Soft targets: how marginalization in France fuels recruitment and terror attacks
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The French people have seen their third horrific terrorist attack in 18 months, each one more deadly than the last. It’s a clear strategy on the part of Daesh, more commonly known as ISIS, and the homegrown violent extremist networks throughout Europe. Attacks on “soft targets” are not new for terrorists; they attack, they adapt to security measures, and then they attack again.

The question today is not why a terrorist attacked a celebratory Bastille Day gathering in the streets of Nice. Instead, the question is: why France?

This past spring, I traveled to France to meet with counterterrorism officials, political leaders, law enforcement officers and academics. While I met true experts and French patriots, perhaps the most memorable person I met was former jihadist David Vallat. Born in Lyon, David converted to Islam at the age of 19. He later traveled to the same training camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained years later. David’s time in a French prison led to an enlightened view of nationality, religion and morality.

Today, he’s a kind man with an important insight. He described to me how the French Muslim community is marginalized on a daily basis. That, he said, facilitates a target-rich environment for extremist radicalization and recruitment (and he would know). David offered several examples of this marginalization, including leering looks and derogatory comments on benign things like a woman’s headscarf or the daily exercise of prayer. It imparts a sense that French Muslims are not full French citizens, no matter if they are.

This causes young people of faith to pushback on academic coursework and other institutional elements that they conflate with the anti-Islamic sentiment they face daily. As a result, they often lack education, skills, and upward mobility. For those who are immigrants or have lived in immigrant communities most of their lives, assimilation is severely curtailed by these factors, and it relegates young people to unemployment and other social ills.

It is a vicious cycle of victimization, with all parts of French society feeling threatened. The recruitment process across the world capitalizes on the sense of marginalization young people feel and that creates a powerful rhetorical argument that the enemy is the state.

During my ongoing work with the Somali-American community in Minneapolis-St. Paul, I found the exact same recruitment approach—predatory recruiters use perceived cultural and religious rejection to disrupt one’s identity and reshape into a twisted extremist view of faith, society and duty.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 and the “13/11 attacks” 10 months later consisted of assailants who were citizens, who knew the territory and their targets, and who enjoyed a short learning curve on planning, strategy, and tactics. The homegrown nature of the threat in France is exacerbated by the more than 1,800 individuals who left France to fight in Syria and Iraq with Daesh, some of whom have already returned home. France’s terrorism problems are not decreasing; they are accelerating.

Successful attacks might seem to suggest the failure of counterterrorism and intelligence sources and methods. But it’s not that the French are necessarily doing something wrong; it’s that the attackers are doing things right. They are an evident example of the threat we in the United States have been striving to defeat since 9/11.

This is a complex problem that demands a multifaceted solution, in France and around the world. Intelligence and layered physical security can deter, detect and defend against a possible attack, but the best defense we have are the people on the street, the neighbors in the community, and the robust relationships with law enforcement that are needed to identify people on the pathway to radicalization and violence.


The challenges are enormous, but I am betting on the French people. Like the United States, they champion liberty and brotherhood. When they can realize the “equality” in their national motto by addressing pervasive anti-Islamic sentiment, they will gain the upper hand.



Southers, a former FBI special agent and former assistant chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence for the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, is director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @esouthersHVE.