Saturday, January 8, 2005

PARIS — The Omar Mosque was packed with several hundred worshippers, forcing the overflow into a cold alley and a nearby cafe.

No fiery words blared from the loudspeaker, no calls in this formerly hard-line mosque for holy war against Jews or the U.S. occupation of Iraq. A government crackdown has forced such militant talk from radical Muslims deep underground into “secret prayer rooms,” and what’s left here is a cloud of suspicion and hostile glances at visitors.

“We come here to pray,” said Soufian Mahdawi, a bearded 22-year-old in a white Arab robe and a headdress. “We don’t want any tension, any problems. We try not to interfere in anyone’s affairs and to keep to ourselves.”

Mr. Madawi, born in Paris to Tunisian parents, refused to even discuss Iraq.

Another young man of Tunisian origin, Fouad Mohsen, 28, said televised scenes of mayhem in Iraq have had considerable impact on the psyche of Muslims here. But he said he wasn’t into politics and didn’t know anyone who had joined the fight against the U.S. occupation.

The two young men are members of a Muslim North African community that’s the prime target of a relentless French campaign to root out terrorist threats.

Over the past several years, especially following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, French authorities have adopted some of the toughest anti-terrorism laws and policies in Europe — including pre-emptive arrests, ethnic profiling and interrogation without the presence of defense attorneys.

The authorities have more than 40 mosques under watch. Police agents in civilian clothes reportedly mill in and outside mosques, recording speeches of the prayer leaders, or imams.

As a result, most of the radical preaching that calls for jihad, or holy war, and aims to recruit young Frenchmen for the insurgency in Iraq is not carried out in the open, said Gilles Leclair, director of France’s Anti-Terrorism Coordination Unit.

“Most of them are clandestine … secret prayer rooms, not in the official mosques,” Mr. Leclair told AP.

So the authorities sometimes resort to unconventional tactics.

According to Mr. Leclair, if officials have information that “Mr. Mohammed X” is a suspect but have no solid evidence, they have no qualms about finding something in his personal life, like a past complaint from his abused wife, to detain him for questioning.

“Sometimes, of course, we can bring some trouble in the personal life, but I think it’s better to [make] trouble for some people for one day and avoid 200 to 300 people from dying in a blast,” Mr. Leclair said.

Police tread a thin line between ensuring security and eroding civil liberties with such tactics aimed at militants among France’s 6 million Muslims.

“Today, if you are a Muslim, you are more afraid than if you are not a Muslim,” said Aziz Zemouri, 36, a writer whose parents immigrated from Tunisia.

Since the 1980s, French police have been planting informants to penetrate the Muslim population and have recruited Muslim detectives.

“I think there’s a mixed opinion on this among the Muslim community,” said Mr. Zemouri. Some help the police because they believe radicalism is bad for the Arab community, he said.

Mr. Zemouri, who is not an Arab but a Berber — a people indigenous to North Africa long before the arrival of the Arabs in the eighth century — believes civil liberties are suffering. “You are kept in a secret place for four days without any lawyer and often you never know why they have arrested you. They put pressure on you and sometimes beat you.”

Some people favor the tough approach.

“There’s a tradition in France of a strong state, and people want to have a strong state,” said Olivier Roy, a French specialist on terrorism and author of “Globalized Islam.” Still, he said, the French also want the courts to make sure the police don’t abuse their enormous powers.

Under French law, suspects can be detained for 92 hours before charges are filed, and jailed for up to 3 years as investigations continue and a trial is prepared. A new catch-all charge of “conspiracy in relation to terrorism” enables prosecutors to cast their nets wide.

The crackdown has restrained radical imams, who limit Friday prayers to “guiding” youths — urging them to refrain from going to discos, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana or interacting with the opposite sex. They also urge the Muslim community against integrating into the “decadent” French and Western society, lest they acquire their values.

Xavier Ternisien, a writer on France’s Muslim community for Le Monde newspaper, said the Interior Ministry sponsored a study nearly three years ago that recorded some 40 speeches by different imams and found that few of them advocated holy war or violence.

