Meet Emmanuel Macron’s Man on Terrorism, Professor Gilles Kepel
The professor Marine Le Pen loathes and the jihadists want to kill hopes that France can break out of the cycle of fear and hate promoted by both ISIS and xenophobic populists.
PARIS—In the closing days of the presidential campaign here, in this country that has suffered too much terrorism in too-recent memory, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen thought she could make fear a winning issue. In her only one-on-one debate with the young centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, she talked tough about immigrants, borders, arrests, deportations—as if France could seal itself off from the world and forever purge the land of foreign influences, dangerous aliens.
It was the kind of language that had gotten her a shout-out from U.S. President Donald Trump only a few days earlier, when he declared after a terror-related shooting on the Champs Élysées that the incident probably would help Le Pen, because she was the “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”
So Le Pen was confident, smiling like the shark in “Finding Nemo.” Anger and fear are her stock-in-trade, and Macron was widely perceived as weak on security. But he brought her up short. Leveling his startling blue eyes at Le Pen, the 39-year-old former economy minister told her she was playing the terrorists’ game.
The jihadists were laying a trap for France, he said. “What the terrorists are looking for is for us to be divided against ourselves; what the terrorists are looking for is the language of hate.” Citing “Monsieur Kepel, a renowned university professor,” Macron said, “The greatest wish of the terrorists is that Madame Le Pen takes power in France. The greatest wish? Why? Because they’re looking for the radicalization, the division, the civil war that you bring to this country.”
“Fighting the terrorists,” said Macron, “means not falling into their trap—the trap of civil war—which they are looking for, which you bring by dividing the French, by insulting French women and French men because of their religion, and sowing discord in this country.”
Four days later, Macron was elected president of France.
But… who was this Monsieur Kepel, whose analysis of terrorism Macron embraced with such vehemence and such conviction?
The night of the debate, as it happened, Prof. Gilles Kepel was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was conducting fresh research, and he was not a little chuffed to see his work referenced this way at a critical moment in his nation’s history. “Le Pen thought she had a very strong argument against Macron. She thought he was a softie,” Kepel told me afterward. “And not only did he destroy her point of view, but by using my name, she had to duck!”
We’ll get back to that particular aspect of the story a bit later.
Kepel, who speaks fluent Arabic (and English and Italian and several other languages) as well as French, has been at the vanguard of jihadist studies since the 1980s. Indeed, his prominence has been such that he’s on the hit list of the so-called Islamic State, and is now accompanied constantly by government-assigned bodyguards.
His first book, The Prophet and the Pharaoh, was a study of those who murdered Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and it became vital background reading decades later when many of the figures he profiled went on to play critical roles building al Qaeda. Kepel was also the first scholar, more than a quarter century ago, who wrote with granular detail about Les Banlieues de l’Islam: the growth of Muslim populations and of Islamism—a word he is said to have coined—in the housing projects on the far outskirts of French cities. Other works included a study of fundamentalism in the three Abrahamic religions, which managed to offend all of them, since believers always want to think extremism is limited to the others.
Kepel’s book, Jihad, published in 2000, chronicled the rise and what looked like the fall of Osama bin Laden and parallel movements in the 1990s as, fresh from the victory they claimed against the Russians in Afghanistan, they tried and failed to mount revolutions in Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere.
The attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, seemed a stunning refutation of Kepel’s thesis that jihad was a spent force. But he argued, to use American vernacular, that 9/11 was essentially a hail Mary pass—an act of desperation that, sadly for the United States and the world, proved all too effective. Not only did it revive Bin Laden’s jihad, it sucked the United States into the endless wars that continue—and continue to inspire and spawn terrorists—to this day.
So, getting back to French President-Elect Macron’s point, is it the goal of the so-called Islamic State, al Qaeda, and their franchises around the world to provoke civil war in the heart of Europe, and, perhaps, in the United States? Do they have reason to believe they actually could do such a thing? And do the rest of us have reason to fear that they can?
