'Jihadists use the freedoms of Western society in order to destroy it'

French anti-terror Judge David Benichou noted that radicalized citizens in Europe posed a unique risk.

Cherif Kouachi (L) and Said Kouachi (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cherif Kouachi (L) and Said Kouachi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Home-grown jihadists “use the freedoms of Western society in order to seek to destroy it,” French anti-terror Judge David Benichou told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Benichou, who recently spoke at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s annual conference, noted that radicalized citizens in Europe posed a unique risk, since they were fully integrated into society and could legally enter and leave its territory at will. “The big challenge is detecting who they really are,” he said.
Regarding the security of Jews in France, the judge said he would advise against wearing religious symbols in some neighborhoods.
Pro-Palestinian protests this summer in support of Gazans became violent and created a worrisome environment for Jews, he said.
Benichou said that anti-terror cooperation with Israel was “excellent, at least judicially, [as I know from] my experience with them for several years.”
France, like all Western democracies, is trying to deal with the issue of its citizens becoming involved with terrorist organizations both at home and abroad.
Individuals who join these groups abroad are dangerous, he said, because they are able to receive military training and become more radicalized ideologically.
Discussing the ICT conference, which took place at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya last week, Benichou said he had “rarely seen such a concentration of specialists from dozens of countries, such a mixture of businesses, academics, and people from all areas affected by terrorism.”
This is because the fight against terrorism encompasses all components of society, he said.
“I spoke on the subject of foreign fighters, particularly French ones found in the ranks of jihadists in Syria, and the challenges that this brings,” said Benichou.
Specifically, a fundamental legal question hangs over the issue: “Should the jihadists be considered criminals or irregular fighters?” Perhaps this should be considered a new kind of war, he suggested, adding that Western democracies needed to reconsider the kinds of methods they used to handle the influx of extremists.
The French government has taken measures to deal with its citizens taking part in jihad abroad, with one example being the creation of a hotline for those with knowledge of youths seeking to join Islamist groups. Family members and friends can call the hotline, alerting authorities of the risk.
In some cases, it has succeeded in preventing the youths’ departure.
A bill under discussion in the French parliament introduces a ban on leaving the country for some individuals, and a proposal to withdraw the citizenship of those who go abroad to join terror groups is still being debated. When the final bill passes in the next few weeks, it will become clear what tools it includes, said the judge.
Asked if prison served to radicalize captured Islamists further, Benichou responded that unfortunately the prisons had become “a hotbed for radicalization for some, but for others it can paradoxically distance them from radical versions of Islam.”
Regarding attempts to get moderate imams to help counter Islamist ideology in prisons, he said it was difficult to find enough of them willing to provide this kind of spiritual guidance for inmates.
The general phenomenon of conversion to Islam “is also of concern, because it often involves conversion to radical forms of Islam,” he said.
Benichou also said there was a lack of data on the geographic origins or ethnicities of suspects involved in terrorist activity, because of state policy against such differentiation.