It's Not Islam That Drives Young Europeans to Jihad, France's Top Terrorism Expert Explains

Olivier Roy, one of France’s top experts on Islamic terrorism, tells Haaretz how assailants like Salman Abedi in Manchester turn into 'new radicals' who crave death

Davide Lerner.
Davide Lerner
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Said and Cherif Kouachi return to their car after the attack outside the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, January 7, 2015.
Said and Cherif Kouachi return to their car after the attack outside the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, January 7, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Davide Lerner.
Davide Lerner

This article was originally published in May 2017 following a terror attack in Manchester and re-published after a series of attacks in Barcelona in mid-August

ANKARA - Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed 22 people at a Manchester pop concert this week, started life advantageously enough: to parents who had fled Gadhafi’s Libya for a new life in Britain. But actually it was that kind of dislocation that would send him off kilter two decades later, says Olivier Roy, one of France’s top experts on Islamic terrorism.

“An estimated 60 percent of those who espouse violent jihadism in Europe are second-generation Muslims who have lost their connection with their country of origin and have failed to integrate into Western societies,” Roy says.

They are subject to a “process of deculturation” that leaves them ignorant of and detached from both the European society and the one of their origins. The result, Roy argues, is a dangerous “identity vacuum” in which “violent extremism thrives.”

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Born in Britain in 1994, Abedi would later be drawn to violent fundamentalism after a life in limbo. On the one hand, he tried to reconnect with Libya, where he traveled shortly before this week’s attack, while on the other, he strove to emulate the same British young people he killed.

“Unlike second generations like Abedi’s, third generations are normally better integrated in the West and don’t account for more than 15 percent of homegrown jihadis,” Roy says. “Converts, who also have an approach to Islam decontextualized from any culture, account for about 25 percent of those who fall prey to violent fundamentalism.”

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It’s a pattern that can be traced from second-generation Khaled Kelkal, France’s first homegrown jihadi in 1995, to the Kouachi brothers who attacked satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015. The rule also applies to foreign fighters such as Sabri Refla, the Belgian-born son of a Moroccan father and a Tunisian mother who left for Syria at 18 “after espousing an Islam completely unrelated to our background,” says his grieving mother Saliha Ben Ali.

With little if any understanding of religion or Islamic culture, young people like Abedi turn to terrorism out of a “suicidal instinct” and “a fascination for death,” Roy says. This key element is exemplified by the jihadi slogan first coined by Osama bin Laden: "We love death like you love life.”

Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute and an expert on Islamic terrorism. Credit: Olivier Roy (Courtesy)

“The large majority of Al-Qaida and Islamic State jihadis, including the Manchester attacker Abedi, commit suicide attacks not because it makes sense strategically from a military perspective or because it’s consistent with the Salafi creed,” Roy says. “These attacks don’t weaken the enemy significantly, and Islam condemns self-immolation as interference with God’s will. These kids seek death as an end-goal in itself.”

In his recent book “Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State," Roy argues that about 70 percent of these young people have scant knowledge of Islam, and suggests they are “radical” before even choosing Islam. He dubs them “born again Muslims” who lead libertine lives before their sudden conversion to violent fundamentalism.

“It’s the Islamification of radicalism that we need to investigate, not the radicalization of Islam,” Roy says, begging the question of why radical youths would choose violent fundamentalist Islam over other destructive creeds to engage in terrorism.

Armed Belgian police apprehend a suspect in Molenbeek, near Brussels, March 18, 2016.Credit: Reuters

These “new radicals” embrace the Islamic State’s narrative as it’s the only radical narrative available in the “global market of fundamentalist ideologies,” Roy says. “In the past they would have been drawn, for example, to far-left political extremism.” Half of violent jihadis in France, Germany and the United States also have criminal records for petty crime, just like Abedi, who appears to have been radicalized without the involvement of the local mosque or religious community, an element that mirrors patterns in the rest of Europe.

According to Roy, while ultraconservative Salafi Islam is certainly a problem its followers object to the basic values underpinning a tolerant and secular Western society it shouldn’t be conflated with violent extremism. And when evaluating the origins of young men like Abedi, one shouldn’t overstate the role of Muslim revanchism in the developing world, a political strand feeding on the West’s colonial legacy and interventionism in the Middle East.

“Had he been concerned about acts of Western imperialism, he would have mentioned the British attack in Libya in 2012, making his act political in one way or another,” Roy says.

Abedi was very much part of the British youth culture he attacked, “he killed himself as part of that society,” Roy says from his office in Florence, where he’s a professor at the European University Institute. “Had he been imbued with Islamic culture and bent toward the ambition of establishing an Islamic state in the Middle East, he would have probably not have known about pop singer Ariana Grande,” Roy notes, adding that “he would have traveled to Syria or Libya instead.”

If comments by French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb are confirmed, Abedi will join the long list of returning jihadis who have struck in Europe after fighting in Syria. But Roy also notes some positive news: Hundreds of foreign fighters from Europe are seeking a safe return to Europe by turning themselves in to their embassies in Turkey, according to the Italian press.

“This means they don’t have the suicidal instincts characterizing terrorists like Abedi,” Roy says, though he warns that the “hegemony of secularism” and the rejection of “all forms of religiosity” in the West have created a spiritual vacuum that can be a breeding ground for fundamentalism.

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