- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France — There are no minarets at the Bilal Mosque. Hidden out of sight behind a shopping center, it looks more like a warehouse than a house of prayer, with cinder block and plaster walls covered with faded green Arabic lettering.

It was here that police launched a tear gas grenade whose fumes filled the mosque at prayer time — inflaming passions as riots engulfed derelict, mostly immigrant neighborhoods across France.

Although most of the rioters were Muslims, almost no one thinks radical Islam was a trigger for the rioting that began three weeks ago.

But analysts and authorities fear the social discontent that found an outlet in the rampaging could evolve among a small minority of the rioters into a dangerous form of Islamic militancy.

Many predict the months to come will become a struggle for the soul of these angry communities — with the authorities, Islamic radicals, drug gangs and social welfare groups all vying for influence among troubled youths.

“We will see recruitment opportunities for jihadists because some youths who participated in the riots are going to say ‘What’s the use of burning cars? … We have to go on to a higher level,’” said Olivier Roy, one of Europe’s most prominent scholars of Islamic society.

“Those people will either turn toward terrorism in France or go to places like Fallujah,” the one-time insurgent stronghold in Iraq.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy — whose aggressive handling of the riots has been applauded by much of France, even as his tough talk against rioters generated resentment in poor housing projects — singled out two enemies in his battle to regain control of largely immigrant neighborhoods.

“The hour of truth has come,” Mr. Sarkozy told the Senate last week. “We must not let the rule of the gangs and the rule of the bearded ones prevail.” He was referring to radical imams by their typically untrimmed facial hair.

French counterterrorism chief Pierre de Bousquet used more measured language, but his message was just as stern.

“Among the most fiery of these youths, some may find for their disquiet, their frustrations, their violence … an outlet in international jihad,” Mr. Bousquet said in an interview with Valeurs Actuel magazine. “The situation is very worrying, and the threat is high.”

The head of the Bilal Mosque, Abderrahman Bouhout, played down the risk of Islamic militancy, saying jihadist anger would have exploded immediately after the tear gas incident if such sentiments had taken root.

“After the mosque was gassed, I felt hatred … I felt anger,” he said. “But then things calmed down.”

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