Counter-terrorism programme in France bears fruit with no militants reoffending

Call for expansion of project in which imams work with convicted terrorists

French President Emmanuel Macron leaves after paying his respects by the coffin of slain teacher Samuel Paty in the courtyard of the Sorbonne university during a national memorial event, in Paris, France October 21, 2020. Francois Mori/Pool via REUTERS
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Deradicalisation schemes in France's extremist hotspots should be expanded after no prisoners were returned to jail for terrorism offences, experts said.

France is trialling an anti-radicalisation project in Paris, Marseille, Lille and Lyon in which imams work with convicted terrorists.

None of the convicts involved returned to prison for similar offences during the two-year programme.

Dr Marc Hecker, of the French Institute of International Relations, said the project was “bearing fruit” and called for its expansion.

“There is no single case of terrorism recidivism out of 64 convicted terrorists,” he told a webinar hosted by the Counter Extremism Project.

“This is really encouraging. There is actually only one terrorist back in jail but not for a terror offence – it was related to drugs.

“I think we should continue this programme and broaden it to other zones in France. It has been operating in four cities which had concerns with radicalisation and were hotspots, but it should be opened up in cities like Nice and Strasbourg.”

The project was developed after a sharp increase in convictions of extremists for terrorism offences, rising from 70 to 320 in the past four years.

In October 2020 alone, teacher Samuel Paty was killed in Paris after pupils were shown cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and three people were killed by a Tunisian extremist in Nice's Notre-Dame church.

The French government created the project as many terrorists were being released after completing their sentences.

An initial two-year trial resulted in no recidivism and led to the programme being introduced in the extremism hotspots Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Lille.

The convicted terrorists received help from social workers to find them homes and jobs, mental health support from specialists and ideological support from imams, who discuss religious topics with them and take them to mosques and Islamic bookshops.

Deradicalisation work is about finding an alternative vision or a new identity to help people exit violent extremism and find a new kind of vision for their life

“The good practices are actually shared and the work that has been done for years now is actually producing effects and bearing fruit,” Dr Hecker said.

“It also incorporates the broad political climate in France and all the debates we currently have about Islamism and separatism are in the background of the programme.”

Sofia Koller, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations, called for the findings of the project to be shared in an attempt to address deradicalisation.

“We are promoting international knowledge exchange. Yes, there are differences and it is not as easy to transfer good practice from one country to another, but to learn from each other is a great way forward,” she said.

“Deradicalisation work is about finding an alternative vision or a new identity to help people exit violent extremism and find a new kind of vision for their life. A lot of countries find it difficult.”

Candles are lit at a makeshift memorial as people gather to pay homage to Samuel Paty, the French teacher who was beheaded on the streets of the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, as part of a national tribute, in Nice, France, October 21, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Last year, researchers from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation warned European countries they could face major radicalisation problems within their prison systems from ISIS fighters returning from conflict zones.

A report focusing on France cited prison overcrowding as a major issue in the spread of ISIS propaganda and revealed that 148 ISIS prisoners were due for release within the next two years.

Last month, parliamentarians in France’s lower house backed the government’s bill to implement stricter monitoring of the country’s mosques and schools after a wave of extremist attacks.