Wallace-Wells-Radicalization1-1200.jpgSource: The New Yorker


Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2007, and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society.

Late last fall, just a few weeks before the coördinated attacks in Paris, a Brookings Institution researcher named Chris Meserole assembled all the data he could find about which countries isis fighters came from, and began to run programs looking for correlations. Much of the scholarship in the evolving field of terror analysis emphasized jihadists’ networks and their psychological profiles, but Meserole and his collaborator, Will McCants, were interested in a separate line of questions. What was the social position of Sunni Muslims in each country that sent jihadis to Syria, and did any aspects of that position seem to correspond with the number they sent? Meserole thought that some new analytics techniques could help cut through the data, and once he applied them he found several correlations. Two were not especially strong or surprising: countries where Sunni Muslims were densely concentrated in cities, and where they had especially high rates of youth unemployment, tended to produce moreisis fighters. But the third was striking. The most powerful variable by far in predicting how many jihadis a country would produce was whether the people in that country spoke French.

The Francophone connection was not, in itself, a satisfying conclusion. Surely the language must be standing in for something else. Eventually, Meserole and McCants thought they saw a more meaningful explanation for France, Belgium, and Tunisia’s high rates of isis fighters: the campaigns against the veil across the Francophone world in 2010 and 2011. In April, 2010, after a high-profile debate, France’s government began enforcing a national law that effectively prohibited Muslim women from wearing the niqab or burqa, which cover the face, in public. In July, 2011, Belgium passed a similar law. (Tunisia, which long had a ban on the veil on the books, had begun enforcing it in 2006.)

Meserole met with a terrorism researcher named Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow at Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia, who had been studying the sixteen people who left Quebec to join the fight in Syria. Amarasingam believed that a high-profile, failed campaign to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies in Quebec may have played an important role. Fourteen of the sixteen jihadis had left the province after the bill was debated. In interviewing the fighters’ family members, Amarasingham found that the bill had been a “big catalyst” in their radicalization, he told Meserole. It was at that point, Meserole told me, that “I thought we might actually be on to something.” Spokesmen for isis have sometimes said that the group’s goal in recruitment is to eliminate the “gray area” in which people feel both Muslim and part of the West. Maybe the debates over the veil, Meserole and McCants came to believe, had helped do that for them. (Quebec has not had the same strictly secular tradition, which to Meserole made this an especially interesting case of what happened when political ideas were imported directly from France.)

In March, Meserole and McCants published a brief account of their findings in Foreign Affairs. (Meserole gave a more detailed description of their research onhis blog last week.) Then, as ideas tend to in Washington, it began to amble slowly downhill, referred to in op-eds and at conferences, acquiring supporters and dissenters, without really being proven or disproven. The study exhibited “a surprisingly shallow understanding of the French-speaking world,” Olivier Decottignies, a career French diplomat now in residence at the Washington Institute, insisted. (If Washington looks at Paris and sees lax security services, Paris looks at Washington and sees naïfs with spreadsheets.) Others pointed out that many of the Belgian terrorists were from predominantly Dutch-speaking regions, and so might have been more insulated from the debates over the veil.

The criticism that Meserole took most seriously was that their methodology meant that they emphasized causes that could be identified at the national level, when the real action was taking place within jihadis’ social networks. When most of the terrorists were of Moroccan descent and many were from a few neighborhoods, why would Meserole and McCants ask how France was different from England, or Belgium from Denmark?

Meserole had compared the number of Moroccan immigrants in each European country to the number of the country’s jihadi recruits, and he found that it did not bear out excluding the Francophone connection. There were approximately one and a half million Moroccans in France, and that nation had sent an estimated twelve hundred jihadis to the Middle East. But there were eight hundred thousand Moroccans in Spain, which had sent only seventy-five. Belgium and Italy each had about half a million Moroccan immigrants, but Belgium had supplied more than five times as many jihadis. “You can say it has something to do with Moroccan networks, but I think you have to say that it has something to do with the Moroccan experience in France and Belgium particularly,” Meserole told me.

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