Since the start of 2015, jihadists have killed over 300 people and injured thousands more in a string of gruesome attacks in European cities. The assailants have driven trucks and vans into crowds, detonated suicide bombs, carried out mass shootings, and used knives and axes to attack, even behead, their victims. By and large, the attackers have been locals, but they have often received ideological support and practical instructions from members of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
In his new book, the French political scientist Gilles Kepel argues that among European countries, France has experienced the worst of this new wave of terrorism. Although the phenomenon of Islamist extremism “is not exclusively French,” he writes, “the French case is stronger and deeper” than the cases of other countries. Some 6,000 people, around 1,800 of them from France, have traveled from western Europe to join ISIS in Iraq or Syria or in one of the so-called caliphate’s “provinces” in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, or Yemen. When they return home, they form terrorist cells. The French-Belgian jihadist network, largely made up of returning ISIS fighters, has proved the largest and deadliest of Europe’s terrorist gangs, killing 162 people in multiple attacks in Brussels and Paris in 2015 and 2016.
Kepel’s aim in Terror in France is to place the recent burst of jihadism in his country in the context of the political upheaval that France has undergone in recent years. He primarily blames Islamist fundamentalism for the terrorist threat but sees it as just one part of a larger rise in identity politics. In his view, this broader trend presents a profound threat to French society, as it is incompatible with traditional French ideals. For this reason, the book is not really about jihad “in the West,” despite its English subtitle. (The title of the French version of the book translates as The Genesis of French Jihad.) Rather, Kepel offers an impassioned indictment of religious and nationalist extremism in French politics, which, despite recent election of the centrist Emmanuel Macron to the presidency, remains deeply divided.
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