French youths criticize anti-jihad push: ‘We thought it was a joke’

Six months after France launched an online campaign to tackle jihadist recruitment, FRANCE 24’s Observers decided to take stock of the government’s controversial initiative. Mourad Benchellali,  an ex-Guantanamo Bay inmate who helps young people integrate themselves into society, took his mobile phone and went to sound out the unfiltered opinions of five young men for FRANCE 24’s ‘Pas 2 Quartier’ series.

The ‘Stop jihadism’ website was launched by the government’s communication service in the aftermath of January’s deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo. The drive to deter potential jihadists centers around a short video that tries to counter arguments used by recruiters. As well as listing the supposed early warning signs of radicalization, the site also provides a free phone number for those worried that one of their friends or relatives could succumb to extremism.

The campaign’s stated aim is to spread public awareness in order to steer young people away from heading to war-torn Syria, the top destination for France’s aspiring jihadists.

Benchellali is deeply involved in the struggle to deter would-be extremists. Drawing on his personal experience as an ex-prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, he works as a counsellor, helping young people integrate themselves into society. Hailing from the Minguettes, a troubled housing estate to the south of Lyon, he regularly holds meetings in deprived urban areas to tell his own story.

It was over the course of these regular get-togethers that Mourad noticed that the anti-jihadist campaign wasn’t getting its message across to its intended audience. He decided to ask young people’s opinions on the initiative for ‘Pas 2 Quartier’.

“I didn’t really choose the people who I interviewed. It was rather they who chose me, by accepting to speak to me. Overall, the five young men with whom I spoke with are fairly representative of the audience targeted by the government’s campaign.

What struck me at first was that most of them weren’t even aware of the site or the video. And once they had watched it, no one said it was any good. Yet the government claims that its initiative has been a success.” [Editor’s note: The video has been watched more than two million times, and the site has gotten over 1.2 million visits].

“I’m a practicing Muslim (…) They say that to wage jihad is the same as being a terrorist. That they go to kill. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how someone who’s 16 or 17 years old can have that in their head. They go because they think they’ll live the dream life. There’s a lot of propaganda. So if someone is naïve, they’ll jump at the opportunity to leave. Personally, instead of waging jihad abroad, I think it’s more important to wage jihad within oneself.

Benchellali comments:

“It’s obvious that many young people are vulnerable to jihadist propaganda, but the root cause of their distress is the socio-economic situation in which they find themselves. The lack of opportunities often leads to a lack of a sense of belonging. That’s what provides fertile ground for radicalisation to take root nowadays, that’s when they start feeling rejected by the ‘system’.”