Karim Bourti and Mohamed Sifaoui met in Paris in October 2002, at the trial of Algerian Islamist radicals who had terrorized the city with a series of 1995 bombings. Bourti, himself a militant Islamist, was attending the trial to support the defendants; Sifaoui, a journalist, was covering it for a Luxembourg newspaper. In furtive conversations at the hearings, the two men established that they had strikingly similar profiles: raised in the same neighborhood in Algiers, they had gone to the same high school and now both lived as exiles in France. Bourti took Sifaoui for a potential recruit; Sifaoui saw an opportunity to get a great story by infiltrating Bourti's circle, a cell of the al Qaeda-affiliated Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French acronym, GSPC).

Bourti was no big fish; he ran a lucrative traffic in fake brand-name clothes and pressured Parisian imams to let him collect funds in their mosques. Still, as a mid-level GSPC operative, he might also have recruited and hosted terrorists traveling through Europe, including the shoe bomber Richard Reid. So for more than three months in 2002, Sifaoui, posing as a fellow radical, attended meetings with Bourti's associates in Paris and in London. Mes Frères Assassins is the diary of his imposture.

Sifaoui sets out to depict the daily workings of a jihadist cell in a non-Muslim country. This might seem like a modest goal, but since many of the operatives involved in the September 11 attacks and in the broader jihad emerged from groups such as Bourti's, the shadowy world of the radical rank-and-file deserves close attention.

In some ways, what Sifaoui finds is underwhelming. Bourti's militants do provide funds and moral support to imprisoned terrorists and logistical help to would-be militants. More often, however, they peddle their dogma like salesmen, distributing free dinners spiced with jihadist messages to the needy or delivering a dose of comfort and militant Islam to the sick in public hospitals. Petty cadres in a vast community of immigrants, they scheme to get a cut of their fellows' wages. Sifaoui follows them as they collect the zakat, a religious tax, in front of a Parisian mosque at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. One man's two-hour take: €1,000.

Political Islam comes in many flavors, and this one has the bitter taste of exile. Composed of members of the Algerian diaspora radicalized by the civil war at home and by the success of Iranian revolutionaries and the Afghan mujahideen, the GSPC is not unlike Malaysia's Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) -- a group drawn from mostly Indonesian immigrants who have fled poverty and political oppression. Whereas Hamas, Hezbollah, and many other Islamist groups constitute armed wings of broad social movements, the GSPC and JI are much smaller and more self-contained. They operate with a few resolute members accountable to no broader constituency. Retaliatory blows after September 11, 2001, may have shaken the architecture of global Islamist terrorism, but small clusters like these are still dangerous. Empowered by modern technologies of communication and destruction, they are autonomous and strategically unfocused, and thus elusive and unpredictable.

THE SUBSTANCE OF STYLE

The roots of the GSPC lie in the several million economic immigrants who began to leave northern Africa for Europe when decolonization began in the 1960s. Islamism came to France with this diaspora, but its current virulence cannot be explained by uprootedness alone. The GSPC gets its edge from the trauma of the Algerian civil war, which has pitted a repressive military regime against religious radicals and has accounted for more than 100,000 deaths since the early 1990s. Some of those who fled the violence brought its baggage with them. The intolerance they encountered in France fed their rage, while the peaceful majority in their new communities looked the other way and condoned the radicals' tactics. State terror and exile defined the basic matrix that bred Bourti's cell.

The militants' anger seems to have no deeper eschatological root. The ideological chatter exchanged in Sifaoui's meetings with his "brothers" consists of little more than gossip about Osama bin Laden and sound bites from Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, radical Muslim theologians from ages past. The militants care less about doctrinal depth than they do about Islamist symbolism -- a jihadist pop of sorts. They are obsessed with matters of style: the beard, a distinctive slang, open disdain for women, wearing one's watch on the right wrist rather than the left, an aversion to all jewelry, and an irritation with Sifaoui's beret (which they think makes him look Jewish).

Bourti's recruits are born-again Muslims and converts from non-Muslim societies. Some heard the call while jailed for crimes of delinquency; others were once students in France's secular universities who broke with their comrades and liberal middle-class families. Bourti himself admits that his men are so Westernized that when duty calls, they will have no trouble shaving their beards "and passing for preppies."

If the radicals' relationship with France is complex, so is France's relationship with them. European intellectuals' fascination with Islamists is inspired by a blend of liberalism, postcolonial guilt, and Marxist-Christian sympathy for the weak. Widely publicized lectures on Islam and modernity attract throngs at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris, a sleek, modern building across the Seine from Notre Dame. France is trying to define a moderate brand of Islam compatible with its secular liberalism. The French government and leaders of France's five-million-strong Muslim community are working to forge mutual respect, and a government-run seminary is training a new generation of homebred, moderate imams. France's first Muslim public high school will open soon -- an extraordinary concession for a country staunchly committed to secular education. Much of the credit for Europe's new embrace of moderate Islam, ironically, belongs to bin Laden, for it was his actions and the threat of a true clash of civilizations that prompted the majority of Muslims to normalize their position in and with the West, and the West to integrate those it can.

