Mohamed Guerbi (left) and Oussoufa Hassani. (Photo: Mona Awad)

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Boyz in le Hood

France is spending millions on centers to ‘de-radicalize’ young people at risk of falling prey to violent extremism. The young people don't know it exists.
Nov 18, 2016· 17 MIN READ
Marc Herman is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado and a cofounder of Deca, a longform journalists' co-op. He lives in Barcelona.

GRIGNY, France—Half an hour outside Paris by train, the suburb of Grigny has a quiet main street of small shops and a post office, and a school nestled behind a two-story city hall. Though Paris’ suburbs have a reputation for violence and poverty—even people who don’t speak French have heard the word banlieue—they’re lovely compared with many U.S. exurbs. Flowers. Trees. There’s no obvious graffiti here, and the only people doing illegal business on the corners are selling corn on the cob, barbecued on ad hoc hibachis. Still, in 2005 the town was a center of widespread rioting in the Paris suburbs, following the deaths of two boys believed to have been fleeing police. They were the worst riots in modern French history, and the first shots fired at police originated in Grigny from a complex of snaking rows of subsidized housing, La Grande Borne.


The town became internationally notorious last year as the home of Amedy Coulibaly, one of the men who murdered four hostages in the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris’ 20th arrondissement two days after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo magazine.

Fifteen months later, and six months after terrorist attacks on the Bataclan theater and terrace restaurants in Paris in November 2015, which killed 90, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that France would undertake an experiment in tempting young people away from mass violence. Coulibaly was a French citizen, as were the Charlie Hebdo attackers, and all those known to have been involved in the Paris attacks had EU passports. The French government had already expanded a special paramilitary police force by 5,000 officers, deployed thousands of troops to sites deemed at high risk of becoming targets, announced a freeze in any cuts to defense until at least 2018, and enacted a state of emergency measure following the November 2015 attacks, giving security forces and state officials broad powers to arrest suspects and dissolve suspicious organizations, among other things.

But at a heavily promoted press event in May, Valls sounded more like a sociologist than like a member of a war council. “The radicalization of part of our youth, seduced by a deadly antisocial model,” was the greatest challenge his country had faced in a generation, he said. Valls unveiled a plan that included spending $45 million for 12 “de-radicalization centers,” where French citizens ages 17 to 30, deemed by the Ministry of the Interior to be “at risk of radicalization,” could voluntarily attend a 10-month, rehab-style program designed to guide them off paths leading to mass violence. “Radicalization and terrorism are linked,” Valls announced.

Break the link and the shooting stops, went the assumption.

The string of attacks in France, which continued with the Bastille Day massacre in Nice on July 14, have put the nation’s antiterrorism efforts in the international spotlight. The experiment received extensive press coverage in Europe but has been less of a fascination inside France, where it faded quickly from the news. The first center opened in September, two months after the Nice attack, yet the occasion generated more attention outside the country than within.

Today the program operates largely out of the public eye. The first thing one learns when asking about it in Grigny is that no one outside the government seems aware it exists. Several elected officials said they had received little information about it. What they had heard induced worries about a vague curriculum and surprise at the program’s lofty price tag for sensitizing a few hundred participants for two years.

“We do not know if it’s good or bad because it has not been tried yet in France,” said Hella Kribi-Romdhane, who represents Grigny on a regional council. But she sees why the government is willing to spend the money. “There are moms who come to us elected officials, and to me because I’m a woman, and say, ‘My son does not want me to listen to music at home anymore,’ or ‘My son doesn’t want me to attend family weddings because it is sin,’ ” she said over coffee in a Montparnasse café. “So there's parents that detect that with their children and need support. And as of today, we are very poorly equipped for that.”

The centers, she allowed, were at least an effort to do something. “It must be tested—even if on principle I am not a fan. It’s an experiment, I suppose,” she said, with a slight shrug.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announces the establishment of a dozen de-radicalization centers across the country to prevent would-be extremists from joining jihadist groups at a press conference on May 9 in Paris. (Photo: Eric Feferberg)

Unstated in Valls’ speech was that the de-radicalization scheme comes on the heels of steep reductions in local government budgets. In elections last year, with migration tensions rising across Europe—and in which recent migrants without citizenship couldn’t vote—voters in the Île-de-France region, which includes Grigny, threw out the ruling Democratic Socialists, replacing them with a right-wing coalition. The cuts that followed resulted in the cancellation of both law enforcement—the French national police force had already been reduced by nearly 9,000 officers in 2012—and local social services programs in the same places where the de-radicalization center plan is likely to seek participants. Places like Grigny.