American readers now have a chance to decide for themselves, because Kepel’s book, Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West, is now available in the United States. It’s an updated translation of the best-seller Kepel published here in early 2016, which looked at the roots and ideology of the killers who made 2015 such a gruesome year for this country, from the Charlie Hebdo attack to the carnage at the Bataclan concert hall. This new addition also fits events from 2016—the Brussels bombings, the horror along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and several individual murders—into the overall picture.
As I wrote when the original French edition came out (much of which I will repeat here), no other book portrays in such granular detail the evolution of Islamist terror in this country, and the implications that that evolution has for the rest of the world, including and especially the United States.
The threat we’re looking at now is what Kepel calls 3rd Generation or 3G jihad in the West, which blends extremist ideology with the emotions of the street, not only among some of those people of Muslim and Arab descent just coming of age in a society that has been loath to embrace them, but among disaffected converts to Islam who might have been drawn to other radical ideologies in the past.
Kepel has warned repeatedly in recent years that the organizers and proselytizers of Daesh, as the French call ISIS, will find ways to adapt their preaching and plans to the peculiarities of American society, too. Kepel notes that the murder spree in San Bernardino in December 2015 “was a blend of Columbine, the availability of and obsession with weapons, with the Daesh ideology.” The terrible massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last June was another example of 3G terror on American shores. And there is not much doubt, Kepel told me, “there may be more Orlandos.” The long-term aim? “To try to blow up America.”
The original, working title of Terror in France was “Ten Years that Shook the World,” because the French jihad Kepel details had become the spearhead of a much bigger effort by both al Qaeda and Daesh to take their wars to the European and American heartlands.
The decade in question began in 2005 with two key events. The one most widely remembered was the stunning eruption of violence in the banlieues of cities all over France. “Paris is burning,” declared hyperventilating anchors on American cable news networks. It wasn’t, but mobs in the forgotten housing projects on the distant outskirts of Paris and other cities set about torching cars and battling with police in a spontaneous reaction to the deaths of two young men electrocuted when hiding from the cops near a big transformer.
In the end, although the riots spread far and wide and lasted for weeks, the death toll, three people, was very low. (By comparison, in Los Angeles in 1992, 55 people were killed.) But in France the alienation and anger among the children of immigrants remained palpable.
Suri was originally from Syria, but knew Europe well. He had lived for a while in Britain, in the community of Arab and Muslim exiles there sometimes called Londonistan. His central argument was that Muslims in the West, though increasingly numerous, felt themselves isolated and under pressure, and this could be exploited to create a breakdown of society, develop insurgency, and launch a civil war where the forces of Islam eventually would be victorious.
Acts of terror, dubbed “resistance,” would heighten the already existing “Islamophobia,” and “exacerbate the contradictions,” as communist revolutionaries used to say, until hatred and suspicion ran high and integration became impossible.
At the same time, in the decade between the riots of October-November 2005 and the slaughter in Paris on November 13, 2015, the influence of Salafi Islam, one of the most conservative strains, grew dramatically in parts of France with large Muslim populations. Its proselytizers drew a bright red line —which for some became a blood red line—between the Western values of mainstream French culture and those of people who believe they are emulating the medieval ways of the Prophet Muhammad.
France had faced the terror of jihad before. In the 1990s, jihadist groups made their first push to take power in North Africa from French- and American-backed governments. These “first generation” terrorists eventually attacked targets in France, including a commuter train at Saint-Michel, near Notre Dame de Paris, in 1995. But the police hunted down the leaders of the French cell, and in Algeria and Egypt by 1997 the groups’ savage tactics alienated the people they had expected to support them.
The second generation of jihad, which grew out of the first, was al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden also hoped to overthrow the governments of Muslim countries around the world, but thought that would be possible only if he could intimidate their Western supporters with spectacular attacks like those on 9/11. In the end, while Bin Laden created chaos, his organization was never able to capitalize on it.