BROTHERS IN ARMS

Sifaoui warns, nonetheless, that European cities still harbor many who could contract the Islamist fever and take up arms in Chechnya, Kashmir, or Iraq. Having probed the world of al Qaeda sympathizers in Paris and in London's Finsbury Park mosque, he sounds the alarm in defense of democracy and liberalism -- perhaps too violently. Sifaoui's book leaves no hope of ever narrowing the fault line that separates Muslims who reject the West from those, like him, who embrace it.

Although ideological opponents, Bourti and Sifaoui share a common passion for destroying each other's world. Sifaoui's animosity, in fact, often eclipses the rest of the story. His virulent detestation of his "brothers," his crusade to expose them, and his lack of scruples in using their trust to set them up are somewhat troubling. Sifaoui writes that he "wanted to spit in [Bourti's] face, to punch him." He condemns French intellectuals for letting concern with civil rights cloud their evaluation of Islamism -- for believing "that assassins, bombers, and those who slit the throats of women and children are entitled to the same rights as their victims." Sifaoui goes beyond thinking that there can be no excuse for terrorism. The very notion of a moderate Islam, he argues, is nothing but the wishful construct of naive Westerners, deceived into believing it can exist by cunning fanatics plotting to destroy the West.

It turns out, however, that some of Sifaoui's own statements and intentions may be suspect. He claims to have left Algiers in the mid-1990s after too many colleagues and friends perished from Islamist bombs. Some suspect him of being an agent for the Algerian secret service, working in France to blacken the reputation of political Islam and bolster support for the Algerian regime (which regularly imprisons and kills the likes of Bourti and his fellows). Others say that he received asylum in France after having been arrested at home (and perhaps even tortured) following a falling-out with the junta.

Indeed, his current allegiances are difficult to pin down. Sifaoui was involved in the creation of Habib Souaïdia's controversial recent book La sale guerre ("The dirty war"), a former army officer's devastating indictment of the conduct of the Algerian military during the civil war. But he abandoned the project in protest over Souaïdia's claim that the Armed Islamic Group, the militant Islamist organization responsible for many of the war's atrocities, was created by the Algerian secret service. And he even testified on behalf of Khaled Nezzar, Algeria's former military commander, when he subsequently sued Souaïdia for libel.

THE ANGST OF EXILE

There are so many conspiracies about Algeria, and the practices of the uniformed men in power there so resemble those of the bearded men in opposition, that outsiders can be forgiven for getting lost in the tangled threads that wrap around this book's "brothers." And the mystery about Sifaoui's checkered past only adds to the confusion. In the end, the author comes across as a journalist in search of attention, and one who pushes his material to its limits and perhaps even beyond. His ravings against the Islamists echo the Islamists' own intolerance, as well as the ruthlessness of yesterday's revolutionary officers and the callousness of the Arab bourgeoisie that briefly held power after colonialism and proved more liberal in name than in practice. Still, the essence of his story and his critique appears correct and was confirmed when the Parisian police arrested Bourti in early 2003 for roughing up a local imam.

Mes Frères Assassins tells several stories at once: about the workings of a jihadist cell, the radicalizing effects of exile from the Algerian civil war, and the challenges for a Western democracy of assimilating Muslim immigrants. Barely discernible among them is also a psychological profile of would-be terrorists. Long before calls to jihad hit the shores of Europe, many young Arab Muslims there had already turned to delinquency and vandalism. Among the things that troubled them was the contradiction between the liberal, egalitarian ideals of the West and the legacy of servitude they carried over from northern Africa. In the new world, exiles could no longer rely on the comforting predictability of a traditional, hierarchical society; they were hit by the existential anxiety of choice and responsibility and the formidable risk of failure. The racism they encountered did not help, nor did the way their original response -- delinquency -- reinforced it.

Most Muslims in France and elsewhere managed to adapt anyway, moving from servility to service, civility, and citizenship. Only a handful turned to jihad to live out their fantasies of omnipotence. Agitated by spectacular deeds from afar -- hijackings and embassy bombings that humbled the American hegemon -- some joined secret cells and combat groups, whereas others, less serious-minded, entered the alternative world of street gangs or video games. Servitude to a clandestine, dangerous, collective existence devoted to lofty ideals assuaged the mundane anxiety of building a career. Their faith and ideology, Sifaoui's book suggests, was only folklore.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Camille Pecastaing is Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
  • More By Camille Pecastaing