Made in France: A Look at the Etiology of Radical Jihadists in the West

MadeInFrance

Made in France, a fictional film directed by Nicolas Boukhrie, attempts to illuminate a very real problem: the rise of jihadism in the West. The film was apparently finished in 2014, but its release was repeatedly postponed because of a series of terrorist attacks in France. First available from on-demand television, Made in France made a short and unprofitable appearance in the United States (according to IMDB.com). I saw it recently on Foxtel World Movies, in Australia. Whether or not you’ll ever have the opportunity to view this film, the issues it raises are important, as Western powers continue to slaughter people throughout the Middle East under the pretext of national self-defense in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

The film looks at a jihadist cell infiltrated by a journalist, Sam (played by Malik Zidi). Once he reveals to the authorities what he has done, he finds himself trapped between the Charybdis of possible death (as the cell has recently been “activated”) and the Scylla of imprisonment. He is told by French authorities that he must either continue on with the group until he is able to ascertain who the higher-order leaders are, or else he will be indicted along with the rest of them as a terrorist. This may sound like an insane situation, but it’s not so different from some of the modes of “persuasion” used by the FBI to recruit informants and infiltrators in the United States, at least according to a very disturbing book by Trevor Aaronson on the topic of homegrown terrorism, Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (2013). In the United States, prospective informants, some of whom have criminal records or lack legal immigrant status, may be threatened with prosecution, incarceration, or deportation if they refuse to cooperate with government authorities.

TerrorFactorAaronsonCarrots and sticks work best in concert, so dependable informants also receive a “bonus” when their work leads to the conviction of a target. This incentive structure has led to the emergence of a new vocation in the post-9/11 era: the professional informant, who quite naturally seeks out easy-to-convict prey. The primary focus of Aaronson’s book is the use of quasi-entrapment by informants to lure prospective recruits into participating in terrorist plots when, in fact, they would likely never have done so without the FBI’s elaborate schemes to draw them in. Most of the people in the United States convicted on terrorism charges in recent years turn out to have been disgruntled losers who, despite being angry, would never have had the capacity—whether mental or material—to carry out acts of terrorism, had they been left to their own devices.

Made in France poses two closely related questions: How are young men enticed to become members of jihadist cells, and why do they agree to carry out acts of terrorism? The case portrayed underscores how the foot soldiers have no contact with anyone but their local commander, who alone is said to receive orders from on high. The lower-level members are, as in the United States, young persons who have become disillusioned for one reason or another. Often their prospects for success in society are poor. They are united in being manifestly angry about the ongoing wars in the Middle East, perpetrated by Western powers, including France, a longstanding ally of the United States.

Some might consider the story to offer a merely hypothetical scenario, but it is based on documented changes in the structure of groups such as Al Qaeda since 2001. What once was a top-down, hierarchical structure was swiftly lateralized post-9/11, with individual groups forming independently of others for the simple tactical reason that it became too dangerous for the networks to communicate with one another. ISIS has now come to eclipse Al Qaeda as the bogey-man du jour, but the lateral structure of radical jihadist groups operating transnationally remains in place, which implies that there may be a general but vague culture of jihadism behind many individual acts of terrorism and potential plots without there ever having been an order handed down from any alleged #1 or #2 leader. The question, then, arises: who is giving the orders?

If the individual cells comprise only small numbers of foot soldiers along with their immediate superior, whose orders they are to obey without hesitation, then what prevents some random lunatic from creating a murderous cult à la Charles Manson and his family? That is precisely the scenario depicted in Made in France. The young men who have been persuaded to believe that they are doing Allah’s will in following the order of their leader, Hassan (played by Dimitri Storoge), have no idea that he is not taking orders from any other person, much less God. In reality, Hassan is just an angry, psychologically disturbed, violent punk who derives pleasure from calling the murderous shots.

