Mohsen Abdelmoumen: Are Western governments powerless in the face of terrorism?
Dr. François-Bernard Huyghe: We have terrorist attacks in the West since the end of the 19th century. There have been for various reasons, sometimes by anarchists, sometimes by independentists, sometimes the extreme left, the extreme right, etc. and no one has found the miracle solution. At the moment, for example, in France, we are living in a situation where, despite the military crushing of Daesh, every two months there is an attack or attempt to attack; claiming of the caliphate, with more or less means, so there is a kind of terrorist routine that settles down. Obviously, we took a lot of laws, I think in France we had to take twenty laws against terrorism and of course the fight has limits and, first, quantitative limits because there are tens of thousands of individuals likely to be jihadists or to be absorbed by jihadism in France, so this poses problems of surveillance all the more difficult as these jihadists in their strategic vision have the right to attack any target. It is obviously different from the time when it was necessary to protect the presidents of the Republic, the magistrates or the generals but not the citizen at the corner of the street.
What do you think of the restructuring of Daesh and especially the birth of the Khorasan group?
All of Daesh’s strategy and all his speech were based on the fact that the caliphate was finally to be established in Sham’s land and would shine around the world. Well, it was crushed but now we see that there is a phase 2 with groups claiming to Daesh who come to avenge the crushing of this caliphate, there are of Khorasan, and we have seen attacks in Afghanistan, we have seen too in Indonesia, and so on. Therefore, it is very possible that a number of groups will continue to prosper and conduct actions in a decentralized manner after the loss of the central Caliphate. After all, I remind you that we have been fighting Al Qaeda since the early 1990s. We have put enormous military means to crush it and it still rages today, and I would not be surprised if Daesh, after the loss of Syria and Iraq, continues to spread in other countries.
The Macron government has launched a third plan to combat radicalization. You know this subject very well. Do these measures really attack the root, namely takfirist ideology or not?
Personally, I am very very skeptical about the deradicalization methods. This word does not mean much. Prevent people from returning to their roots, what does it really mean? Several attempts were made in France under the previous government and under the Macron government, led by associations trying to rehabilitate young people tempted by jihadism, they were treated a bit like alcoholics or drug addicts and this attempt failed miserably. We have the almost comical example of a deradicalization center that had cost a fortune, there was only one person who went there, although I think it was because she had free heating and shower. So these methods have failed.
Such as petting a hamster and use a Japanese stick…
Moreover, we have seen that we do not know how to conduct a counter-speech against the jihadists because we made several campaigns on the internet saying « it’s awful, people are killed, and you will die ». But precisely, people go there to kill and die, so it does not work very well. So there is a weakness in this area. As a solution, there would be a part of work of the school, certainly. Indeed, I would like the school give back to the small citizens the pride of their country and the Republican values. But is the school able to do so when, in France, it is not even able to teach them to read and count correctly? So, we have real problems and many people seek a solution in an action by the Islamic authorities to say that what Daesh does, what the caliphate does, is not in the Koran, that it is a deviance, a heterodoxy, a delusional interpretation. That’s good, and I’ve already seen texts of Sunni religious condemning from a theological and dogmatic point of view what the caliphate does with its deviancies. The problem is that we see that it has not really reached Daesh’s recruiting capabilities that disqualify all traditional Muslim authorities as being hypocrites in their mental system, which means they are bad Sunnis who actually cooperate with Zionists, Christians, atheists, etc.
I always come back to the word that struck me in your work. Do not you think that there is a powerlessness of Western governments in the face of the issue of returnees (note: jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria)?
Yes, we also have a big problem on this side; we already see it in France with the return of several hundred of them. This is a partly legal problem: of what should we charge them? From the moment that one does not use against them a penal incrimination of the kind « co-operation with a foreign power », « to have carried arms against France », etc., they have to be judged on a case-by-case basis for what they have done and what is proven and, of course, it is long, because it is difficult to find evidence. Moreover, we have a penal system that is not extraordinarily repressive, so that some jihadists who have returned after fighting in Syria will be able to get out of prison around 2020. Not to mention of course the recruitment that could be done in prisons. There is in French law the idea of grouping them in one place, it is probably better than to disperse them wherever they go to proselytize, but effectively, we are facing the problem of returnees or foreign fighters with all what this includes: the women who will come back, that it will be difficult to condemn as severely…
Yes, the ideological corpus is the same.
