terrorists, as there is no one pathway to terrorism, there is no single pathway to radicalization, and by implication, no single method or technique that can prevent people from turning to radicalism.

According to McCauley and Moskalenko, radicalization is the “development of beliefs, feelings, and actions in support of any group or cause in conflict,” and terrorism must be seen as an extreme form of radicalization. Looking for the smallest common denominator, Neumann summarized that “radicalization can be defined as the process whereby people become extremists.” The focus on process illustrates a widespread consensus among scholars who “conceptualize radicalization as a progression which plays out over a period of time and involves different factors and dynamics.” Conversely, Sageman has argued that, “The notion that there is any serious process called ‘radicalization,’ or indoctrination, is really a mistake. What you have is some young people acquiring some extreme ideas—but it’s a similar process to acquiring any type of ideas. It often begins with discussions with a friend.”

What is considered radical or extreme may involve either political ideas and/or actions that run counter to a society’s values and norms. Neumann identifies two schools of thought regarding the “end-points” of radicalization: the cognitive school focuses on extremist beliefs and ideas on the one hand and the behavioral school on violent extremist actions and behavior on the other end of the spectrum. The two may be connected at times. However, Horgan and Borum remind us that one does not automatically lead to the other. In other words, not all violent extremists hold strong, extreme beliefs, and not all extreme ideas lead to violent behavior. There will always be “far more radicals than terrorists,” and the question of how people are radicalizing is just as important as the why they are radicalizing.

Prominent places and means of recruitment involve mosques and community centers, the Internet, and prisons. The latter have long been considered places where individuals are especially vulnerable to Jihadi radicalization. When arriving in prison, inmates experience stress, alienation, and isolation—making them vulnerable to extremist approaches. A prison sentence marks a drastic break with existing routines, familiar surroundings and personal safety, and frequently goes hand in hand with personal crisis and a desire to take revenge or at least defy authorities. Under these circumstances, religion provides a stable framework and security. Many prisoners face existential questions, and religion helps answer these questions. Religious communities offer a way out of isolation and into new social networks, and may afford important physical protection against other prisoners. Members of radical Islamic prison gangs who adhere to strict Islamist behavior and language manage to intimidate others, even the prison staff. Joining these gangs induces a “sense of strength and superiority” compared to other gangs.

Several European countries, first and foremost the Netherlands and Britain, began addressing counterradicalization after suffering homegrown attacks in 2004 and 2005. While their approach also includes tough security-oriented measures (surveillance, repression, prosecution, and administrative measures), these often go hand in hand with softer measures and programs designed to prevent individuals from becoming fully radicalized and participating in violent actions, or rehabilitate and reintegrate them. Softer measures may involve interventions, phone hotlines, dialogues and workshops with Muslim communities, vocational training, or counseling and exit programs. While local programs started springing up after 9/11, some countries were slower than others to tackle the issue at the national level, with, for example, Germany being comparatively late to address the issue.

France, however, did not fall into either category. As a matter of fact, France until 2014 solely countered radicalization by prosecuting those guilty of committing terrorism offenses and rejected any “soft” counterradicalization measures, such as assisting those who have strayed from the non-radical path. Instead, terrorism was viewed as a violation of law that is punishable by law, facilitated by the preventive investigating judges, and not the “culmination of the radicalization process.” The foreign fighter dilemma that emerged in 2014 was thus treated as a terrorism-related crime and answered by means of repressive and judicial measures. Aspiring foreign fighters, their recruiters, and those returning from foreign battlefields were subjected to the conspiracy clause whenever possible, and, therefore, surveillance, arrests, interrogations, deportations, and prison sentences. According to Marret, this perspective comes with benefits: it categorizes terrorism as a crime and distinguishes between the fight against terrorism and “the social-political conditions under which terrorism or political violence can take place.” At the same time, Marret draws attention to the “Catch-22 situation: France is paradoxically a victim of the successes of its national Counter-Terrorism system.” While prison sentences are comparatively short, on average seven years, 57 percent of prisoners are re-convicted within five years of their release. The large number of Islamist prisoners is thought to facilitate proselytization and radicalization behind bars. Isolating them used to be an option only in exceptional cases, due to human rights concerns.

