Fundamentalism in French Workplace

Times Staff Writer

Employees set up clandestine prayer areas on the grounds of the Euro Disney resort.

Workers for a cargo firm at Charles de Gaulle airport praise the Sept. 11 attacks.

A Brinks technician is charged with pulling off a million-dollar heist for a Moroccan terrorist group allegedly led by his brother. Female converts to Islam operate a day-care center that authorities eventually shut down because of its religious radicalism.

As France grapples with the rise of Islamic extremism abroad and at home, the line between legitimate religious expression and extremist subversion can be blurry. But a recent study by a think tank here paints a picture of rising fundamentalism in the workplace, ranging from proselytizing to pressure tactics to criminal activities.

In companies such as supermarket chains in immigrant-heavy areas, for instance, militant recruiters cause workplace tensions by imposing fundamentalist ideas on co-workers and pressuring managers to boycott certain products, the study says.

On a more sinister level, the study asserts that Islamic networks are trying to establish a presence in firms involved in sectors such as security, cargo, armored cars, courier services and transportation. Once they gain a foothold, operatives raise funds for militants via theft, embezzlement and robbery, the study alleges.

"Parallel to these sect-like risks, the spread of criminal practices has been detected in the heart of companies [with] two goals: crime using Islam as a pretext; and in addition, local financing of terrorism," concludes the study by the Center for Intelligence Research in Paris.

The report was issued before the recent riots that spread arson and violence nationwide and focused attention on France's immigrant neighborhoods, which are predominantly Muslim. Although intelligence officials detected only a few cases of extremists inciting unrest, authorities worry that the tense urban climate strengthens the hand of hard-core Islamic networks.

French anti-terrorism officials agree with some of the findings of the study of the private sector, though they say parts of the report exaggerate or simplify a complex issue. In any case, the concern is justified in a wider context, officials say: Extremism is rising in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim community, and intertwining with a foreign threat.

Recent arrests reveal that France has been targeted by an alliance teaming Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, with an Algerian-dominated network, said a senior French law enforcement official, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Zarqawi operatives in Lebanon taught bomb-making to accused militants from the network who were arrested here, including French converts, the official said.

That underscores a development on the home front: a "significant increase" in converts, including women, said a French intelligence official, who also asked not to be identified.

In the northwestern Paris suburb of Argenteuil, female converts helped set up an unlicensed day-care center for a dozen children at an apartment in a housing project. After intelligence officials determined that the center was run with an aggressively fundamentalist philosophy, authorities shut it down last year.

Conversions also result from militant recruiting in workplaces, according to the think tank report, which is based on a survey of corporate executives, private security officials and law enforcement experts. The author, Eric Denece, acknowledged that the issue was complex.

"The focus on the private sector is new because law enforcement does not work on it much -- they have other concerns," Denece said. "But also, company executives have not wanted to talk about this sensitive subject. Some were concerned about being called racists."

Denece's study cites a case examined in 2004 by Renseignements Generaux, the domestic intelligence agency, involving the discovery of "about 10 clandestine prayer rooms" on the grounds of Euro Disney.

Denece also alleges that fundamentalists were detected in the resort's security force, but a spokesman for Euro Disney said that claim was inaccurate. As for the prayer areas, spokesman Pieter Boterman said the company resolved that issue.

"I thought it was exaggerated to talk about prayer rooms," Boterman said. "During Ramadan, they took a few minutes to pray somewhere. We made it clear that we thought the work floor was not the place to express your personal religion."

There are a few clear-cut examples of alleged infiltration of companies. Last year, police investigated a heist at the Brinks Co. that was allegedly engineered by an operative of a Moroccan terrorist network that has been implicated in the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

Hassan Baouchi, who was 23 at the time, worked as a technician stocking ATMs; his brother, Mustafa, was a veteran of two stints in Al Qaeda's Afghan camps and an alleged leader of the network.

In March 2004, Hassan Baouchi claimed that stick-up men had waylaid him during his rounds north of the capital and stolen about $1.2 million. But he now awaits trial on charges of faking the robbery in cahoots with a gang of known jihadis. About $40,000 later turned up on a fugitive captured in Algeria.

"That's a real concrete example of terrorist financing," said the senior law enforcement official. He also said extremists have been detected trying to establish a presence in sensitive sectors related to defense and transportation.

The report describes a case in which police investigated a cargo company at Charles de Gaulle International Airport with about 3,000 employees. Managers complained that a small group of radicals had tried to gain influence by preaching to co-workers and threatening repeated strikes. Some of the activists "expressed satisfaction" with the Sept. 11 attacks, the report says.

The French intelligence official confirmed that authorities closely monitor the notable presence of Muslim fundamentalists among the many immigrant employees at the airport.

In 2002, a 27-year-old systems engineer working in the airport's control tower was abruptly barred from secure areas. Police had discovered that he was a devout disciple of a radical imam and frequented militant mosques here, in his native Morocco and in the Middle East. The Iraqi-born imam is now under house arrest, accused of hate speech.

"There are worries about the presence of extremists at the airport," the intelligence official said. "There was no link found to violent jihad groups, but [the engineer] was certainly very active in a fundamentalist movement with anti-Western, anti-American ideas. Because of the particularly sensitive job he had, a decision was made, in the name of caution, to reassign him."

Nonetheless, the intelligence official took issue with parts of the think tank report. Hard-core networks often finance themselves through small businesses and the underworld, he said.

"The most radical extremists tend to exclude themselves from corporate employment because of their dress, their behavior," the intelligence official said. "They have to resort to small business, the ethnic economy. A lot of financing comes from traffic in fake papers and armed robbery."

In fact, Denece also discusses the emergence of "gangsterrorism," in which extremists team with mafias for mutual gain. But the private sector faces a more subtle and slippery challenge from nonviolent militants, the report says.

Executives say pressure groups in supermarkets and other companies advance oppressive ideological agendas: They pressure co-workers to wear religious garb, defy the authority of female managers and demand boycotts of products such as alcohol, pork, Israeli oranges and American brownies, Denece said.

"For French companies, the rise in power of radical Islam represents a new threat," the report states. "This trend expresses above all a move to take control of behavior and ideas of other workers in order to impose a value system conforming to extremist ideology."

Nonetheless, demographics and perception make the debate difficult. As the report points out, Muslim employees in France are starting to organize themselves along religious and ethnic lines rather than following the lead of traditional leftist unions. Management may sometimes allege extremism when workers are finding new ways to organize and defend their interests.

"It's more and more frequent for us to hear about attempts at infiltration, but it's not rampant," the intelligence official said. "It's full of dilemmas. Sometimes you will have fundamentalist employees, but they do not cause trouble. And sometimes you will have a mix of labor politics and religion that is more about establishing power than anything else."

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