David Thomson was one of the first to declare religion a part of the problem in France’s war on terror. Now he’s become the country’s hottest intellectual.
- By Emma-Kate SymonsEmma-Kate Symons (@eksymons) is a Washington-based journalist, editor and former Paris correspondent. Her work has been published in Quartz, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Review and The Australian.
Long before France’s correspondents, scholars, politicians, and police were all focused on the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the dangers posed by returning foreign fighters, there was David Thomson.
Nine months before the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, Thomson, a correspondent for Radio France Internationale who had spent years reporting from North Africa and building contacts within jihadi circles, was repeatedly mocked on national television. He declared, in a now infamous panel debate on French fighters flocking to Syria, that some combatants he was in contact with who had traveled to the Middle East were determined to return and launch strikes against France.
“I’ve never heard that! Why would they go so far away if the enemy is already here?” one prominent academic, the sociologist Raphaël Liogier, scoffed on the set of a France 2 talk show, accusing Thomson of playing into the hands of populists. Another panel guest, the researcher Hanane Karimi, warned of the risk of “stigmatizing Muslims,” while another derided Thomson as a neophyte and a dabbler, sneering that just because he had “done a report and interviewed tens of jihadists” that he was not “the reigning expert on the question. You need to show a bit of proof of humility.”
Flash forward two years, however, and after consecutive terrorist attacks on domestic soil, 13 straight months under a state of emergency, and a coming presidential election, Thomson — dubbed “the man who talked with jihadists” and a “prophet” by some in France’s media — has become France’s favorite public intellectual. Following the publication of his most recent best-selling book, Les Revenants, or The Returned, which features interviews with fighters for the Islamic State who have come back from “the caliphate,” Thomson has graced the front pages of Le Monde. He’s starred in flattering profiles, in-depth interviews, and panel discussions for nearly every major French print, online, and broadcast outlet. The publishers of Les Revenants ordered an urgent new print run after the book quickly sold out; secondhand copies are being offered online at three times the sale price.
Thomson’s book is based on more than two years of repeated interviews with 20 subjects provided in face-to-face meetings in prisons, homes, and kebab shops in France, and over the phone, including operatives in Syria. The author, who over the past decade has spoken to more than 100 mainly French but also Tunisian and Belgian jihadis, paints a picture, using their own words, of fighters who were seduced by the idea of a hedonistic, violent, and transcendental experience, which Thomson calls “LOL jihad,” and who have returned from the caliphate often disappointed, typically unrepentant, and in some cases ready to do it all again.
“Charlie [Hebdo] was the most beautiful day of my life. … I would so much like it to happen again,” says Lena, one of Thomson’s more bloodthirsty subjects. “And I hope a sister will undertake the next targeted attack.”
But it is Thomson’s — and his subjects’ — verdict on the fraught topic of the role of Islam that has helped win so much attention. A marginalized minority’s sense of humiliation, discrimination, and post-colonial fury; absent fathers and family trauma; the slippery slope between juvenile delinquency and “holy war”; and the promise of a sexual paradise — all these are important in explaining jihad in France, Thomson argues. However, none of this would be enough to tip his interviewees over the edge without the important and too-often-dismissed role of religion and politico-spiritual convictions — specifically, the hard-line Salafist Saudi Wahhabist school of Islam — which paved the way for the initial descent of his subjects into violent jihadism and helps explain why they are unlikely to ever re-emerge.
France’s public intellectuals — scholars, judges, religious figures, “deradicalization” proponents, and journalists — have spent the last few years grasping for answers, amid the seemingly never-ending news of homegrown attackers and foiled plots, for how their country became, as Thomson reminds readers, the Western nation “most threatened, targeted and hit” by jihad. But few, wrote Le Figaro columnist Alexandre Devecchio in a recent column, “succeeded in fully convincing.”
Internationally known figures like the political scientists Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy engaged in a vicious battle this year over whether France should understand its jihad problem as the “Islamization of radicalism” (Roy) — that is, Islam is not to blame — or the “radicalization of Islam” (Kepel) — yes, it is. But the rival scholars’ fight stayed mainly within elite circles and both eventually came in for criticism. Roy has been widely questioned for dismissing Islamic State members’ theologically grounded convictions, while Kepel has been reproached for viewing Islamist terrorism too narrowly through the religious prism. Les Revenants, on the other hand, has become a “publishing phenomenon,” Devecchio says, that has “reconciled Kepel and Roy.”
“Jihadism ‘made in France’ is the fruit of the meeting between radical Islam and the era of emptiness,” he says. “The hybrid child of a murderous utopia and a disenchanted époque.”