In this context it is important to note that counterradicalization models utilized in many other European countries run counter to one of the key pillars of the French republic: France’s particular version of secularism does not allow for religion or religious institutions in the public domain. “For French counterterrorism officials,” so Ragazzi explains, “setting up formal partnerships with imams and community religious institutions is out of the question, just as it is difficult to imagine local police-mosque or police-Muslim association collaborations.” French authorities also do not distinguish between different ethnic or religious communities, as there is only the “French” community.

The French government merely began shifting gears in 2013. In October 2013, then–Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault stated his intention to launch a discussion about the “prevention of radicalization phenomena,” as the 2013 White Paper on Defense and National Security for the first time mentioned the need to “develop government initiatives to combat radicalization.” By spring 2014, the government appeared to be responding to growing concerns and criticism about French foreign fighter streams to Syria and Iraq. Specifically, the Interior Ministry announced a plan to “fight against radicalization,” designed to destroy recruitment networks and prevent French citizens from joining the conflict in Syria. Others note, however, that the policy review had been in the works since 2012, and was triggered by the Merah attack. For the first time, a national plan was to include soft measures that targeted the “passage” to violence and the “process of radicalization.” The plan was designed to address radicalization at the earliest stages and also included an experimental program for reintegration (based on the British Channel project). Similar to other countries in Europe, the Interior Ministry was to create a national center for assistance and prevention, phone hotline, and Internet website for “endangered” individuals, their parents and other relatives, allowing them to ask for advice, help, or alert authorities to potential cases. The national contact forum would help filter information and initiate local assistance, if needed, which could be tailored to individual cases. Local assistance could involve prosecutors, mayors, police, schools, youth and employment services, religious leaders, family foundations, and would be geared toward reintegrating and re-socializing the affected teenagers.

This seemed to indicate an overall paradigm shift—apart from the national phone hotline, however, the various programs were not to be implemented until 2015. The eight members of the national phone hotline are retired security personnel. They are trained by UCLAT Islam experts and operating out of the Interior Ministry. When questioned about the security-centric approach, the UCLAT director emphasized that the hotline staff was not selected because of their security background, but because of their “ability to listen and their emotional sensitivity,” and because they come with more than twenty-five years of work and fifty-five years of life experience. They are assisted by a psychologist and two inservice police officers, the latter are responsible for filtering the information and conduct analyses.

Displaying a more familiar pattern, the 2014 counterterrorism act (passed in the aftermath of the Nemmouche attack) focused on strengthening security and repressive measures, seeking to prevent, counter, and punish foreign fighter travel, lone wolfs, and Internet recruitment.

Responses to the 2015 Attacks

In response to the January 2015 attacks, Prime Minister Manuel Valls also announced new security measures: Counterterrorism funds would be boosted (with an additional 246 million euro in 2015 and an estimated total of 736 million euro by 2017) and 2,680 new jobs created. 1,400 of these positions would become available in the Ministry of Interior, including 1,100 in the area of domestic intelligence (the DGSI and the intelligence service of the Paris prefecture police), in an effort to monitor an estimated 2,500 radicals. These figures are expected to grow due to the rising numbers of returning foreign fighters in France. France leads Western countries in terms of overall numbers of foreign fighters, with more than 1,200 estimated to have left for Syria and Iraq by February 2015.

Moreover, external border controls of the Schengen area would be stepped up. The government further announced a new database for convicted terrorists and plans for a new intelligence law to be passed before the summer. The intelligence bill, approved by the Cabinet in March 2015 and adopted by the National Assembly in the first reading in early May, introduced a legal framework for intelligence collection, specifically wiretaps and connection data. Internet and phone service providers would have to provide access to their data, intelligence services be authorized to tape and record in private residences and capture computer data by means of keylogging devices, and mobile and digital communications of terrorist suspects could be monitored more easily. These powers already existed, but pursuant to the new bill intelligence services would be subject to administrative oversight only, in form of a (newly created) Commission and prime ministerial approval. While this focus on expanding surveillance powers had been expected, the bill did not include any provisions geared toward criminalizing racist and anti-Semitic behavior, hate speech, and language on the Internet. The latter illustrates an effort to go after the online recruitment of foreign fighters and cognitive radicalization, at the risk of infringing on the freedom of speech, and became a core element of a three-year national plan Prime Minister Valls announced in April. In addition, the Interior Ministry launched a public campaign calling on U.S. Internet service operators to block content thought to be responsible for inciting hatred. Finally, the intelligence bill also contained a provision that intelligence collection in prisons, for example the monitoring of prison communications, would become the responsibility of intelligence services and no longer be handled by the prison administration.