“Valls spoke about political and economic apartheid and territorial separation” between Paris and its economically struggling suburbs, said Frédéric Rey, a spokesman for the Grigny city government. “They already knew that; it was just his job to say it.” The ring of towns outside Paris first swelled after the Second World War, when North and West African soldiers who’d fought for France were granted citizenship and settled there. The suburbs grew again after decolonization brought more newcomers from abroad, in the ’60s and into the ’80s. Contraction of community policing in Grigny during the recent recession, Rey said, meant the city could no longer control problems as they grew. The de-radicalization program wasn’t addressing a problem that had been well-known (if not well-understood) for years. “The only thing that changed is that local problems have become national problems,” he said.


Djelloul Attig, who has run the youth services department in Grigny for the past 12 years, said most of his budget for job training and migrant services was eliminated during the global recession and has yet to be reinstated. “Radicalization is dealing with issues of employment, integration,” he said. “The only state institution present in the region is the Ministry of National Education. There's nothing [serving young people] besides school.”

When one of its native sons proved to be among the killers in the Hyper Cacher siege, the whole town came under suspicion. “Some people wanted to leave Grigny after the Hyper Cacher. Young people don’t like to say where they’re from anymore,” said Rey. The de-radicalization center program might work, or it might not, he said. But it wouldn’t help an angry kid get an apartment or a job, denied him because of his face or his address. Which would make him angrier.

Shoppers visit one of the neighborhood street markets in Grigny, France, in October. (Photo: Mona Awad)

Grigny is a tight community. I went there with a translator, a French filmmaker named Fatma Benyoub. She volunteers with a nonprofit organization, 1000 Visages, that makes films with young people living in the banlieues. She agreed to take me to meet some of the students, so we rode the train out from Paris to the little town of cottages with flower boxes tucked amid the hulking housing project. It’s a friendlier-feeling place than Paris, with street markets between the residential blocks selling off-brand household goods, roast chicken, and cheap earrings. Sellers barked over the crowd in three or four languages.

Benyoub stopped for off-brand toothpaste and laundry detergent, which in Paris is four times the price. “The kids I work with live half an hour from every museum in Paris,” she said, “and most of them have never been to a single one. They may not come to Paris at all.” A reduced-fare transportation card for young people had recently been canceled—the type of cutback some see as having larger, hard-to-measure effects. The technocratic shift meant Grigny kids found it difficult to leave town for jobs or university.

This guy had my name, my address, and had been waiting downstairs for me. He had been talking about the mosque. But something in the words he used—he hadn’t really been talking about religion exactly.

Mounir Amamra, 23, student

We headed to a pizza place to meet Mounir Amamra, who grew up in La Grande Borne. Five years ago Amamra lost his father, which devastated the young man. He sought comfort in religion, he said. He attended a mosque in the next town, not far from his family’s house in Grigny. It was closer to his university, where he was studying business administration, and was the mosque his girlfriend at the time frequented.

After a year of attending the mosque regularly, Amamra was returning home one evening when a man approached him in front of his apartment building. “He asked about my family, where I was coming from, where I was going,” said Amamra, a slight man of 23 with a wisp of a beard.

Amamra said the man was dressed smartly in streetwear. He estimated he was about 35. “I told him I was just coming back from the mosque,” he said. The man said he most often went to that mosque too, though Amamra didn’t recognize him. After chatting a bit more, the man invited him to attend a special session of religious study at the mosque and told him, Amamra recalled, “Listen, Mounir, I just want to tell you you’re a great guy.”

Amamra hadn’t told the man his name.

After a few uncomfortable moments, Amamra said good-bye to the man and headed inside. Unsettled, he told his family what had happened.

“The more I thought about it, the more it clicked, that this guy had my name, my address, and had been waiting downstairs for me. He had been talking about the mosque too. But something in the words he used—he hadn’t really been talking about religion exactly.”

He thought about calling the police, but, he said, “what would I tell them? A guy talked to me?” This was a year before the Charlie Hebdo attacks. France was not yet at its current state of high awareness, when the story would be considered suspicious.

Mounir Amamra stands in a residential street in Grigny in October. (Photo: Mona Awad)

Amamra’s older brother was troubled by the encounter, and the two went to the mosque to confront the mysterious man; they found him in a classroom in the back. Amamra’s brother told the man to stay away from his family. Amamra didn’t return to that mosque and never saw the man again.