HassanMadeInFrance

Hassan has created a fantasy world in which he is the commander of this isolated group, and he lies to the others in rationalizing what he wants the group to do, saying that the spiritual leaders communicate only with him. One day he announces that the men must remain in France to destabilize Paris rather than travel to the Middle East to fight, as they had all believed that they were going to do. When a couple of the recruits express concern about what is to be an upcoming attack on the Champs-Elysées, Hassan perfunctorily intones that every war involves civilian casualties. The soldiers are acting on the will of Allah, whose decree makes even the deaths of women and children permissible when a larger objective is in sight. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to destabilize France!

What is fascinating about this logic is that it is essentially embodied in every call by any leader for young men (and now women as well) to go kill strangers on his behalf. Not only the leaders of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS invoke this kind of reasoning, but also Western leaders who order their troops to travel thousands of miles away to kill people who never threatened them personally with harm. Why do young people agree to kill at the behest of political leaders whose rise to power shows only that they know how to win election campaigns? The short answer is: cultural habit. The concept of “legitimate authority” in waging war derives from “Just war theory”, a paradigm dating from ancient and medieval times. (See War and Delusion: A Critical Examination)

Under the assumption that God Almighty appointed leaders, it would make sense to believe that those leaders’ orders should followed, for they would seem to be doing God’s will. Of course, we know today that presidents such as Donald Trump and Barack Obama and George Bush and Bill Clinton, et al., were not appointed by God but elected by citizens at the culmination of lengthy election campaigns. Nonetheless, such leaders have retained the power to wage war where and when they deem fit, even though by doing so they are sure to destroy innocent people. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to eradicate evil!

The most extreme case of blind submission to authority in the Western military apparatus to date is arguably that of remote-control killing. Drone operators who follow orders to kill people outside areas of active hostilities—where there are no troops on the ground—have succumbed to a form of trickery. They are told that “This is war” and that they must fire missiles on areas inhabited by civilians in order to thwart another mass attack such as that of September 11, 2001. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to eliminate the terrorists!

Drone operators are simply expected to believe that their victims, usually poor tribesmen located in remote areas, are akin to Osama bin Laden. And some apparently do, those who continue on in the profession, even as the jihadists spore from one country to the next, as though the sharp increase in the number of active terrorists all over the world since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were somehow unprovoked. Is it a sheer coincidence that the more missiles that rain down on regions inhabited by potential future terrorists, the more recruits emerge both in the Middle East and in the West?

Had the attacks of September 11, 2001, been treated as crimes rather than acts of war, then there would have been no pretext for bombing entire countries. No one supposes that bombing Paris, Nice and Marseille is the answer to the series of homegrown terrorist acts perpetrated in France. Nor has anyone in the United States called for the bombing of Oklahoma City, Orlando, San Bernardino or Las Vegas. Yet the bombing of people in the Middle East continues mindlessly on, even as new plots in the West are undertaken by lone wolf perpetrators who have been taught—not only by murderous thugs who wave the banner of radical jihadism, but also by Western governments—that homicide is an appropriate, even noble, response to conflict. Incineration by Hellfire missile or beheading by knife? It’s a difference without any moral distinction.

The answer to the question what to do about the problem of terrorism depends ultimately upon one’s view of humanity. The young men who take up the radical jihadist cause have in effect been proselytized into a cult. Should recent recruits, many of whom are mere teenagers or young adolescents, be erased from existence when it is obvious that they have been duped? Anyone who values human life must wonder whether the thousands of such persons being slaughtered in the so far nugatory effort to stanch terrorism could not be de-programmed instead. If the dramatic rise in terrorism is a direct effect of killing, maiming, imprisoning, torturing, traumatizing and destroying the homes and families of entirely innocent people, then the only lasting way to solve the problem will be to remove the cause.

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For more on the young people being killed in the Global War on Terror, see also:

The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy

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Bribery and the Unraveling of Moral Fiber in the Drone Age, Part I: the Perps

Historically, bribery has been associated with unscrupulous persons and corruption. That’s because a bribed person agrees to do something morally unsavory—which he would not otherwise have done—in exchange for favors or money. In the Drone Age, bribery occurs at every link of the “kill chain”, though it is not recognized as such because many of the persons involved are salaried employees: analysts and drone operators whose professional job description it has become to locate and execute terrorist suspects.