In terms of prison reforms, two other government initiatives are of note, announced days after the attacks. First, in an effort to better control and counter radicalization among the prison population, “inmates who are deemed radicalized” will be isolated from common criminals. Isolating radical prisoners from others has already been possible in France under the DPS (Détenu Particulièrement Signalé) procedure, but it was not applied consistently or across the board but on an individual basis. Since November 2014, twenty-three prisoners have been subject to a pilot project at the prison of Fresnes (Val-de-Marne), and their isolation will be extended to four other prisons. All of their activities are performed in isolation, their cells do not have outside windows, and they are “highly monitored.” “But to be effective,” according to Prime Minister Valls, “this isolation must go hand in hand with a strategy of structured intelligence shared with the Ministry of the Interior, a review of the conditions under which imams are recruited and trained, and further professional training for staff dealing with these inmates.” Representing a “softer” counterradicalization approach, the number of prison imams is to increase by sixty and their recruitment and training to improve—a challenging undertaking since prison imams need to be both qualified, modern enough to understand social media, and also moderate, willing, and capable of engaging in political debates.

The focus on prisons is not coincidental or new. The main perpetrator of the 1995 Paris subway attacks, Khaled Kelkal, was a thief-turned terrorist who radicalized in prison. Two of the 2015 Paris attackers met in prison, as mentioned above. One of the two brothers, Chérif Kouachi, met Amedy Coulibaly inside the Fleury-Merogis prison, where he was incarcerated from January 2005 to October 2006. While Coulibaly, who served a sentence for drug trafficking and robbery, became radicalized in prison, Chérif, convicted for attempting to travel to an Iraqi terrorist camp, reportedly intensified his Jihadi convictions behind bars. Djamel Beghal, who at the time served a ten-year prison term for plotting to attack the U.S. embassy in 2001, is considered instrumental in their radicalization. Mohamed Merah, who shot dead seven people in 2012, also became radicalized while behind bars. Finally, Mehdi Nemmouche, deemed responsible for the May 2014 murder of four people in Brussels, was radicalized when he spent five years in prison for robbery. In fact, the role of the prison imams was already scrutinized and debated in the aftermath of both the 2012 and 2014 attacks.

At least 50 percent of the 68,295 prison inmates in France are Muslim, and the lack of Muslim chaplains is thought to have created a vacuum that leaves room for self-appointed and self-taught imams and their radical ideas. France did increase the number of prison imams in 2009 and 2010, and introduced new vetting and training programs to ensure that imam teachings are compatible with French values, but the overall numbers are considered marginal. While counterradicalization was not tackled per se, “prison staff was trained to detect radicalization and for intelligence collection,” and imams “made in France” were considered the best way of spreading moderate Islam. In July 2009, Marret counted 147 official prison imams in France, compared to only eighty in 2006. Another fifteen were added in 2012 and 2013 each. By 2014, the number had thus increased to 182 imams who were responsible for more than 35,000 Muslims, compared to 681 Catholic and 70 Jewish chaplains. The figures also pale compared to the 200 Muslim chaplains who tend to approximately 11,000 Muslim inmates in English and Welsh prisons.

While the estimated number of Jihadi prison inmates lay between 150 and 160 in February 2015, identifying radical inmates is also difficult because prisons are generally overcrowded and understaffed. French prisons had an official capacity of 57,920 in April 2015, but held more than 66,700 inmates. Prison guards oversee some 100 inmates respectively, but are not trained for counterradicalization. Detecting radical prisoners also represents challenges because their profile has changed over the past ten years, making it ever more difficult for prison authorities and others to identify them. Taqiya, the practice of concealing one’s faith to avoid detection by the authorities, remains a challenge for everybody involved. The brother of Toulouse killer Abdelkader Merah, “kept in his iPod a small manual that reminded ‘brothers’ ‘to have a suitable image vis-à-vis the population,’ or to ‘not wear their wrist watches on their right arms.'” All of this is supposed to prevent them from being noticed and distinguish them from the die-heart Salafi-Jihadists who seek to imitate the appearance and doings of the Prophet Mohammed in every detail of life. While Nemmouche did have a run-in with prison authorities because he called for a collective prayer in violation of prison rules, neither Mohamed Merah, Chérif Kouachi, nor Amedy Coulibaly displayed any obvious symptoms indicating their radicalization.