Amamra allows that he really has no idea what the man wanted. Maybe he was simply a religion teacher. Or maybe he had hidden intentions, even something criminal—drugs or boosting cars—but not politics or violence. But he doesn’t really buy that: Amamra believes extremists were targeting him for recruitment. French police recently said they were following 1,400 cases of radical recruitment, though a report by French police put the figure at 8,250, according to Le Figaro.

“At that time, I had just lost my father,” he said. “I was weak. I would go to the mosque and stay sometimes six hours. We would talk about beautiful things—about the religion and what was beautiful in it. And I adored that. I think this man smelled that, and that is why he came.”

Amamra can’t quite explain why he wasn’t vulnerable to the man’s invitations. “During private lessons [at the mosque], they never speak about hurting people. They use the beauty of Islam to attract you. For me it is not the context that radicalizes you but more the urge to do something. To be somebody. When you've dropped out of life and you are trying to find the taste to life, radicalization seems to make so much sense. It’s way before that you have to show young people something else, because once they are radicalized, it’s dead.”

Housing projects such as La Grande Borne, in Grigny, were constructed in the Paris suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s to house new emigrants from French colonies and former colonies in North and West Africa. (Photo: Mona Awad)

Even so, a de-radicalization center voicing the counterargument to extremism—like most people we talked to, Amamra hadn’t heard of the new network before Benyoub and I told him about it, though it had opened that month—didn’t appeal, he said. “Honestly, they take advantage of boredom here. If you give us something to do—not even a job, just sports even—it takes up the space in your mind, and that’s all you need.

“This kind of center will accentuate this confusion. It means one can only be radicalized in Islam. But what about Christian radicals? It's pretty humiliating,” he said.

Would he call the program about someone he suspected?

“If I call the cops just because this guy creeps me out, someone can do the same thing to me,” he said. And might, he worried.

France's first de-radicalization center opened in Beaumont-en-Véron, three hours outside Paris, in September. (Photo: Guillaume Souvant)

The confusion over the de-radicalization scheme extended to where it would be operating, Beaumont-en-Véron, a farm town with a picturesque stone bridge in the Loire Valley, three hours from Paris. A protest had greeted the Loire center when it opened in September, with residents saying it seemed like a glorified jail. Rather than a place where vulnerable young people would come for help, they feared, the center would be importing France’s driest tinder to communities unprepared for the challenge.

The brutal knife slaying in August of an 84-year-old village priest in another small community, Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, by a teenage self-styled “terrorist,” added to worries about the program. (Police later admitted the young man had been on their radar for more than a year.)

Initial descriptions of the center to the international press, by France’s Inter-ministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency and Radicalization, which runs the program (and did not respond to requests for comment), sketched a facility that appeared to be half military boarding school, half summer camp.

CIPDR staff explained to reporters in September that enrollees—there would be 30 spaces—will be expected to rise early, eat together, wear uniforms, and exercise. Yet the system is not billed as strictly disciplinary: Participants attend group and individual counseling, get to watch movies and listen to music, and have opportunities to practice arts and crafts. The center’s walls were painted in bright colors and covered in posters with inspiring slogans. (Photos of an activity room that appeared at French news website The Local depicted facilities resembling a preschool more than a reformatory, one zestfully festooned with pictures of butterflies and an angel singing, “Ah, love!”) Participants, many of whom were expected to be legal adults, could come and go, though there would be bars on the windows.

But no one was able to say how attendees would be selected. “That's a good question,” said Gerard Bronner, a sociologist who studies radicalization at Paris Diderot University, two days before starting a counseling shift at the Loire center. We met at one of those Parisian cafés with the little round tables and inexplicably awful coffee; it remained hard to imagine as a war zone, even after restaurants exactly like it were shot up so horrifically less than a year ago.

One of the people who helped conceptualize the de-radicalization program, Bronner argues the centers aren’t designed to change anyone’s thinking but to teach people who have been essentially brainwashed how to resume thinking critically at all. “Learning this mode of reasoning is to free the individual from the grasp of an ideology. I want to lead them to a mental declaration of independence.” he said. “It is an immersive center [that]…allows them to get out of their social context."


Bronner was skeptical of the common narrative of terrorists created within a few weeks—by a lightbulb moment when a particularly impressionable or bitter person watched the wrong YouTube video. Violence resulted only after a meticulous process, he said, of crowding out room for other beliefs in a person’s mind step-by-step.

One of the program’s goals was to interrupt this slow process of crowding out. “We are not saying a person does not have freedom of speech or thought,” Bronner said. “We hope to apply techniques that do not ask them to eliminate specific thoughts but liberate a person to also have other thoughts.” Similar programs had shown success in Denmark and Germany, and were models for the French system, he said.