Of course, there are small strategic differences, the GIA wanted to fight in Algeria, al-Qaeda wanted to hit the distant enemy and the caliphate wanted to create the caliphate right away. These are strategic differences but not ideological differences. We agree on that. Have we learned the lessons? Well, I hope we’ll learn them. Of course it is something else, because in Algeria you have had guerrilla forces and we cannot really compare militarily. Indeed, it would not be wrong for us to take a few lessons from a country that has paid a high blood price.
Some well-informed experts I interviewed told me that Daesh has resumed its 2013 positions in Iraq while the media presents the military defeat of Daesh. Do not you think that contrary to what the media say, there has been no military defeat but a tactical retreat in Iraq and that the ideology remains intact?
I think your experts are probably right in the sense that it must be remembered that, indeed, around 2013 – 2014, few people realized the danger. It was a small split of al-Qaeda and so it was people who did not occupy cities and did not try to conquer territories. They have nevertheless suffered considerable losses, but they probably have a survival capacity in guerrilla situations in countries where territorial control is very difficult and where there are heaps of armed groups. Indeed, that they retreated is very possible. After all, for years they have escaped aviation, army, etc. They certainly have kept a great ability to survive. I see several scenarios: there are those who will go back to other countries to fight, for example in Afghanistan…
In Morocco, it is possible, for those who will go to do jihad elsewhere. Perhaps some will make agreements and join groups of Al-Nosra, etc. And then there are those who will come back in France…
In Europe, in general. I think there are a number that will continue to be on the spot. That sounds logical.
In your book very important and very rich in documentation especially concerning communication at Daech « Daech : l’arme de la communication dévoilée »(Daesh: the weapon of communication unveiled), do not you think that Daesh won the battle of communication?
They were very good in any case. It is true that they managed to produce a propaganda apparatus by the image, by the text, by the social networks, that was fantastic. We didn’t know how to deal with that. What has changed now is that it is technically more and more difficult to find jihadist propaganda because they have less means of production and they can no longer make execution movies with 15 cameras, mounting means, and super-cameras. Another factor that plays is that social networks or more accurately the greats of Internet, the GAFA, have intervened to change the algorithms of search engines, to withdraw accounts, to encrypt the contents, and very honestly, it is very difficult now to find jihadist content pro-Daech on the internet. In any case, it’s infinitely more difficult than when I wrote this book.
Do you think your book has had an impact?
Oh! I am not so immodest. I do not lend myself such an important role (laughs). On the other hand, on a technical level, they continue to communicate. I give you a little example: recently, we arrested in France an Egyptian who was preparing an attack with a very dangerous poison. I do not know how much he would have had the technical knowledge to carry out this project, but he was communicating about the encrypted application Telegram which is a very secure application. He was stopped and the police did not explain what he did, maybe the police infiltrated his Telegram broadcast page, maybe they took his phone and they could watch his messages. But in any case, the jihadists have become very very cautious about communication and, dare I say, the secret is very difficult to reconcile with advertising, so it’s harder to find their messages if you’re not initiated.
Do not you think they can go back to more crafty methods of communication, such as the old word of mouth method?
Of course. Word of mouth has always worked in the sense that lone wolves who become jihadists by watching terrorist groups commit attacks, I do not know any. This does not exist. There are always friends, there are brothers, comrades, and there are mentors. Often besides, we see that they are groups of a locality, they know the people, the childhood buddies, they met at school, at the mosque or at the leisure Centre, so the human factor is very important to allow people to communicate with each other.
In your book co-authored with Alain Bauer « Les terroristes disent toujours ce qu’ils vont faire » (Terrorists always say what they will do) in which we find many questions, you draw attention to the ideological corpus that is fundamental to become a terrorist. Now, I did a little research and I found that in many municipal libraries in European countries, there are books of takfirism theorists, like Sayyid Qotb or Ibn Taymiyya. How do you explain that Western countries tolerate these books?
Indeed, but I do not know if the jihadists will consult them at the library…
They exchange them in the prisons, in any case.