Prison intelligence resources have been boosted after the 2015 attacks, and another fifty-five intelligence officers are being added to prison bureaus. Established in 2003, the intelligence offices of the prison administration (Bureau du Renseignement Penitentiaire) were created to detect those radical inmates who were withdrawing from mainstream prison population, and also supervise them. Prison intelligence did not cooperate or share information with other intelligence services until after the 2012 Merah attacks, when an official information-sharing protocol was signed by the prison administration and the Directorate-General of Domestic Security. In addition, the protocol specified that the DGSI would train some of the personnel on “new issues of radical Islam.” A staff of thirteen work out of the prison intelligence office in Paris and communicate with the Directorate-General on a daily basis, but each of the ten regional prisons also rely on one intelligence delegate, and Paris, Lyon, Lille, and Marseille on two full-time intelligence staff. Since 5 January 2015, the prison administration has been detailed to the UCLAT and participates in its weekly meetings.

Based on French Justice Department statistics, only a small minority of Jihadi inmates become radicalized while in prison. According to the Department of Justice, among the total prison population of 66,530 in November 2014, 850 prisoners were being monitored due to the seriousness of the crimes committed. Of the 850, 283 were convicted on the basis of terrorism charges (including non-Jihadi). However, only 152 of the 283 were categorized as Jihadi terrorists. Since the majority of Jihadi prisoners, a total of 84 percent, are serving their first prison sentence, they must have radicalized outside prison. While the focus on prison radicalization may indeed be exaggerated, and prison counterradicalization programs certainly do not represent a panacea to the Jihadi threat, one might argue that the degree of Jihadi commitment varies among radicals, especially when considering that the “criminal association in relation with terrorism” charge that allows security services to act preventively before crimes have been committed is often based on only circumstantial evidence. In other words, while Jihadi prisoners have been convicted based on Jihadi terrorism charges they may not (yet) represent hardened Jihadist terrorists when entering prison.

The twofold reforms, increasing the number of better vetted and trained imams and isolating radical Islamists from petty criminals, are supposed to address the two related dilemmas of leaving vulnerable prisoners at the mercy of radical inmates, or self-appointed imams. A greater number of imams should help fill a vacuum and reduce room for radical propaganda. However, it will remain challenging to improve their overall caliber. In June 2014, Hassan el-Anoui Talibi, chief prison imam in France, issued a statement, calling for an official and professional status for prison chaplains, similar to that which already exists for hospital and military chaplains. Currently, prison imams do not receive a pension, social security, or any other public assistance, and are merely reimbursed for their travel expenses. While the budget for Muslim chaplains will be doubled, it will not be sufficient to pay salaries, pensions, or health benefits. While this kind of support does not exist in the case of, for example, Catholic prison chaplains either, the latter receive substantial financial aid through the Catholic Church, which is also responsible for their training. Finding qualified and moderate imams is not only a financial challenge; it remains complicated to certify imam qualifications as Islam does not require a standardized education or diplomas for its spiritual leaders. The imams who tend to prisons are volunteers, but do not undergo any required training. However, some kind of mandatory training would “provide status by professionalizing the function, as already exists in the army.”

While increasing the number of qualified Muslim chaplains is deemed an urgent necessity, so is the integration of additional services as part of a wider inter-disciplinary approach. According to Ouisa Kies, prison administration director of the detection and supervision of radical inmates program, “new forms of radicalization cannot be dealt with unless a close cooperation is established between the various professionals involved in the prison administration (prison counselors and probation officers, intelligence officers, schools, doctors, psychologists, etc.).” A system-wide approach becomes imperative also due to the large number of serious mental disorders, which affect about thirty percent of all prisoners who become easy prey for jihadists. Further illustrating the unique French perspective, Kies explains that “chaplains are essential partners in the administration, but we cannot imagine a secular republic meeting a social problem only by means of religion.”


