How Europe’s ‘Little Losers’ Became Terrorists

“We know how to put people in prison. But we don’t know what to do with them afterwards.”

Policemen stand next to a burning car after violence flared near Lyon, the hometown of Algerian-born terrorism suspect Khaled Kelkal, on September 29, 1995. (Robert Pratta / Reuters)

Khaled Kelkal, a small but solidly built young man with a shock of dense black curls, entered prison at 19, evincing the sort of defiant frivolity that remains the mark of so many young men of his circumstance, the unwanted Arabs of the French banlieues. His robberies, the police chases, had all seemed to him a “game,” he told a sociologist in 1992. His incarceration chastened him. “You know, in prison you can’t help but mull things over. And I really mulled a lot of things over,” he told the researcher.“Everything my mother told me, everything my father told me, it’s all true. But you only realize that after the fact, because in the moment, you’re on stage. And in prison, all of a sudden you’re in the audience, and you say to yourself: ‘This isn’t life anymore, what have I done?’”

Kelkal returned to the Islam with which he had been raised, now finding in it a sense of camaraderie and inclusion akin to that he’d found in crime. “I’m not Arab, I’m not French, I’m Muslim. I make no distinctions. Now if a French person becomes a Muslim, he’s the same as me, we both prostrate ourselves before God. There’s no more races, nothing, everything is switched off, it’s oneness, we’re united,” he said. “You go into a mosque, you’re immediately at ease, they shake your hand, they think of you like a friend they’ve known for a long time.”

Three years later, Kelkal, by then 24, was France’s most-wanted man, sought in connection with a string of bombings in Paris, on the run after a summer of terror. His fingerprint was found on an unexploded gas canister, placed on a high-speed train track; in late September, mushroomers spotted him in the hills outside Lyon, just 15 miles from the housing project where he’d been raised. Two nights later, his corpse was sprawled on the pavement of a darkened rural street, a jammed pistol in his hand, the commandos of the gendarmerie prodding at him uncertainly to be sure they’d shot him dead. In his pockets were two knives, a compass, and a Koran.

The young man had joined the GIA, or Groupe Islamique Armé, jihadist insurgents battling the putschist military regime in Algeria. (For backing the generals, France was designated a target.) In prison, it appears, Kelkal had been urged back to religion by an Algerian Islamist; his recruitment to the GIA is understood to have come shortly after his release, at a moment of particular vulnerability when, despite the maturity he had evidently gained, he was without work or prospects.

In Kelkal, France and Europe might have identified a herald of what was to come, an early prototype for the weak and desperate young men, transfixed by ultra-violence and the promise of self-affirmation it contains, who are now terrorizing the continent. Be it for lack of foresight or imagination, or owing to the narrow dictates of institutional logic, or through no identifiable failing at all, they did not, and Europe today finds itself and its security services overwhelmed by an entire generation of jihadists in Kelkal’s image. Only now are the nations of the continent beginning to reckon with the notion that these men, the delinquent-radicals who appear so prominently among the thousands of Europeans who have traveled to the Syrian jihad, might have been at best underestimated and at worst created, in no small measure, by the very systems meant to protect Europe from terrorism.

More than a decade ago, American and European counterterrorism analysts had already begun to classify such men as members of a new class of fighters. “You have ‘little losers’—and that actually is the expression that was used,” said Glenn Carle, a former officer of the CIA and the National Intelligence Council, who until his retirement in 2007 spoke regularly with European counterparts. “When I met with the French services, and other French-speaking services, we talked about ‘les petits perdants’—‘little losers.’ When I met with the Spanish, we spoke of ‘los pequeños perdedores,’ the ‘little losers.’ And it wasn’t a term of art, it was the characterization that comes to mind when you look at these people.”

They were thugs and petty crooks from the grayest neighborhoods, oftentimes born to Muslim families but lacking much of any inherited knowledge of Islam. They were empty vessels, as the Islamic scholar Olivier Roy might put it, filled with the propaganda of jihad and possessed of the heedlessness to act on it. It was such “little losers” who carried out the Madrid bombings of 2004 and the murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh later that year; the London bombings of 2005; the killings of soldiers and Jews in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012; the killings at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels in 2014; the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris in January of 2015; the attacks in Paris and at the Stade de France in November of that year; and the bombings in Brussels in March.

The “classic profile” of the past 15 years, Carle said, was the young man recruited to jihad through soccer, literally or metaphorically, at the urging of an “authority figure in their social circle” who “inspires them to do something, to ‘Be All That They Can Be.’” He offered an example. “‘Mohammed,’ who is reputed to have been in Bosnia during the war, says to you: ‘Are you gonna play soccer during the weekends and then jerk off every night, and that’s gonna be your life? Look what’s happening to the brothers everywhere, this is terrible. And you can be a man, or you can be a loser. And there’s a chance for you to be a man.’”

Europe’s counterterror laws were written, in the 1990s and early 2000s, for other men. Those jihadis, fighters of an earlier generation, were often politicized intellectuals from abroad, Islamist activists who had come to Europe fleeing repression in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria—fanatics in their own right but more often deeply read and more deeply tied to their particular cause. European authorities believed that these men needed to be preventively “neutralized,” to use the word favored by the French, and across Europe legislation was passed to facilitate this. Islamists soon arrived in prisons en masse, in France in particular, and quickly began converting to religion and jihad the criminals with whom they were held. Kelkal appears to have been among the first.

At the time, little thought was given to the risk of such an eventuality. Indeed, the French initially reasoned that it would be preferable to spread the jihadis throughout the prisons, so as to prevent them from plotting with one another. (With the advent of the Syrian jihad, and the corresponding arrival of scores of new jihadist inmates, they have been forced to reevaluate this approach. In addition to a few hundred former or would-be fighters, the French prison administration estimates that 2,000 prisoners are “radicalized” Muslims, and another 8,000 or so “liable to be radicalized,” a senior prison official told me several months ago.) Nor was much thought given to the possibility of rehabilitation or “deradicalization.” The urgency was that the men be removed from society and, in any case, most of them were considered to be irrevocable ideologues.

“We know how to put people in prison,” said Louis Caprioli, a former counterterror chief for France’s principal domestic intelligence service. “But we don’t know what to do with them afterwards, if you will. It’s true that the prison milieu is a milieu that encourages criminality, in certain cases. It’s a milieu that encourages—we’ve seen this clearly—radicalization, because we don’t know how to handle it all.” Official programs for the “deradicalization” of inmates have only just begun in France and in Belgium, and remain marginal elsewhere. “We’re so very late,” Caprioli said. France in particular has been hindered, in his view, by its increasingly rigid official secularism, known as laïcité. The country’s political tradition of ultra-centralization would seem to demand that any counter-discourse used to sway jihadists from their cause be approved at the highest levels of government, but laïcité effectively bans the state from becoming involved in matters of religion.

More broadly, however, the authorities of the continent have not acted on their conclusion, reached by some as early as at least a decade ago, according to Carle, and since buttressed by a horrible list of examples, that the phenomenon of European jihadism might be as much social as political, that it might be linked—like crime in general—to cultural and economic conditions, to friendship networks, and to the life circumstances that prime people for delinquency. That is to say, while European authorities have developed strong legal tools to stop those men identified as threats before they act, there have been few concerted efforts to prevent such men from becoming threats in the first place, be it through targeted social programs, beat-policing, alternatives to prison, or some other approach. Even Britain’s contested “Prevent” program is aimed primarily at identifying those who have already been or begun to be “radicalized.” Caprioli, the former French intelligence chief, said he was unaware of “anyone” who had ever proposed more than a short-term, repressive approach to jihadism in Europe.

Any serious effort at prevention would necessarily entail an attempt to understand the mechanics not only of recruitment and indoctrination, but also of the appeal of jihad, of the human yearnings and impulses to which it responds. There seems to be little public or political appetite for that, however. “For these enemies who lash out at their compatriots, who tear up this contract that unites us, there can be no legitimate explanation,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated earlier this year, in a speech that outraged social scientists. “Because to explain is in itself to wish to excuse, a bit.” Coming from the mouth of a politician, such a refusal to interrogate the problem resembles nothing so much as a bid to absolve himself of any possible responsibility. Insofar as it absolves society as well, however, it has become a popular strain of thought across Europe, where various nativist populisms are currently resurgent. There can be no doubt that every European jihadist is personally responsible for his actions. And yet, if the past two decades are to be examined for their lessons, it is also certain that to hold them personally responsible before courts of law is not enough.

