Event Summary: ‘Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West’


By Josephine Azoulay

On the 25th of May, the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Gilles Kepel, Political Science professor at the very prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, to present his latest book.  The recently published ‘Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West’ draws on Islam History to elucidate the roots of the new virulent wave jihad terrorism in Western countries.

Mr Kepel began his talk by highlighting the parallelism between Paris’s Bataclan and Stade de France attack in November 2015 and the very recent Manchester bombing.  But whilst both terror attacks targeted young crowds, and especially young in Manchester, during a musical event, the two incidents were in fact radically different in terms of planning and modus operandi, thus epitomising the evolution of jihadist terrorism in Europe over the past years.

Indeed, according to Mr Kepel, we have now entered the third wave of jihadism: the network-based, digitalised jihadism. But to fully grasp this last generation of jihadism, one would have to rewind History. The original meanings of the word ‘jihad’ embodies the struggle or effort to become a better Muslim and ultimately to defend Islam and expand it. The first wave of Jihadism was put to an end by the French Charles Martel in Poitiers in 732 when he stopped the Arabs, and the second was when the Ottoman Empire lost after the siege Vienna in 1683. The audience was then reminded that the symbol behind the famous croissant pastry originated from this very loss of the Ottoman Empire. Finally, citing Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Al-Jazeera broadcaster associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the thirst wave of jihad, the modern jihadism, which, unlike the ones before, will not be achieved through the military but through persuasion, and will be successful in Western countries.

Mr Kepel stressed that 1979 was a tipping point, as it market the birth of modern jihadism. Until this very year, jihad was largely an obsolete expression in the world of international affairs, as no one thought it could have any meaningful impact in the future world. In 1979, two incidents placed the Muslim world at the centre stage of international affairs. Firstly in February, when Ruhollah Khomeini came back from Paris became Iran’s leader and ignited an aggressive policy and rhetoric against the Great and the little Satans of the world. Iran’s revolution, which married ‘Marxist language and Islamic parlance’, not only sent a shock wave across the Western world, but also alarmed the Arab monarchies. The second incident marking the birth of the third wave of Jihad was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Whilst the Sunni victory in Afghanistan ten years later would have elevated the Sunnis as the heroes of the Muslim world, Iran managed to pull to rug under their feet. Indeed, Mr Kepel argued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was merely aimed to distract the public and ‘conceal from public perception’ mujahideen’s success in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, these jihadists came home and many tried to duplicate this successful jihadist experience in their country of origin, but only to be quickly defeated by the military.  Ben Laden attempted to identify the reasons of these failures and considered that Muslims were in fact afraid of the West. Therefore, if he could manage to blow up and expose the West, Muslim masses would mobilize under the Jihad banner. Millions of disenfranchised Muslim in France and in Europe would become soldiers of the caliphate. And indeed as this happened, bolstered by the creation of YouTube in the 2000s which triggered a ‘cultural revolution’, jihadism was brought jihadism into the digital age.

Finally, Mr Kepel noted that because of the pressure on IS territory and the frontiers closures, the modus operandi of attacks in Europe have dramatically evolved over the past years: now attacks are less sophisticated and usually involve ‘not so lonely’ lone wolves, belonging to networks of jihadists and identifying with jihadist ideology.


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