Europe Fears Islamic Converts

NYT – Europe Fears Islamic Converts May Give Cover for Extremism [RSS]

The Courtailler brothers grew up in this medieval Alpine town, children of a butcher who went broke, who divorced his wife and moved to a job in a meatpacking plant far away. Two of the three brothers, David and Jérôme, educated in Catholic schools, foundered in drugs until they found religion: Islam. Within five years of David’s initial conversion at a mosque in the British seaside resort of Brighton in 1996, the brothers embraced many of the leading lights of Europe’s Islamic terror network. David, 28, is now in jail, and in late June, Jérôme, 29, turned himself in to the police in the Netherlands, days after he was convicted by a court there of belonging to an international terrorist group. The Courtaillers are part of a growing group of people who found a home in Islam and then veered into extremism, raising concerns among antiterrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic that the new recruits could provide foreign-born Islamic militants with invisibility and cover, by escaping the scrutiny often reserved for young men of Arab descent.

A handful of Westerners have already been arrested on terrorism charges. Their experiences, the authorities fear, could foreshadow a deepening problem. “Converts will be used for striking more and more by jihadist circles,” said Jean-Luc Marret, a terrorism expert at the Strategic Research Foundation, in Paris. “They have been used in the past for proselytism, logistics or support, and they are operationally useful now.”

Islam is Europe’s fastest-growing religion, and many experts say that while there are no reliable statistics, they believe that the number of converts has grown since Sept. 11, 2001, in many ways because of the campaign against terrorism. . . . Only a small fraction of Western Islamic converts sympathize with terrorism, and even fewer become engaged in terrorist activity. A few dozen militant converts have been identified so far. A report by France’s domestic intelligence agency, published by Le Figaro, estimated last year that there were 30,000 to 50,000 converts in France. However small the number of them drawn to terrorism, the police are focusing on this subset as a serious and growing threat. “The conversion to Islam of fragile individuals undoubtedly leads to the risk of diversion to terrorism,” the intelligence agency’s report said, adding that radical groups have recruited converts because they could cross borders easily or serve as front men for renting accommodations or providing other logistical support.

This is hardly surprising. The overwhelming majority of mosques in the West have been financed by Saudi Arabia and are of the Wahhabi brand.

The road from convert to jihadist can be remarkably short, terrorism experts say, because someone new to Islam does not have the cultural bearings or religious grounding to resist radical interpretations of Islam, and many come with a romanticized notion of an Islamic conflict with the West. “The problem is that the less you know about Islam when you come into it, the easier it is for someone to present you with the `forgotten obligation’ of jihad,” said Steven Simon, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation.

While jihadist violence is anathema to mainstream Sunni Islam, and certainly the Sufi strain, it is
fundamental to Wahhabism. We should hardly be shocked, therefore, that disillusioned Westerners who convert to Islam are susceptible to jihadist propaganda.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.