Six months after France launched an online campaign to tackle jihadist recruitment, FRANCE 24's Observers decided to take stock of the government's controversial initiative. Mourad Benchellali, an ex-Guantanamo Bay inmate who helps young people integrate themselves into society, took his mobile phone and went to sound out the unfiltered opinions of five young men for FRANCE 24's 'Pas 2 Quartier' series.
The 'Stop jihadism' website was launched by the government's communication service in the aftermath of January's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo. The drive to deter potential jihadists centres around a short video that tries to counter arguments used by recruiters. As well as listing the supposed early warning signs of radicalisation, the site also provides a free phone number for those worried that one of their friends or relatives could succumb to extremism.
The campaign's stated aim is to spread public awareness in order to steer young people away from heading to war-torn Syria, the top destination for France's aspiring jihadists.
"Religion can be the catalyst for radicalisation, but rarely the root cause"
It was over the course of these regular get-togethers that Mourad noticed that the anti-jihadist campaign wasn't getting its message across to its intended audience. He decided to ask young people's opinions on the initiative for 'Pas 2 Quartier'.
I didn't really choose the people who I interviewed. It was rather they who chose me, by accepting to speak to me. Overall, the five young men with whom I spoke with are fairly representative of the audience targeted by the government's campaign.
What struck me at first was that most of them weren't even aware of the site or the video. And once they had watched it, no one said it was any good. Yet the government claims that its initiative has been a success [Editor's note: The video has been watched more than two million times, and the site has gotten over 1.2 million visits].
Mohamed*, 21-year-old student: "A 16 or 17-year-old doesn't go off just to kill"
"I’m a practising Muslim (...) They say that to wage jihad is the same as being a terrorist. That they go to kill. I’m sorry, but I don't see how someone who's 16 or 17 years old can have that in their head. They go because they think they’ll live the dream life. There’s a lot of propaganda. So if someone is naïve, they'll jump at the opportunity to leave. Personally, instead of waging jihad abroad, I think it's more important to wage jihad within oneself."
It's obvious that many young people are vulnerable to jihadist propaganda, but the root cause of their distress is the socio-economic situation in which they find themselves. The lack of opportunities often leads to a lack of a sense of belonging. That's what provides fertile ground for radicalisation to take root nowadays, that's when they start feeling rejected by the 'system'.
Youssef*, 21-year-old student: "Without giving young people better future prospects, this campaign won't change anything"
"It's all well and good to watch the video, but unless young people are given better prospects, this campaign won't change anything. We can't find any work, we’re looked down upon, we’re stopped by the police all the time... We don't have any goals, we have nothing. That's what pushes people into leaving [for Syria]. (...) These ‘warning signs’ they list, well, you just have to laugh. If you stop eating, if you changed your diet, if you stop listening to music, you stop doing sports – then you’re a potential jihadist? People can change their diets because they change religions; that doesn’t mean they are jihadists."
The policies aimed at deterring would-be jihadists have focused on religion. In people's minds, that implies a natural connection between practising Islam and being an extremist. That way, politicians can clear themselves personally of any responsibility for what is happening. Yet everyone knows that religion can be the catalyst for radicalisation, but that it’s rarely the root cause of it.
Julien*, 28-years-old, Muslim convert: "They're criminalising the outward signs of Islam"
<span style="font-size: small;">"At first I thought that it was a joke or a parody. They must have spent loads of money for nothing. It's completely disconnected from the reality facing young Muslims. I get the impression that it was done in an office by someone who doesn't know much but was given a big budget nonetheless. That won't stop young people from leaving. The campaign criminalises the outward signs of Islam without tackling the root causes of extremism." </span>
I'm convinced that this type of campaign [Editor's note: 'Stop jihadism'] doesn't work. So I felt a duty to speak out about it and criticise its flaws.
Younes, 23-years-old, customer service assistant : "A video, why not? But something more subtle"
"The way it's done, it looks more like an advert to sell trainers. It’s ridiculous. For a start, you have to go to the website. I don't think someone well on the way to being radicalised would say: 'maybe I'll visit the site, that'll help me get over this'. A video, why not? But instead of something glitzy, like it’s a Hollywood movie, maybe they could so something more subtle, more thought-out... They should take the right people and put them around a table, maybe even make a talkshow. (...) In France, young Muslims aren't well represented by politicians. We need to consider the youth more and understand why they want to go to Syria. Ultimately, it's because they feel marginalised by society."
The government made a mistake in the way it hand-picked spokespeople from among the representatives of the Muslim community. Politicians and the media always showcase the same people, whilst in reality they're neither representative, nor even respected.
Hakim*: "The money could have been spent on supporting NGOs fighting against this scourge"
<span style="font-size: small;">"I think the money to make this video could've been better used in other ways. Like by financing Islamic NGOs, or imams, that are already fighting against this type of terrorist propaganda. Instead, we stop them from helping, even though they're best placed to fight this scourge.</span>
As so often happens, even when institutions are well aware of the futility of carrying out certain initiatives or projects, they undertake them nevertheless. The latest example involves grouping together prisoners considered radical. Examples from other countries show that it's a bad idea. In France, there was even a report put together by prison inspectors that slammed the move, but apparently we're still going ahead with it.
"Give up on waging jihad in the name of France's values? That doesn't ring home with them"
When FRANCE 24 shows him Benchellali's interviews with the five young men, he said he understood their arguments: "These youths are completely outside of the system; we can't convince them to give up waging jihad for the sake of France's values. That doesn't ring home with them."
"The campaign was dismissed out of hand by its target audience"
He continues: "We should have been more aggressive when it came to choosing the images. We needed images with more shock value!" But, he adds, "We should have backed that up with Muslim representatives, people known and listened to by our target audience, far from the political calculations of politicians. Then we would have avoided this simplistic approach to tackling the problem. Moreover, the moment a campaign becomes associated with the French government, it gets dismissed out of hand by its intended audience. The British campaign 'Not In My Name' is a good counter-example. The public were never aware of the fact that the initiative was financed by public funds, which made it more credible and contributed to its success [Editor's note: The hashtag which went viral on social media networks was launched by 'Active Change Foundation', an NGO financed in part by the UK government]."
The director of the French government's communication service, Christian Gravel, argues that a study was recently carried out to assess the program’s success with generally 'positive' feedback. "I heard a mother say that if she had been able to access the site, perhaps her son would still be alive. For me, that's worth more than the statistics." Despite that, he admits that he recognises the limits of the campaign. He also plans to get his team's online community managers more involved, in order to better target those most at risk of falling prey to jihadist recruiters.
*Names changed to preserve anonymity.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr.