Hugo Micheron: ‘The jihad has shifted from terrorist cells to families’

The French political scientist, an expert in Islamist extremism, cautions against becoming complacent about terrorism in Europe

Hugo Micheron Hamás Terrorismo
Hugo Micheron, expert on European jihadism; Paris; December 6, 2023.Manuel Braun
Marc Bassets

Hugo Micheron, one of the brightest in a long line of French Arabists, recently published La colère et l’oubli (Anger and oblivion, in French), a history of European jihadism in which he explores a landscape still marked by ignorance and prejudice. The French professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (also known as Sciences Po) combines field research in prisons and local communities with a robust theoretical framework.

Micheron tells a story of an ideology that is here to stay. Recent terror attacks in France and Belgium have shown that jihadism has not disappeared in Europe, though it is less intense than in the past. During our conversation with Micheron at the Gallimard publishing house in Paris, another important theme clearly emerges — the future of democracy in Europe.

Question. In the book, you discuss how European jihadism has experienced periods of heightened activity with major attacks, as well as periods of relative calm — a low tide. Is there a low tide right now?

Answer. Yes. Jihadism is quietly and gradually built using similar methods in various countries like Spain, Denmark, or France. I refer to it as the “proselytizing machine.” The roots of jihadism trace back to the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, following the Soviet invasion. In Peshawar [Pakistan], just over the Afghanistan border, indoctrination institutes were established that developed into the intellectual framework for the Afghan resistance. It became more than just a military endeavor.

Q. What happened after that?

A. The Peshawar model was directly transferred to European cities, where Afghan, Algerian and Bosnian veterans of the jihad established institutes, seminaries, associations and Islamic bookstores. They also exerted control over local mosques. After 9/11, many of these veterans were detained or forced to flee, but trained acolytes continued their work. The longevity of these proselytizing machines explains the increase in the number of jihadists in Europe from a few dozen in the 1990s to 6,000 individuals 20 years later.

Q. It seems that the recent period of major attacks is over. The terrorists we see now are lone wolves, which substantially reduces the risk.

A. Evaluating the risk of jihadism solely based on terrorism is a mistake. Jihadism is an ideology, whereas terrorism is just a means. If jihadists can achieve their goals without resorting to attacks, they will opt for alternative methods.

Q. What goes unnoticed when there are no major attacks?

A. Daesh — the Islamic State — uses women to communicate ideas instead of carrying out attacks. They educate the young and recruit other women. The goal is to perpetuate jihadism for generations. Women play a significant role in this, as they are increasingly involved in family cells rather than just isolated terrorist cells. This shift brings a different dynamic. The issue of education becomes more prominent, especially in France. Jihadists and Salafists [a revival movement within Sunni Islam] consider the French education system, responsible for shaping citizens and promoting French republican values, as the domain of infidels.

Q. Despite recent knife attacks in France, including those targeting schools, and the statements made by the perpetrators, there is a disconnect between their agenda and their actual accomplishments.

A. Jihadism poses a problem not because it achieves its goals. Daesh managed to seize and control a territory as large as Britain for almost three years, with millions of Syrians and Iraqis under its rule. However, it eventually disintegrated due to internal conflicts and uprisings. The real issue lies in the global wave of attacks, particularly in Europe, and the attempt to fuel a narrative of a confrontation of civilizations and religions. Within the context of European democracies, this narrative causes significant harm and has led to the rise of the far-right.

Q. In your book, you highlight how jihadist organizations base their actions on highly political and potentially influential narratives. Could the conflict between Israel and Hamas be the narrative that fuels the next surge?

A. Yes and no. For the past 30 years, jihadists have always relied on foreign geopolitical conflicts. It started with the war in Afghanistan and the USSR’s invasion. In the 1990s, we had the Algerian civil war, the war in Bosnia and the war in Chechnya. The U.S. invasion of Iraq followed in the 2000s. A decade later, we witnessed the Syrian civil war. While there are similarities and differences with the Gaza conflict, it is important to note that Gaza is closed off and inaccessible to jihadists. On October 7, Hamas used methods similar to Daesh, but it is not part of the global jihadist movement. In all of the conflicts I mentioned, the focus was mostly on the Middle East, Afghanistan and local disputes. The Israel-Palestine issue plays a limited role in coalescing jihadist networks. However, in the imagination of Islamists and the Arab world, the war between Hamas and Israel can easily be exploited by various groups, especially jihadists.

Q. How?

A. There is a great deal of passion on social media about the conflict in Gaza. Islamist groups tend to focus on one point: Israel is committing a genocide against women and children in Gaza — this is how it is presented, I am not saying it is true, it is their propaganda, their interpretation of the conflict — and Europe and the U.S. support Israel. Therefore, the U.S. and Europe are complicit and deserving of punishment. That’s why attacks in Europe are seen as a normal response. This provocative rhetoric often prompts individuals outside established networks, using low-cost methods, to act and create political tension, potentially inspiring further attacks, as observed in Belgium and France.

Q. We are not talking about major attacks.

A. There haven’t been any such attacks in recent years, but that doesn’t mean we should disregard other potential scenarios. The goal is to create a politically unmanageable situation through a relentless series of small blows. This has already been seen in Ireland, France and on social media, leading extreme right-wing groups to say things like, “the government can’t protect us, so let’s protect ourselves.” The jihadists exploit this type of community tension.

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