Although al Qaeda plotted to carry out attacks in France, including plans to hit the U.S. embassy here in 2001, the French intelligence services, working closely with the Americans, managed to stop it time and again. But perhaps the French cops and spooks grew complacent, or, more likely, overwhelmed. The numbers of people with files marked “S” for security risks kept growing—there are now about 15,000—and the cops couldn’t track everybody.
In March 2012, at the height of the previous French presidential election campaign, a 23-year-old petty criminal named Mohamed Merah went on a rampage in the southern cities of Toulouse and Montauban, first killing off-duty French soldiers he believed were from Muslim backgrounds, then shooting up a Jewish school, where three children were among his victims, before, finally, after a long siege at his apartment, he was killed.
Described as a “lone wolf” terrorist at the time, Merah was anything but. Kepel traces meticulously the links among groups of extremists, many of them criminals radicalized in prison, which lead from Merah to the battlefields of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and back to Paris with the attacks in 2015.
The model of a 3G jihadist, Kepel told me last year, is not Chérif Kouachi or his brother Saïd, who murdered 11 people inside the Charlie Hebdo offices and a policeman (a Muslim) outside. They claimed they were exacting revenge for the publication of cartoons satirizing Muhammad and Muslims, and they were acting on a long-delayed mission from the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
The model, says Kepel, is Ahmed Coulibaly, another terrorist who texted to a contact in Syria that the Kouachis were “zigotos,” weirdos. Coulibaly claimed to have funded the attack on Charlie Hebdo when the Kouachis apparently couldn’t get their act or their guns together, and he carried out his own attack on a kosher supermarket two days later, murdering four Jews before dying in a storm of police gunfire.
Coulibaly, whose family originally was from Mali, was born in France in 1982, and from the time he was a teenager spent much of his life in jail for various relatively minor crimes. But then he turned himself into the model ex-prisoner, winning in 2009 an invitation to the Élysée Palace to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy. Skilled at dissimulation, he married a woman who’d lost her job because she insisted on wearing a veil, but then the two of them posed for a selfie in which she wore a bikini. It was the kind of photograph that the authorities could look at and think, “This guy is no jihadist.”
In fact, Coulibaly was a deeply committed one, and well versed in the ways of social media.
In the days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Coulibaly left behind two testaments, one intentional, one not, and both very revealing.
In his video farewell to the world, after he had murdered a black policewoman and as he was preparing for his attack on the kosher supermarket, he pledged allegiance to the so-called caliph of the so-called Islamic State.
Coulibaly then laid out the arguments that were at the core of Abu Musab al-Suri’s call for “Islamic resistance”: The terror attacks are all about self-defense in a world where Muslims are constantly under attack, he says. And he calls on other young Muslims in France and elsewhere to follow his example to defend Allah, and their sisters, and “whole populations” under assault by the infidels.
The second, unintentional testament came when a French radio network called the kosher market during the siege and Coulibaly picked up the phone. He then put it down, but failed to hang up, and his chilling dialogue with the hostages he was getting ready to kill was recorded. The law he followed, he said, was an eye for an eye, and they should understand that, he told them.
Always, in 3G jihad, the killers claim that all they want is justice—as they see it, God’s justice.
A day after the Orlando massacre last June, in the small town of Magnanville outside of Paris, a lone jihadist trailed a senior police officer to his home and stabbed him to death in his driveway. Then he went after the man’s wife, who was also with the police, and murdered her. But that was not the end of the atrocity: the killer went on Facebook live and told his story, with the couple’s three-year-old son watching helpless and terrified, before finally more police arrived, rescuing the child and terminating the killer.
The Facebook live diatribe was of particular interest to Kepel, since the jihadist had read out a list of “journalists” who must be killed to appease God’s will, and Kepel was at the top. Soon afterward, the scholar was given a police protection detail that remains with him to this day.
Why you? I asked Kepel recently over oysters at a French bistro, with one of his bodyguards sitting nearby in direct line of sight.
