A window into the minds of Islamic militants in French jails

Rotella is a Times staff writer.

In the cottage industry of international terrorism experts that has developed since the Sept. 11 attacks, Farhad Khosrokhavar stands out.

The Iranian French professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes de Sciences Sociales here has explored the underworld of Islamic extremism through rare access to impeccable sources: the militants themselves. He has conducted in-depth interviews in French prisons with 15 inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses such as the assassination by Al Qaeda agents of an anti-Taliban leader in Afghanistan and a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

Inmates often were hostile at first. Some accused him of being a government spy. But the wry 59-year-old won them over with the persistence of a good listener. It didn’t hurt that he is a Shiite Muslim who speaks Arabic.


His case studies have proved particularly relevant as the French government leads a Europe-wide push to fight radicalization in Muslim inmate populations. Recently, the French Interior Ministry prepared a handbook to help prison staff and others in law enforcement detect extremist activity behind bars.

Khosrokhavar, whose books include “Inside Jihadism,” to be published in English this month, recently sat down for an interview in his office.


Why do you have mixed feelings about the French crackdown on prison radicalization?

It’s the first time the government recognizes this problem so publicly. They are trying to identify jihadists. But I think they are making a mistake in mixing up fundamentalists and jihadists. We should try to push for a separation. What the government is proposing could be pushing them toward unification, if the idea becomes that an inmate with a long beard and a djellaba is dangerous. Often, fundamentalism contains them, it satisfies them and they do not go further, only a small percentage become violent.

The government is partly to blame for prison conditions that anger Muslim inmates. But could the outside Muslim community do more?

It is a pitiful situation. There are only 117 imams, or Muslim chaplains, for a prison population that is half Muslim: more than 30,000 Muslim inmates in France. In contrast, there are 600 Christian and Jewish chaplains. The knowledge of Islam among many inmates is less than rudimentary and that helps radicalize them. We have to fill this gap.

They have the feeling of being inferior citizens in prison too. The Christians have Sunday prayers, the Jews have Saturday. But collective [Muslim] prayer is prohibited because there are [not enough] imams. That’s not the fault of the authorities; they don’t want self-appointed inmate “imams” developing power.

There is a lack of imams because of a screening problem. Screening is strong; there are three agencies involved. But it is also the fault of the Muslim community. Many Muslim associations don’t want to get involved. They feel these are bad Muslims. They don’t want that post-9/11 stigma, the suspicion.

Also, most of the Christian ministers work for free. Imams generally cannot afford to work for free.


Your interviews are remarkably vivid firsthand accounts. How did you get these men to open up?

These are people whom I talked to sincerely. They accepted because I promised that I would not talk about the details of their cases. I was able to talk to the prison officers, who could tell me this part is true, this part is not true. But 90% of what they said in the interviews is existential, in any case.

It’s so fascinating, beyond the horror of what they were doing. These guys have no kind of doubt. They have a violent certainty.

I was struck by the Bosnia veteran I interviewed. He studied in Malaysia. He was able to seduce a Bosnian woman and a Japanese woman, which was like apples and oranges according to him, and get the Japanese woman to convert. He had two wives at the same time. He was very intelligent, very human. But he was a cold monster. He could kill without any hint of an afterthought. A Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde, but he saw it as coherent. He saw no crisis. Usually one side hates the other in a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde personality. But he was not schizophrenic in the least.


There is concern in Europe about the jailhouse population of hard-core extremists. They radicalize others, and many are serving five- to 10-year sentences and will be released soon. What can be done?

The strategy in France has been highly secured cells and aggressive monitoring. The inmates are accompanied by two guards outside the cells. The solution is a kind of semi-isolation. They rotate inmates periodically to prevent consolidation of a network. You could try high-tech, maximum-security prisons like Pelican Bay in California. But that is costly and dehumanizing. It would be very expensive for Europe. And people would not accept it easily in Europe.

The reality of short sentences is a major problem. But the intelligence services have learned a lot. They follow them pretty closely. Once they get out, they are five and 10 years older. They might have other projects, be less violent, have other opportunities. They might fall in love. Some have less energy, they cannot do what they could do when they were 20 or 25.


Europeans often criticize U.S. counter-terrorism methods, but you see the American approach to religion as a kind of buffer against extremism.

In the United States, in spite of 9/11, it is a society which understands religion much better than in Europe. Muslims can be practicing and devout without being treated as if they were fundamentalists. Europe is clearly different from the U.S. Islam is the religion of the oppressed in Europe. Most Muslims are working class. There is an underclass that is comparable to the black or Latino underclass in U.S. cities.

The major threat in Europe is small groups that are difficult to spot. Like the two Lebanese who planted suitcase bombs on a German train in 2006. Jihadists are fascinated by 9/11. They want to do something cosmic, apocalyptic, but the intelligence services are all over them. They cannot succeed. The small groups, of less than five, are the most dangerous.