What Went Wrong With France's Deradicalization Program?

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

By training at-risk youths in history, philosophy, literature, and religion, the government hoped to fight terrorism at its root.

This article was first published by The Atlantic on September 28, 2017 as part of our Transatlantic Media Fellowship program.

Not long after David Vallat, a native Frenchman born to a secular family, turned 19, he converted to Islam. He was having an “existential crisis,” and his new faith helped him curb his juvenile bêtises, or “bad behavior,” he told me. Few questioned his choice to convert either then or later when he joined the French army in 1992, to, as he saw it, protect the Bosnian Muslims in Yugoslavia. At the time, French troops were being sent to the Balkans as NATO peacekeepers, and Vallat jumped at the opportunity to join them. His motivation came from a promise he’d made to himself several years earlier after watching Nuit et Brouillard, a film about Auschwitz: He would not “stand idly by” in the face of another genocide. Yet the war was a shock: After escaping death twice in three days, Vallat considered returning home—“as a coward,” he said.

Then Vallat met Saudi Arabian and Qatari fighters on the frontline. They had a “momentum” he admired, a courage he desired. They taught him that if he sought to become a true Muslim, it didn’t matter if he lived or died in the war—Allah was waiting for him in paradise. He befriended several men who were members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which sought to export the Algerian civil war to French soil. They told Vallat that if he wanted to be a true martyr, he needed to “train himself.” (Two of the men, Khaled Kelkal and Boualem Bensaïd, were later convicted of masterminding the 1995 Paris bombings.)

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Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.