As best he can figure, it’s because before the threat he had been asked by a de-radicalization group to debate jihadists held in the French prison of Villepinte, and he, who knows the Quran better than most would-be holy warriors, took some pleasure in humiliating them. Subsequently they were monitored making phone calls to ISIS intermediaries demanding that Kepel be killed as an enemy of Allah.
Authorities assigned to protect Kepel were especially concerned about an ISIS operative named Rachid Kassim, a French citizen working out of the caliphate’s territory in Syria, who they discovered had used the encrypted text messaging system Telegram to stage manage the Magnanville murders and the killing, later in the summer, of an octogenarian parish priest in Normandy.
“Rachid Kassim condemned me to death three times,” Kepel told me. Kassim, too, is a kind of poster boy for 3G jihad: a former rapper from the town of Roanne, but originally from the Algerian port of Oran, who eventually went to Syria to join ISIS and its jihad. His specialty: long-distance grooming and recruiting of young people in France, including girls, some of whom he persuaded to take part in a failed bomb plot near Notre Dame.
According to Kepel, many Salafists in ISIS thought Kassim was crazy, and claimed that he had exposed the modesty of the “sisters” by getting them involved in the failed attack.
Demoted and sent to more exposed positions as outside forces closed in on ISIS, Kassim recorded a sort of last testament saying the caliphate was not as it should be, that its leaders were not in the field, but staying safer in the rear.
Earlier this year, an American drone strike ended the specific threat of Rachid Kassim.
But Kepel is still accompanied by armed guards, and he clearly is a man with a lot of enemies. Among them, although presumably less violent, is Marine Le Pen, who is under investigation and who recently was stripped of her immunity from prosecution by fellow members of the European Parliament because of the way she reacted to a radio-television interview Kepel gave to Jean-Jacques Bourdin, one of the country’s most prominent political correspondents, just a month after the Bataclan atrocity.
A central point in Kepel’s analysis of the evolution of terror in France is that by the time of the last presidential elections in 2012, hundreds of thousands of young people of Muslim descent who were born and raised in this country were coming of age, and looking not to overthrow the political system, but to participate in it. They fielded candidates, and they played a major part electing Socialist candidate François Hollande as president five years ago, only to be—or at least to feel—ignored once he took office.
In many of the neighbourhoods where these young and aspiring French Muslims live, their unemployment rate has been stuck in the 40 percent range. And in the the Bourdin interview, as in his book, Kepel noted that disappointment and desperation led them toward the extremes of Salafism and jihad much as the desperation of working class whites in France had led them toward the extremism of Marine Le Pen.
Bourdin kept coming back to that point, and Le Pen simply flipped out. Her posts on Twitter might have appalled even Donald Trump as she pulled images off the Web of grotesque ISIS murders, including the beheaded body of American journalist James Foley, and posted the raw gore with the caption “Daesh c’est ÇA!”—THAT is ISIS.
She now faces charges of “disseminating violent images,” and, theoretically, a prison term of up to three years.
And while that may not be why Macron decided to cite Kepel by name in the debate, the reference made it hard for Le Pen to respond. That was why Le Pen “had to duck,” as Kepel put it.
But now comes the hard part.
The ongoing military offensive against ISIS in Syria and Iraq has sealed off what once were very porous borders and restricted the ability of its operatives to move back and forth to Europe. “The investment in digital technologies and cooperation with the American intelligence services have enabled us to break the encryption of electronic messaging services, leading to numerous preventive arrests,” says Kepel. “The jihadists are busy trying to save their own necks and have less time to plot attacks on the West.”
But if the terror attacks had continued at the same pace as in 2015 and 2016, Kepel told the weekly news magazine Marianne, “you can bet Marine Le Pen would have come in first place in the first round [of the two-round presidential election].” And as it was, she came in second.
For Macron, the challenge now is not only to break the cycle of fear and hate promoted by both ISIS and xenophobic populists like Le Pen, it is to offer real hope to the fractured French society they come from.