Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters A French flag with the message 'Paris Brussels Solidarity' is displayed next to flowers with the colors of the Belgium flag in front of the Belgium embassy in Paris, France, March 23, 2016.
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The French Connection

Explaining Sunni Militancy Around the World

The mass causality terrorist attacks in Paris and now in Brussels underscore an unsettling truth: Jihadists pose a greater threat to France and Belgium than to the rest of Europe. The body counts are larger and the disrupted plots are more numerous. The trend might be explained by the nature of the Islamic State (ISIS) networks in Europe or as failures of policing in France and Belgium. Both explanations have merit. However, our research reveals that another factor may be at play: French political culture.

Last fall, we began a project to test empirically the many proposed explanations for Sunni militancy around the globe. The goal was to take common measures of the violence—namely, the number of Sunni foreign fighters from any given country as well as the number of Sunni terror attacks carried out within it—and then crunch the numbers to see which explanations best predicted a country’s rate of Sunni radicalization and violence. (The raw foreign fighter data came from The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence; the original attack data came from the University of Maryland’s START project.)

What we found surprised us, particularly when it came to foreign fighter radicalization. It turns out that the best predictor of foreign fighter radicalization was not a country’s wealth. Nor was it how well-educated its citizens were, how healthy they were, or even how much Internet access they enjoyed. Instead, the top predictor was whether a country was Francophone; that is, whether it currently lists (or previously listed) French as a national language. As strange as it may seem, four of the five countries with the highest rates of radicalization in the world are Francophone, including the top two in Europe (France and Belgium).

An Islamic State fighter gestures from a vehicle in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after the Islamic State fighters took control of the area, October 7, 2014.

An Islamic State fighter gestures from a vehicle in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after the Islamic State fighters took control of the area, October 7, 2014.

Knowledgeable readers will immediately object that the raw numbers tell a different story. The English-speaking United Kingdom, for example, has produced far more foreign fighters than French-speaking Belgium. And fighters from Saudi Arabia number in the several

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