Interview: Dr Asiem el Difraoui, who has worked with the French Government on the prevention of jihadism and radicalisation
Posted on November 17th, 2015

Courtesy Australian Broadcasting Corporation

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Dr Asiem El Difraoui is a political scientist, documentary-maker and author of The Jihad of Images. He’s worked with the French Government on the prevention of jihadism and radicalisation. Dr Difraoui is with us now.

Thanks very much for joining us.


EMMA ALBERICI: How did such an elaborate plot apparently planned in Syria involving so many people go undetected by French authorities?

ASIEM EL DIFRAOUI: Yeah, it now seems that it didn’t mainly get undetected by French authorities; it seems that the plan was or the cell was, like, based in Belgium. We’re not 100 per cent sure. A couple of days ago the French Government when the first information came out was severely criticised, but now it seems that the Belgian situation is even more worrisome and everybody was warning about the Belgian cells coming out of Brussels for many, many times. There were so many plots hatched out of Belgium. And – but the main thing today is, like, why wasn’t there any communication between the Belgian authorities, the Belgian Security Service and the French security services? The French security services were for a long time warning of an attack, but were believing that this might be a much smaller attack, not a cell involving eight people with probably another dozen in the background. But we need to wait and see how this really will play out, but obviously the French Government, which tries to display national unity, is already under criticism, for example, by the likely presidential contender and ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s blaming strongly French security services.

EMMA ALBERICI: Could anything more have been done to stop these strikes, do you think, given that authorities in France were presumably already on high alert after the Charlie Hebdo attack just 10 months ago?

ASIEM EL DIFRAOUI: Yeah, I think generally speaking, much more could’ve been done. I mean, the thing is that, for instance, the French Government started very, very late to do – to develop jihadism prevention strategies; I mean, preventing people from radicalising. And then there’s also this misunderstanding in terms of our collective responsibility. We always react after attacks on a national level, but we still don’t see jihadism as a global phenomenon, as a very dangerous global ideology which threatens all of us. So all Western liberal democracies really didn’t grasp that jihadism is a very globalised phenomenon which we only can collectively combat and not only militarily. I mean, bin Laden was killed, jihadism is still there, the French are bombing Raqqa right now, but – to destroy the Islamic State. We might very well destroy the Islamic State, but we can’t eradicate this ideology. I mean, yesterday it was al-Qaeda, today it’s – today it’s Islamic State, tomorrow, we’ll find another group who’s adhering to this ideology. So if we combat jihadism, we really need to develop strategies which combat jihadism, not only militarily, but also intellectually, effective prevention strategies in terms of refuting this horrible ideology, and, for example, also really helping people, the people in the Middle East, which is a huge concern for Europe in terms of the refugee crisis. So today we find ourselves in this very dangerous situation where there’s a refugee crisis is mixed with those attacks and politically exploited and at the same time we are not attacking the root causes of jihadism.

EMMA ALBERICI: The French Government has made clear that its decision to drop the bombs on Raqqa was done in retaliation for the Paris attacks. How effective do you expect those air strikes to be?

ASIEM EL DIFRAOUI: First of all, like, I mean, the big issue in terms of the effectiveness of this purely military action is, OK, you can bombard Raqqa, you can bombard the Syrian cities, but – or Iraqi cities under IS control, but how do you really liberate them, you know? You need to send troops on the ground. Who is sending troops on the ground? I don’t believe the French will go for full-scale military intervention in Syria. So, that’s one point. The other thing is, as I mentioned earlier, we are focusing always on one hot spot. So now we are dealing with bombarding Raqqa. What about al-Qaeda and Yemen, who was partly responsible apparently for the attacks in January in Paris? So we really need to find a global, comprehensive approach how to deal with jihadism. And this will be hard work and we’ll be in this fight for another couple of decades. We are in this fight already for at least, like, two and a half decades, but I strongly feel that we didn’t tackle the real root causes of this problem.

EMMA ALBERICI: You’ve been focused on jihadism for quite some time in your research. What is it that you have found to be the most effective strategy in combating this rotten ideology?

ASIEM EL DIFRAOUI: Um, I mean, there’s no miracle, you know. There’s nothing really – I mean, we need to attack – I mean, let’s put the question differently. Why do people become jihadis? Various factors. In the Middle East, socioeconomic factors play a huge role, the desperation of people, the desperation of Syrians, for example, who saw that the West didn’t help them against the Assad regime. In Europe, we have totally other factors, you know. Partly – partly young people who are really seduced by the jihadi ideology with its very horrible salvation myth in terms of if you become a suicide attacker, you’ll go to paradise before all other Muslims. You don’t need to wait for the Day of Judgment. Young people are seduced by an anti-culture of jihad because they don’t feel that they’re belonging to Western societies anymore. So we have so many different causes, so we need to isolate each different cause, each different root cause and try to combat jihadism as – on its roots.

EMMA ALBERICI: Just a few weeks out from regional elections in France, are the extreme right likely to exploit this attack for their own political purposes, do you think?

ASIEM EL DIFRAOUI: Yeah, oh, definitely and that’s a great danger. I mean, Daesh with these attacks in France tries to polarise French society, which is already very much polarised. Daesh understands very well where the faultlines are in Western societies. Daesh knows much more about Western societies than we know about Daesh. And they want to divide and polarise because they can recruit much better in a period of total polarisation where Muslims in France are stigmatised. The National Front, on the opposite from Daesh, will also exploit it to recruit more. It’s already the strongest party in terms of votes in France. It might win some regions over in the upcoming regional elections and they will exploit it in a subtle or in a less subtle way, which puts French society really at risk of being divided. I have seen heated discussions already, contrary to what happened after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, among mourners who went to the concert hall where most of the people died, who were really taking out National Front arguments and Muslims defending themselves and people in the middle being totally desperate that French start about fighting among themselves in these really hard and dire times.

EMMA ALBERICI: And we understand that at least one of the people involved in the Paris attacks entered Europe disguised as a refugee. Presumably this will change the mood more broadly towards asylum seekers coming from Syria to Europe.

ASIEM EL DIFRAOUI: OK, the refugee story hasn’t been completely confirmed. But obviously, those – if refugees were infiltrated by the Islamic State, it shows that we don’t only have a French dimension to the problem, but a European dimension because the refugee debate is so heated, especially for example in Germany, that this again will be exploited and that’s another means by Daesh to exploit the faultlines in European societies. I mean, there have been huge polemics already about the refugees and its – and their infiltration by the Islamic State in Germany, in Austria, in Eastern European countries, so all this is – all this is intended to destabilise European societies further.

EMMA ALBERICI: Dr Asiem El Difraoui, we’re out of time. Thank you so much for being with us.

ASIEM EL DIFRAOUI: Thank you. Thank you.

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