Mr. Ternisien said most of the radical mosques are in the heavily Muslim suburbs of Paris — but none openly preaches jihad or anything violent because it is forbidden to do so.

He said many Muslims have been driven out of their Paris neighborhoods by rising costs. But they still visit Jean-Pierre Timbaud street, where the Omar Mosque is located, and nearby streets where shops and restaurants cater to Muslims, cabarets offer Moroccan bellydancers, and bookshops sell Islamic literature.

French officials boast that their policies and strong intelligence have succeeded in thwarting several plots. They cite the dismantling of a Chechen-trained cell in 2002 with ties to al Qaeda that planned chemical attacks in France and Russia.

Mr. Leclair, director of the anti-terrorism unit, said the Russian Embassy in Paris was among the suspected targets.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris was the target of a foiled bomb plot in 2001. Ten Arabs, including a reputed associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, are in jail for a plot to bomb a market in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Dec. 31, 2000.

France last suffered terrorist attacks in 1995, when eight persons were killed and more than 200 injured in bombings perpetrated by Algerian insurgents angry at the French for supporting Algeria’s military-dominated government, which banned Islamic political parties and strengthened presidential powers the following year.

Today, more than 100 suspects “with good terrorist profile” are in detention — about 50 of them either convicted or prosecuted, Mr. Leclair said. The other 50 are in police custody.

Suspects are divided into three categories: those who went to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya in the past two decades; those who are in contact with them; and “newcomers.”

The last group, said Mr. Leclair, is made up of young Frenchmen of North African descent who are persuaded by radicals to join their cells and “combat our society.”

They are the hardest to identify, because they appear to live normal lives. So authorities rely on their intelligence network in places such as mosques to identify them.

Legislation passed last year allows noncitizens to be deported for inciting “discrimination, hatred or violence” against any group. Five Islamic clerics have been expelled under the new law.

In June, authorities closed the Iqra Mosque and its adjacent religious school in Levallois-Perret, north of Paris, after police found a text message from Iraq on the cell phone of a group member, identified as Toufik T., according to Le Figaro newspaper.

The mosque, which opened in 2001 in an underground passageway that looks like a parking garage, was raided by police who found two pistols and a machine that forges documents, said a former member of the Iqra Mosque, who requested anonymity. Most Fridays, about 800 worshippers fill the mosque in north Paris, the member said.

Three or four French citizens are thought to have been killed in Iraq. One of them, Redouane el-Hakim, 19, is believed to have prayed at the Iqra Mosque, as well as the Resho foyer on Rue de l’Argonne, in western Paris. But several men interviewed as they emerged from prayers there said they had not heard of him.

“When we see what’s happening in Iraq, we tell ourselves that we have to be there, to be helping the people,” said Akel, a house painter who refused to give his family name. “But I have children and a wife. It’s impossible for me to go.”

Officials believe a dozen or more French Muslims are fighting in Iraq. Some young men went there on their own initiative, “but [others] are sometimes pushed by some radical imam,” Mr. Leclair said.

An Algerian cleric who preached at the Iqra Mosque and other members were briefly detained after the mosque was closed. The cleric, who is not a French citizen and who now works at a sandwich shop a few blocks from the closed mosque, refused to speak to a reporter.

Mr. Leclair said he believed the cleric was “one of the imams who sent people to Fallujah,” suggesting that the cleric remains under official scrutiny.

French officials believe recruiters — sometimes mosque preachers or activists disguised as travel agents — arrange volunteer trips into Iraq, with a stop at a Syrian religious school as in Mr. el-Hakim’s case.

“Sometimes they supply them with money,” said Mr. Leclair, who added that he doesn’t believe it is a well-organized recruiting network.

“There are many pieces of the puzzle,” said France’s Anti-Terrorism Coordination chief, stressing the difficulty of monitoring the movement of French volunteers to Iraq and the difficulties of the battle against terrorism.

“It’s a long war,” added Mr. Leclair. “It’s the war of our century.”

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