Operators and analysts are told that military-age males (from 16 to 50 years of age) in “hostile” areas are “fair game” for annihilation under current rules of engagement (ROE), and they agree to spend their work days finding such people to kill. In doing so, they liaise with other people, on the ground, thousands of miles away, who have also been bribed to do what they would otherwise never have done, left to their own devices.

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There have always been people willing to murder people in exchange for thick wads of cash, but in centuries past, they were generally considered to be disreputable hitmen. Consider the example from Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors of Judah Rosenthal (played by Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist who hires a complete stranger (commissioned for him by Judah’s brother, who is a criminal) to eliminate his mistress (played by Anjelica Huston).

MartinLandau in Crimes and Misdemeanors

(IMDB.com)

The contract killer is paid a lump sum to travel to Judah’s city and carry out the task. The next thing Judah knows: Voilà! all of his mistress troubles have evaporated—along with his former mistress, whose cold corpse lies in a puddle of blood on the floor of her home.

No one, I presume, would regard the hitman who accepted the contract to destroy this woman as somehow praiseworthy. Yet it was authorized by someone who, by all appearances, is a perfectly respectable member of society. As viewers of the film, we have privileged access to the stark distinction between moral image and moral reality. In the world in which we live, the only way we can find out the truth about such characters is when they slip up, incriminating themselves in some way which can be demonstrated in a court of law to the satisfaction of a jury of their peers.

What has arisen in the Drone Age is a frightening inversion of the burden of proof. “Kill committees” are assumed, under cover of national security, to be justified in ending the lives of other people on the basis of information to which only the killers are privy. For the sake of argument, let us charitably assume that the persons involved in the Predator drone program are not careerists driven by a concern to excel at what they have been asked to do: kill as many terrorists (= suspects) as possible (see Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, and MI5 or Spooks for colorful examples of such aspirational agents).

There remains another, in some ways even worse, problem: in the unoccupied lands where drone strikes are carried out, people on the ground provide the HUMINT (human intelligence), what comes to be regarded as “actionable intelligence” and is in fact the primary basis for targeted killing. Such persons must be locals, because they need to have the linguistic ability to act as spies, infiltrate communities and find some “bad guys”, as they are so often labeled. The very informants who furnish the actionable intelligence for drone strikes in remote tribal regions are, of necessity, the people who report back after strikes to confirm that the “bad guys” were in fact killed. What’s wrong with this picture?

For one thing, there are legitimate grounds for skepticism about the individuals who, enticed by bribes, would be willing to spy on their neighbors with the aim of finding persons for the US government to kill by remote control from thousands of miles away. The moral constitution of such people is suggested by the analogous use of informants by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Many of the terrorist convictions in the United States in recent years have been of people who never came in contact with any real terrorists but only people posing as terrorists, some of whom are con artists and career criminals. (See Trevor Aaronson’s 2013 book, Terror Factory, for details.)

Anticipatory conviction of terrorists in the homeland and execution of suspects abroad both bear similarities to the Bush administration’s notorious preemptive war. This “pro-active” approach to conflict has been wholeheartedly embraced by Barack Obama in his massive expansion of targeted killing campaigns to take out “suspected violent extremists” before they have the chance to realize their potential—whatever that may be. The question which self-respecting thinkers must ask about the information-gathering in these cases is whether it has any juridical—or even epistemic—value whatsoever.

In lands under drone surveillance, when obvious mistakes are made and children and nonthreatening men and women are slain, it seems likely that the “paid informants”, as the bribed spies are termed, are themselves simple mercenaries or “bad guys”, whose aim was to earn some money or to shore up their power and eliminate rivals in their domain. In other cases, analysts keen to find “opportunities” to kill and laboring under a confirmation bias—former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was once described as seeing a terrorist training camp wherever he saw a group of men doing jumping jacks—opt to strike on hunches. What have they got to lose? In this system of absolute impunity akin to that of the tyrants of the pasts, the perpetrators can always cover their tracks by invoking State Secrets Privilege.

Part 2: “Compensated” Survivors

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do