How to distinguish between radical thoughts and an actual desire, and willingness, to commit mass murder? Bronner theorized that by defining how a person’s perspective had narrowed to a single ideology and profiling a person’s journey along that path, it would be possible to distinguish between somebody being pulled into a violent militia and somebody attracted to radical messages but unlikely ever to pull a trigger. He thought he could measure that process and draw predictive conclusions—profile terrorists before they became terrorists—if he had enough data. He believed that he could build a profile of a violent terrorist while excluding the more common campus firebrands and young poseurs.

“My idea is to find very sharp detection tests,” he said, “that can be specific and the outcome extremely reliable.” Data from his upcoming work at the de-radicalization center would inform this model.

Religion, inevitably, would be part of it. Drawing behavioral profiles of members of a subgroup of French society—young Muslims—was both a clear part of the exercise, he said, and its great danger. “Statistically, the deaths from the recent terrorist attacks are due to jihadists. It is therefore natural that there’s a temporary connection between [Islam and terrorism].” But the majority of French citizens, he said, are “fighting against this perception.”

Residents and tourists continue to leave flowers and candles in the Place dé la Republique in Paris at a makeshift memorial to victims of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in the city. (Photo: Jacques Demarthon/Getty Images)

Should the experiment work, and be expanded, then the profiling component of the system would become much more visible in day-to-day police work. “The question of individual liberty concerns me greatly,” he said, frowning. Discrimination would be addressed in part by including in his calculations data on behavior unrelated to terrorism or politicized crimes, yet similar in its violence, multiple acts of murder being an example. His profiles would be “based on our mental invariants, present in all cultures.” That, he said, would diminish race or religion as a factor pointing to potential terrorists. “Critically, methodologically—in the theory there’s nothing unique to any radicalization. Personally, my son—if he was experiencing social exclusion, I’d say the same things to him.”

The bottom line, though, is that he is profiling young Muslims.

A positive outcome, Bronner said, would be for all French kids to see themselves as full participants in French culture, even when standing in opposition to, criticizing, or feeling marginalized by it. Attacking France wouldn’t happen if the person believed he or she were a part of France.

Would it work? Efforts to prevent radicalization, de-radicalize those already on the road to violence, and even define a successful outcome are the subject of years of study and very little agreement among experts.

“It has been practically impossible to ascertain what is implied by or expected from programs that claim to be able to de-radicalize terrorists,” wrote John Horgan, the then director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism in Pennsylvania, in a 2010 report, Rehabilitating the Terrorists? Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-radicalization Programs. Horgan’s study, still widely cited, involved interviews with more than 60 former terrorists that included discussions of what led them to violence.

His conclusion: That wasn’t the right question.

A 2010 summary of the research by the American Psychological Association found that “it’s more fruitful to investigate how people change as a result of terrorist involvement than to simply ask why they enter in the first place. That’s because asking ‘why’ tends to yield pat, ideological responses, while asking how reveals important information about the processes of entry, involvement and leaving organizations.”

Academic literature on the role of local government support services in radicalization remains all over the map, as does much of the broader debate over radicalism. “Why some young people resort to violent extremism and others do not is a long-lasting and still on-going debate across social sciences,” a study commissioned by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs found in 2014. “There are no commonly understood metrics, nor solid anchor points, to answer the question. The threshold between holding ‘radical’ views and becoming violent is still subject to debate.”

Guerbi stands near his home in La Grande Borne in Grigny. (Photo: Mona Awad)

Benyoub was still celebrating her acquisition of half-price laundry detergent at a street market beside La Grande Borne when two young guys slipped quietly into open seats beside her on a Grigny city bus. The two held themselves together for nearly a minute before one, Oussoufa Hassani, 22, giggled a little. Benyoub saw him and threw her arms around him—one of her students from 1000 Visages.

Hassani was accompanying his friend, Mohamed Guerbi, 18, on an errand to sign up for driving school. They’d both worked with Benyoub in the film program, and Hassani was later hired to do office work for it. Both were from Grigny; neither had heard of the de-radicalization program. They agreed to get a drink at a café near the train station, where commuters were transiting to and from Paris.

I described Amamra’s story and asked if they thought it was as sinister as he did. Hassani smirked. “I believe it—because that happened to me too,” he said.

Before the string of terrorist attacks last year an uncle of Hassani’s had come to visit from elsewhere in France. “My dad is a little religious, but my uncle—he’s really religious,” Hassani said. The uncle enrolled Hassani in additional religious study classes “to deepen your understanding,” he told him.