The publication of Les Revenants, however, also happens to come at an opportune political moment. The 2017 French presidential election is only months away and is shaping up as a quasi-referendum on terrorism and Islam. After equivocating for years on how much to “take on” France’s second religion, French politics as a whole seems to be coming around to the idea entirely. Before Thomson released Les Revenants, then-Socialist prime minister and now presidential aspirant Manuel Valls was already railing against Salafism as the “[antechamber] of terrorism.” Few voices on the left today maintain that Islam has nothing to do with the threats facing France. Meanwhile, on the right, both candidates expected to lead in the presidential election next spring, Republican François Fillon and National Front leader Marine Le Pen, have characterized the Muslim faith as antithetical to French values. Thomson’s book comes as France appears to have decided that the debate over the role of Islam in its terror problem is finished — and those who say the religion has a problem have won.
Thomson applies an anthropological eye to human behavior and an old-school reporter’s talent for cultivating and listening to primary sources. He got his start by covering the Arab Spring aftermath in Tunisia and Libya before returning to Paris. Over time, he built what is arguably the deepest network of contacts of any Western journalist or researcher who has tried to get inside the francophone ranks of the Islamic State. The correspondent first traced the exodus of foreign fighters to Syria in his 2014 Les Francais Jihadistes (the French Jihadists), which gave voice to the young French people “totally galvanized by their project” of waging holy war in Syria and those who, in a number of cases, aspired to return and commit terrorist attacks in their native country. In that first book, he described one network of jihadis based in Syria and Iraq whose members “constituted the embryonic stem cell of the commando” that went on to commit attacks on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November 2015.
Les Revenants includes interviews with diverse subjects, some free and many in prison. There are young zealots of North African background, like Safiya, who left for Syria but have returned to France and re-resumed openly smoking, a habit that would have cost her 40 lashes in Islamic State territory. Yet she is already talking about leaving again — not to Syria this time, but to Yemen. “I can’t bring myself to stay in France” she says. “I hate France. I don’t feel like I have a place.” Then there is Kevin, a 21-year-old former Catholic choirboy from Brittany. He converted at age 14; by 17 he was in Syria; and now he is hoping to journey back to France to join the four wives and six children he acquired in the caliphate. He is currently imprisoned in Turkey. The cast includes former high school students, casual workers, ex-French army, and the strange case of a doctor couple who declared they spent several months working for the Islamic State in Raqqa with their daughters, not because they were supporters but because they wanted to rescue their son.
It has become popular wisdom that today’s Western jihadis have profane pasts. But nearly all of the returned fighters in Thomson’s book received a religious education as children. Seventy percent come from Muslim and often conservative households. Many met figures who helped in their radicalization at mosques, and among people they know. The majority say they took their first steps toward the Islamic State when they gravitated first toward so-called quietist or non-violent Salafism, emulating the “pious predecessors” from the time of the Prophet before breaking away to join armed jihad. The Salafist movement has attracted rising numbers of adherents in France over the past decade, with its extreme fundamentalist values of a “rupture” with mainstream society.
“It was very influential,” says 20-year-old Zoubeir, of his period frequenting “quietist” Salafist groups, with their ultra-literal interpretation of traditional texts, before his flight to Syria, where he got to know some of the future attackers behind the Paris and Brussels attacks of November 2015 and March 2016. The only self-proclaimed full-blown repentee in the book, Zoubeir describes his initial period in Islamic State land as “a holiday camp … a jihad where you can shoot people and eat an ice cream at the same time.” He is the first returned French fighter to have volunteered to intelligence services, after a year of imprisonment, to talk to vulnerable young people about his experience to offer them a “counter-discourse.”
As Thomson writes, “quietist” Salafism professes itself to be vehemently opposed to armed jihad, and its adherents sometimes go so far as to denounce the violent “takfirists” or “khawarij” to the police. But the warring currents share the same doctrinal and ideological core. “Zoubeir considers today, that, for him, like the majority of the French he met in Syria, quietism prepared the ground and constituted a stepping stone towards him tipping over into jihadism,” he says.
Thomson’s arguments are already being mustered by officials as evidence for their policy decisions. The author’s insistence that deradicalization is almost impossible has become increasingly accepted, including by the government’s counter-terrorism establishment that now speaks increasingly of “disengagement.” Thomson is also being cited in dispatches in which French authorities argue for the closure of Salafist mosques. Most of all, the journalist is being called upon to explain how and why France and Europe could have for so long missed the warning signs from homegrown jihadis who nearly always made their intentions perfectly clear. But on this question — which is less about the jihadis themselves and more about the West — he has fewer answers.
“The reality is that no one knows how to solve the problem,” Thomson told Slate’s French edition. “The horrors have happened. I know that it can shock some to say it, but Europe is condemned to suffer the consequence of the mistakes it made in 2012, 2013, 2014 — to have let hundreds of French leave for Syria and Iraq and create a base there, with terrorist intentions, and to have not seen them leaving, or stopped them from going.”
Photo credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images