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Paris Neighborhood Becomes Breeding Ground For Militant Jihadists


Last week's terrorist attacks brought attention to a particular neighborhood in Paris, a place where all three of the killers were brought up and met and became radical. It is located, not in the suburbs where high-rise, cement-block housing projects reign the city, but among the regular districts of Paris. The attackers came together in the 19th arrondissement, or district. We asked Miriam Benraad, a French scholar of foreign fighters, how a neighborhood historically known for its picturesque parks and artistic community became a breeding ground for some of Europe's most militant jihadists.

MIRIAM BENRAAD: So the 19th arrondissement - district of Paris - it's always been very popular. It used to be a popular place in the 19th century. It was a place of artists, creativity and became a very mixed neighborhood following decolonization and the arrival of immigrants from North Africa and as well as immigrants from Africa more generally.

MONTAGNE: Which would've been approximately the 1960s.

BENRAAD: Exactly. But the characteristic of these neighborhoods as compared to the Parisian suburbs is that it's been a population of immigrants for some time. But they're working.

MONTAGNE: Isn't there a group of radicals who are loosely tied together by youth or knowing each other as young people being radicalized or is there actually some sort of gang? I mean, is it more coherent in the 19th district?

BENRAAD: There is clearly a gang factor. These young people have known each other since school. They were faced with the same difficulties in life - a situation of failure at school, no job, a sense of marginality because of their frank background. They had the feeling that they were not part of French society. They were hanging out in the park doing nothing with their lives, and this is how they were indoctrinated and drawn to the mosque and then to radical ideas which motivated them.

MONTAGNE: Although it is interesting when you hear about the backgrounds of these main attackers, Amedy Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, they don't seem to really have a very intellectual grasp of a religion that they claimed.

BENRAAD: No, they have very little knowledge of Arabic, as goes for the Kouachi brothers, who are children of Algerian immigrants. In general people - they don't speak Arabic. As regards Coulibaly, this is the same thing. And this is why they're actually easily attracted by mentors who will deliver knowledge of Islam and the Quran in French because they don't have the ability to read the text in Arabic and in any case to basically forego a moderate path. They're actually very easy targets for radical movements.

MONTAGNE: I mean, an interesting detail is that one of the leaders that radicalized them himself was not so educated himself, but he managed to convince them 'cause they knew even less.

BENRAAD: The first mentor of the group was the same age. He was also of Algerian background. He was a janitor. He had a very particular style, mixing rock 'n' roll charisma with, you know, wearing the kufi and having a long hair. And he very quickly told the guys that they didn't basically need to go to the mosque anymore, that they could come to his place, that he would himself deliver the knowledge of Islam and the Quran. He was very instrumental in the radicalization of Kouachi and others as of basically 2004, 2005.

MONTAGNE: Is there any remedy then looking at this in the near-term that can be done to stop this radicalization?

BENRAAD: It's a very tough question. My belief is that the radicalization, Islamists in particular, builds on a more systemic issue, which has to do with social conditions, the economy crisis and absence of the prospects for French youth. But I think this is a more profound issue that France will have to confront at some point.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

BENRAAD: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Miriam Benraad's book, "Iraq: The Revenge Of History" is set to be released next month in France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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