A train went by, forcing a pause. I asked: What’s so bad about that?


“Nothing,” he said. “But it wasn’t religion, exactly.” The classes, which he attended four or five times, made him feel as if he should give them all of his attention, and within a few weeks the ever stricter lifestyle the classes were demanding had started to crowd out the rest of his life. He didn’t notice what was happening at first, he said. No one in the class said anything offensive to him. No one spoke of anything but regular religious study. But the rest of his daily activities started mattering less, he said. He’d been counseled to narrow his focus to religion, to de-emphasize school, to start looking more critically at how others dressed.

Hassani did as told for a while, he said, until he and Guerbi signed up for film classes at 1000 Visages. Soon he was ditching stodgy religion classes to make movies at the NGO. Having more fun there, he blew off his uncle. “Honestly, I stopped going with my uncle because I stopped having time,” he said.

At religious classes in which an uncle had enrolled him, Hassani felt pressured to make Islam the center of his life. (Photo: Mona Awad)

In neither Amamra’s nor Hassani’s case is there any evidence of a crime, and certainly not of terrorism or violence. It’s possible to make a case for what Bronner would call the incremental crowding out of other perspectives and there is a clear case for what the Grigny city council would call a lack of other things for young people to do.

But mass violence is a big leap from holding a radical idea, Guerbi said. What if Hassani had stayed six months in class with his uncle? A year? “What if we all four at this table decided to stand up in the café and gave a speech denouncing France?” he said. Would that be a sign of future violence?

That France faces a complex, lethal problem is not disputed, and its storied capital is still coming to terms with the events of the past two years. In the Place de la République, friends of last year’s victims, family members, and the occasional overwrought tourist still bring photos and fresh flowers to a memorial on the plaza stones. The nearby Bataclan theater was still covered in scaffolding and tarps in September. Soldiers patrol the streets in four-person squads. In battle dress, they carry rucksacks full of fighting gear and the French army’s intimidating FAMAS rifles. Police said they’d narrowly foiled a plot to attack the city’s famous Gare du Nord train station in September and soon after discovered an apparent car bomb parked outside Notre Dame Cathedral. Paris’ huge travel industry lost half a billion dollars within six months of last winter’s attacks, and the economic hit has not helped the city’s recovery.

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The young men in Grigny were wary that the alarm in the city would mean guilt by association in the suburbs. “I knew people who did things, stole cars, sold drugs,” said Guerbi. “I saw Coulibaly around the neighborhood, and, you know, you say hi. We came from the same place. But he makes his decision, and you make yours. If you don’t have solid people around you, you can easily fall off the wagon.” Their former neighbor Coulibaly’s decision, however, had cost lives. Knowing what they know now, if they heard of another guy like that around the neighborhood, in their family, would they call up France’s terrorism hotline, set up after Charlie Hebdo, and drop a name? (According to Bronner, more than 14,000 calls have been logged on the system in a little over a year.)

Guerbi said he would not. “It’s not about a de-radicalization center,” he said. He felt he was being forced to take sides between two massive forces, France and extremism, and each put its own interests before his.

Hassani said it wasn’t their job to tell the government who was dangerous and who wasn’t, if it couldn’t tell itself. “It’s like they’re parents getting divorced and fighting over you,” he continued. “The extremists, they want you to agree with them and go to their classes. The government, now they have this new place, they want you to go to those classes. Really, you’re just bored. One can wonder why it looks more like an ideological war rather than a question of protecting citizens from an actual threat.”

But he also felt the interest in his own behavior gave him power, whether the forces vying for his future realized it or not, Hassani said. They could listen to the radical ideology and the state ideology and draw their own conclusions. “The thing is, we took the best of both, and that’s why we will be able to create a future that fully resembles our principles. We have some kind of power because we are the future,” he said.

Guerbi said he didn’t care about the latest plan to steer him one way or another, “because we have a perspective on what is happening. A perspective that none of them—media, politicians—have.” They were fine in Grigny; they’d handle it themselves. Pointing across the table at Hassani, he said, “We’re the ones who are going to save France.”

In an interview with a French radio station on Sept. 11, Valls repeated his claim that the French government was now aware of 15,000 people “in the process” of joining radical groups, and that French police had already opened investigations on 1,400 of them.

On Saturday, Oct. 8, an unknown assailant hurled a Molotov cocktail at a police officer patrolling La Grande Borne. Valls said a few days later he had approved expanded police deployments to Grigny.

The Bataclan theater, dark since the attack there more than a year ago, re-opened this week. Friday’s show, a concert by Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour, is sold out.