Prevention is not an easy sell, however. “Politically it’s not a winner, and institutionally it’s not a winner, because what has to happen is a response right away,” said Carle, the former American intelligence official. “This will sound really touchy-feely, I know, but it’s the truth: If you can increase the number of crèches and daycare centers in these communities, then 15 years from now, there will still be people trying to slash your throat, but the numbers will be smaller.” He proposed a metaphor. “What’s the best measure that society can take to fight malaria? It’s not running around giving people shots. It’s draining the swamps.”

Arguably, Europe has been filling them. The attacks of recent years have caused a great deal of understandable fear; official and cultural reactions have come in the form of vastly expanded security and intelligence powers, the quelling of voices of hesitation or dissent, and the development of a politics of majority identity and allegiance, perhaps best exemplified by the adoption of the slogan “Je suis Charlie” in France, following the Charlie Hebdo killings last year. After the attacks in Paris in November, French President François Hollande declared a nationwide state of emergency—it remains in place—which has allowed the security services to conduct several thousand warrantless searches and place several hundred people under immediate house arrest. Many of the raids have targeted mosques, some of which were effectively sacked. Whatever the authorities’ suspicions of plans for violence, however, prosecutors report that the emergency measures have led to the opening of only five cases for alleged terror activity.

Also in response to the Paris attacks, Hollande announced plans for a constitutional amendment to allow authorities to strip terror convicts of their French nationality. French law in fact already provides for such a possibility, but Hollande’s government insisted that the symbol of the amendment, the affirmation that French nationality is not an inalienable right for those to whom it is accorded, was the point. Yet this nationality-stripping would have been applicable only to dual-nationals, a small cohort of some 3.3 million in a nation of 65 million, and one dominated by North African Arabs. The amendment was widely decried as discriminatory—a symbol as damaging as it was unnecessary—and ultimately voted down by parliament, though not before confirming, for many, the state’s will to stigmatize an entire class of its citizens for the purpose, avowedly, of little more than electoral gain.

“For the time being, terrorists in our countries still remain individuals, with their own life trajectories, who are not representing anybody or anything from the country,” said François Heisbourg, a prominent French analyst and chairman of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, as well as the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. “My fear is that, if we start adopting a blanket approach—as we currently are—that we will indeed vastly enlarge the catchment pool of an organization like Daesh [ISIS] in our own country.” The suggestion of some deterministic link between “poverty” or “exclusion” and jihadism leaves him “deeply uneasy,” Heisbourg said, both because there indeed are and have been mujahideen of privilege—Osama bin Laden is the most prominent case—and because the conditions of one’s life surely do not deprive him of agency or exempt him of responsibility. Yet the notion that the French government’s current tactics and posturing might be deeply counterproductive seemed to him self-evident. “Is this smart? From a counterterrorism standpoint, of course it’s not,” Heisbourg said. “Basically, if you treat people like shit, they act like shit.”

Twenty years ago, Kelkal, that early “little loser,” found in jihad a thrilling rebuke to a society that had, he believed, rejected him. “Khaled Kelkal was a Franco-North African who was looking for acknowledgement and dignity and didn’t find them,” Dietmar Loch, the sociologist who had interviewed him, told Le Monde shortly after Kelkal’s death in 1995. When the two men met, Kelkal had told Loch: “Me, I’m hoping, inch’allah, to return to my country and build something. To work a bit and save up some money. I don’t want to live, I don’t want to depend on these people. When I have enough money to be able to open a little store, something that’s mine. ... If I work, I eat. If I don’t work, I die. That’s all, it’ll depend on me and not on someone else.”

Three years later, Kelkal was dead on the pavement. Had it somehow been possible to separate the young man from the fanatical beliefs that had taken hold in him, he might well have been capable of offering a theory of the aspirations and anger to which they had spoken. The authorities tasked with protecting Europe from the Kelkals of this world are surely possessed of the capacity to do the same. The tragedy of the moment is that, thus far, they seem not to have bothered.