Then, indeed, it’s not a very good idea to allow this (laughs). I agree with you. We know that there is a great effort to translate and disseminate these books. Abdelwahhab’s texts, etc. are edited by Saudi Arabia. There are lots of theologians who are jihadists and the Saudi salafists read and disseminate them.
How do you explain that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally of the Americans and the French, with whom it does business, not to mention Qatar, while these countries generate terrorism? Should they not see their alliances again? I spoke with a European intelligence expert who told me that the economic stakes were preponderant.
I am afraid that he is a little bit right and that in fact there are huge economic interests that are involved in all this – and there is talk of very big business with Saudi Arabia. Let’s be honest, you can see that the media and the public are much less indignant about what Saudi Arabia is doing than what other countries are doing.
So the economic contracts pass before the security of the citizens, if I understand correctly?
In a way, yes. It is clear that there are big economic interests at stake.
You have worked a lot on the media and communication of Daesh, how do you explain that on a social network like Twitter or Facebook we find accounts subservient to Daesh or Al Qaeda? Do not you think that states and their services must intervene to put these social media in the face of their responsibilities?
They have done it a little bit, and moreover there are occasionally reproaches about it. There have been changes to the algorithms on Facebook, Google, etc. There have been steps that have been taken, but the problem is also largely quantitative, and I assure you that looking for jihadist groups on Google is much more difficult now than it was a few years ago.
Personally, I found some accounts on Twitter, including a group in Afghanistan.
It is a question of algorithms and very very fast recreation of these accounts.
Do not you think that by playing on the conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis as we saw in the Middle East, the Americans opened the Pandora’s box? Do not they risk devastating what remains of this martyred region?
I can only answer yes to such a question. Of course, it’s obvious. They played with fire, with incredible ignorance of the situation. You know the word we report when Bush started the Iraq war, it was told him that the Shiites should be taken into account, and he said, « Shiites, Shiites, I thought everyone was Muslim there » (laughs). You see the degree of ignorance. It is certain that there was a trigger of the tinderbox after 2004. We can also discuss what we did in Libya.
What do you think of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal? Do not you think Donald Trump is playing a very dangerous game for mankind?
Yes, and he plays with an objective alliance with Netanyahu, with Saudi Arabia, and he ridicules Europe incidentally in this story. Again, we can only agree on the danger of deconstructing what has been built.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is François-Bernard Huyghe?
Dr. François-Bernard Huyghe is a French State Doctor and Director of Research at IRIS (Institute of International and Strategic Relations), specialized in communication, cyber strategy and economic intelligence, and responsible for the Geostrategic Observatory of Information.
Doctor in Political Sciences, Dr. Huyghe directs doctoral studies at Cerege (Icomtec of Poitiers). He teaches media sociology and infostrategy at CELSA Paris IV Sorbonne and at the School of Economic War. He is a frequent speaker at HEC, at ENA, at the Center for Research on Contemporary Criminal Threats DRMCC, at IRIS, for ANVIE. He directs research at IR2I (Research Institute in Information Intelligence).
He is a scientific member of the Higher Council for Strategic Training and Research and conducts research in mediology alongside a consultant activity. He was an international civil servant in the Culture Communication sector at UNESCO from 1984 to 1987.
He is the author of many books include: L’information, c’est la guerre (2001) ; L’ennemi à l’ère numérique (2001) ; Ecran / Ennemi Terrorismes et guerres de l’information (2001) ; Quatrième guerre mondiale Faire mourir et faire croire (2004) ; Comprendre le pouvoir stratégique des médias (2005) ; ADN et enquêtes criminelles ; Maîtres du faire croire (2008) ; Les armes non létales (2008) ; Contre-Pouvoirs (2009) ; Les écoutes téléphoniques (2009) ; avec Alain Bauer Les terroristes disent toujours ce qu’ils vont faire (2010) ; Terrorismes Violence et propagande (2011) ; Think tanks (2013) ; Gagner les cyberconflits : au-delà du technique (2015) ; Désinformation Les armes du faux (2016) ; Daech : l’arme de la communication dévoilée (2017) ; Fake news : la grande peur (2018).
Published in American Herald Tribune, July 08, 2018: https://ahtribune.com/world/2351-francois-bernard-huyghe.html
In Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.090718.htm