How to Stop a Martyr
France is rolling out an experimental center to deradicalize homegrown extremists. The problem is no one really knows how to stop a terrorist before he picks up a gun.
Asiem El-Difraoui, a political scientist and the co-author of a comparative study commissioned by the French government that was published last winter on prevention and deradicalization programs in the U.K., Germany, and Denmark, told me that although there are some patterns and lessons that emerged — some approaches that seem to be effective and some that clearly do not — one of the takeaways is that there is no clear takeaway. “All over Europe,” he said, “this is trial and error.”
France’s experiments in deradicalization began in April 2014, even before the post-Charlie Hebdo string of attacks on French soil, when the government set up the Numéro Vert, or green number. The Numéro Vert is a hotline that anyone can call to receive assistance with an individual feared to be at risk of radicalization, or to notify the government if a family member has fled home unexpectedly. It has received 4,600 solicitations in two years.
The same spring, the Interior Ministry opened up a contract with the Centre for Prevention of Sectarian Drift Linked to Islam (CPDSI). The CPDSI was run by Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and a former youth educator who had on-the-ground experience with the radicalization epidemic. For years, she had observed young people, especially girls, being enticed by online jihadi recruiters. After publishing numerous articles and two books, she had begun to receive calls from bewildered parents seeking counsel. In 2014 — by which time Bouzar had gone back to school and completed doctoral work in the anthropology of religion — it was the French government that was calling for her help.
Bouzar and her associates at the CPDSI took on an immense amount of work for a modest amount of money. Hundreds of radicalization cases were referred to them, and they sent teams around France to train police prefectures. Contracting with Bouzar marked the French government’s first real attempt to tackle prevention and deradicalization: The CPSDI received 900,000 euros, or $1 million, for its work over the course of two years, which included 600,000 euros for treatment and training and 300,000 euros for research and development of counter-narrative materials.
For her part, Bouzar developed a theory of radicalization, which she describes as “relational and ideological indoctrination.” This conception holds that recruiters exploit vulnerable young people who may be harboring feelings of exclusion, humiliation, or inferiority by offering them a worldview that can provide them with a sense of omnipotence. Because she views radicalism as a cult-like construct, Bouzar offers a largely psychology-based treatment. Her two-pronged approach involves, first, an attempt to reestablish emotional security, sometimes referred to as the “Madeleine de Proust” step, in which patients are aided (together with a parent or mentor who serves as an attachment figure) to recall childhood memories of happiness before radicalization, break through the grip of radicalism, and reconnect with their previous selves. This is followed by the “cognitive step,” which often involves the aid of former jihadis; once the emotional isolation is cracked, they can attempt to deconstruct jihadi ideology by illuminating the gaps between the myths that they have been sold and the reality.
In addition to publishing prolifically, Bouzar gave frequent media interviews and was soon being referred to in the press as “Madame De-indoctrination.” But her efforts to educate the public also drew criticism. Experts have noted that although Bouzar’s method may be effective in treating the symptoms of radicalization, it doesn’t address the material factors that made the individual vulnerable in the first place. Others suggest that Bouzar’s approach runs up against the limits of its methods. Marik Fetouh, a deputy mayor of Bordeaux who helps run a preventive center there, told me he had worked with a family that had been referred to Bouzar. The father had attended a group discussion for parents said he was instructed to try to understand his son’s new expressions of religious faith. When Fetouh’s team interviewed the man’s son they could tell right away that he had a psychiatric problem. “He was talking a lot about religion, but in fact it was delirium,” Fetouh said. Today the young man is receiving medical treatment.
The biggest scandal, however, involved a young woman known by the pseudonym Léa, who had allegedly been plotting a suicide attack against a synagogue in Lyon before Bouzar’s intervention. Bouzar used Léa’s story to publicize her own successes, filming a video about the young woman (while maintaining her anonymity) and using her narrative in a book. Then, in February, the press discovered that Léa was in prison. It turned out that after appearing to turn away from radicalism, Léa had been in communication with recruiters and had married a jihadi via Skype. It was unclear whether Léa had “pretended” to be “better,” or whether she had slipped back into old habits like an “addiction,” as Bouzar described it.
When I spoke with Bouzar in June, she told me that not one of the 1,075 people her associates had worked with had turned to violence or tried (again) to leave France. (She clarified that the CPDSI had originally alerted the police about Léa, expressing concern and suggesting that she be institutionalized; they were turned down, and a prosecutor later sought Léa’s incarceration.) But she also noted that Léa’s trajectory is probably not entirely unusual – each individual experiences ups and downs. Nathalie Goulet, the senator who presides over a parliamentary commission on jihadi networks, demanded more detailed evaluation from the Ministry of the Interior last winter. (Bouzar has provided her own evaluations, and in June posted guidelines on her website for how to diagnose whether an individual has broken out of indoctrination.)
In February, Bouzar announced that she would not renew her government mandate because she objected to the government’s proposals to rescind French citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terror-related crimes, but she said she will continue her work as a private citizen. Some observers suggested that it was, instead, a convenient moment for Bouzar and the state to part ways.
Bouzar told me she believes government money has unfairly made her a target. “For 10 years, I’ve been in the media and my firm was never attacked. It’s just since we got money from [Interior Minister Bernard] Cazeneuve,” Bouzar said. “Those who criticize, they are the same ones who say the minister must find a different solution other than prison. So he gives us 600,000 euros [about $669,000] to try to work on deradicalization with families, and they still come and criticize us. Whereas what we really needed was support.”
To her critics, the furor surrounding Bouzar’s work raises questions about her methods. To her defenders, it’s a testament to the elusiveness, novelty, and magnitude of her task.