The 2015 reforms are consistent with France’s past approaches to Jihadi terrorism. Illustrating a familiar pattern and much in line with its security-oriented counterterrorism approach, the French government boosted counterterrorism spending and personnel and expanded surveillance powers. Similarly, radicalism is tackled and countered by means of surveillance, intelligence, prosecution, and the concentration and isolation of prison radicals.

In addition, however, Prime Minister Valls introduced a few softer preventive measures and pledged that the number of prison imams would increase and their training be improved, to assist Muslim prison populations and in an effort to prevent the spread of the Jihadi virus in the first place. The focus on prison imams is noteworthy as it represents an effort to bolster the counterradicalization campaign, thus far centered on the national phone hotline center in combination with local initiatives that are triggered through the hotline. According to Interior Ministry estimates, a total of seventy to eighty people (approximately 12 percent of all calls recorded by the hotline) were thus prevented from leaving France within the first six months of the hotline’s existence in the latter part of 2014. The number of calls into the hotline doubled in the weeks following the January attacks, from previously seven to sixteen per day. The hotline was also deemed instrumental in preventing several French nationals from leaving for Syria in February 2015, as they became the first to have their passports confiscated.In a similar vein, to give families and relatives of those in danger of radicalizing additional tools and arguments to challenge the Jihadi ideology, the French government introduced a new “Stop-jihadism” Internet platform. The documents and videos posted on the site offer a counternarrative to the Jihadi perspective in an effort to prevent online recruitment of foreign fighters.

Apart from increasing the numbers of prison imams, however, their status has not been elevated or professionalized, a fact that will continue to hamper their overall potential. The commitment to French republican, secular values makes the consideration of other counterradicalization options more challenging. A much discussed December 2014 report that was prepared by a former defense department official emphasized the need to include Muslim elites, and especially religious ones, when it comes to counterradicalization—otherwise, Muslim communities would feel stigmatized. According to the report, moderate Muslim voices are needed to counter radical Salafi narratives that “capture all of the media space.” As long as the government office of organized religions (bureau centrale des cultes) remains part of the security-minded Interior Ministry, so the report argued, it would not be possible to build these relations as Muslim representatives would be considered “deputy-sheriffs” by their community. “In the absence of a political response to growing islamist fundamentalism,” so the report summarized, “various administrations have opted for a security-focused response to its terrorist manifestation.”

The decision to isolate radical prisoners fits with this still prevailing security-focused approach. Several European countries, including Spain and the United Kingdom, have in the past opted to concentrate and separate terrorist prisoners from ordinary prisoners. The approach is designed to prevent further radicalization and provide for additional security. However, it comes with the risk of facilitating so-called prison universities—group polarization that occurs when like-minded people deliberate in a confined space and the discussions push individuals to become more extreme. While behind bars, prisoners have all the time in the world to compare notes on ideas, ideologies, tactics, strategies, mistakes made, and lessons learned. In sum, isolating radical jihadists from so-called petty criminals, according to Khosrokhavar, will keep them from influencing others, but “it strengthens the bonds they have with each other.” At the same time, isolating them may lead others to view them as victimized and thereby increase their importance. Others have pointed to a loophole that only those detained on terrorism charges will be subjected to isolation, whereas petty criminals may also be radical and be able to still proselytize. The practical feasibility of isolating the radicals may be questioned as well. In this context it is worth noting that Djamel Beghal, considered instrumental in the radicalization of the 2015 attackers, was held in solitary confinement between March 2003 and 2006, when he first met Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly. Finally, critics argue that only the most radical prisoners should be isolated, especially when considering the growing numbers of returning foreign fighters. There are different levels of radicalization, and while all were considered radical when leaving for Syria or Iraq, not all of them return as hardened jihadists but some may have become disillusioned with waging Jihad or even deeply traumatized, especially the teenagers. Upon their return, however, all French foreign fighters are treated alike and are either directly taken into custody and prosecuted, or else put under surveillance. While in June 2014 prison authorities counted only ninety radical Jihadi inmates, their numbers had grown to 152 in January 2015. If nothing else, these figures suggest that French prisons will continue to face formidable challenges in the years ahead as more and more foreign fighters return home.