Part 2 of a 2 part series. The recent terror attack in Strasbourg has kindled something that may change the face of France. Worldwide, terrorism is likely to increase following the battlefield defeat of ISIS. [Part 1]
The French city of Strasbourg calls itself “the capital of Christmas” and every year more than two million people visit its famous Christmas Market. It is widely considered a winter paradise for those seeking Christmas magic. Yet now, instead of a lively marketplace packed with little stalls lining picturesque cobblestone alleys, dark and rainy streets lie empty.
Late evening of December 12th:
Less than 24 hours earlier, the city was the scene of a horrific terror attack on families visiting the Christmas market. Five people would die, with 11 injured.
A force of more than 700 police officers and the paramilitary gendarmerie, including members of the nation’s premier civilian counter-terrorism police units, patrol the streets. On the street corners of the main pass-throughs members from the gendarmerie have taken up stations. FAMAS-F1s and similar battle rifles are ready to hand, slung across their shoulders, in a show of force the likes of which the city had not seen since the 1950s. Above the city, the French military deployed several of its specially equipped Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters to aid the search for a foe in the dark.
A Swedish journalist from Svenska Dagbladet walked the streets earlier in the day asking people if they believed the attack would change French society into something angrier. The unified answer – a resounding “YES!”
One woman named Léa said that earlier that day she suddenly felt as if someone had put a knife against her throat, only to find it was her scarf that had gotten caught. On French TV, some “experts” declared Strasbourg to be a centre of radicalised Islam and affiliated young radicals. There were whispers from the police to the media that upwards of 10 percent of those with a so-called “S”-file (security file) are located in the city.
For the citizens of France the events in Strasbourg and the changing face of the city itself have become symbols of how vulnerable their country has become, and Europe along with it, against the will and acts of terrorists.
Tears in the Rain
With midnight quickly approaching in the district of Strasbourg known as Neudorf, less than two kilometers away from the Christmas Market, Chérif Chekatt’s journey came to an end at 21:05 on December 12th.
A police search unit consisting of three police officers, on foot from the local constabulary, had seen an individual matching the description cross the street (“29 years of age, 1.80M tall, normal body build, short hair, possible beard, matte skin, mark on the forehead”). They called in a possible contact and requested immediate assistance from the nearby counterterrorism unit. The responding unit was less than 700 meters away and was quickly heading towards the site when the police ordered Chekatt to stop in his tracks as he ventured toward the doorway of a youth hostel.
Chekatt complied to the order by turning towards them as he pulled out a 9mm sidearm, later identified as a Glock 19 in black. He pointed it at the police officers and pulled the trigger, firing twice. The police officers responded per their training. Two of the officers shot centre mass into their opponent. Chekatt kneeled down, falling towards his left side, into the rain-soaked cobblestone street. Two rounds had penetrated his upper torso, a third having struck the left side of his lower torso. Fearing the possible presence of explosives on his body, none of the three police officers dared approach to check for vital signs of the downed suspect. Instead they called out to Chekatt to remain still as he drew his last breath.
The police quickly cordoned off the block, while emergency response units searched for explosives and recorded the evidence. By all accounts, the shooting was just, and the officers followed the rulebook as well as the asymmetrical and charged situation allowed them to.
Outside of the now blocked off scene it did not take long before masses of people gathered to watch the spectacle, and to feel hope that the episode which had terrified and hurt them so, was over. As the police officers involved in the shooting left the area under protective escort by their fellow officers, the crowds broke out in applauds. Many yelled out “Bravo!” according to the newspaper Le Figaro. Within hours of the shooting the French Minister of Interior, Christophe Castaner, praised the response of the three police officers exclaiming that he was “proud.”
Order had been restored to the City of Christmas. For now.
The Dilemma of the Open Society vs. The Terrorist
A United Nations report in August 2018 stated that the Salafist-Jihadist group known as the Islamic State has between 20,000 and 30,000 battle ready individuals at its command. In order to maintain a force of that size the group needs only a modicum of financial resources compared to more traditional military and organized outfits.
To maintain necessary revenue streams the UN report stated that the group engaged in oil sales, extortion, kidnappings and forced taxation. Those activities have primarily occurred inside the occupied and surrounding areas in the Middle East and Africa.
Yet, that is not how the group makes its big money. Following the familiar approach of al Qaeda the Islamic State has infiltrated and invested money in businesses that have direct access to hard currency. Examples listed in the report are construction companies, currency exchanges, kiosks, restaurants, the agricultural industry, hotels and even fish farming facilities. The proceeds are then dispersed throughout the world using informal money exchange networks such as the Hawala network of brokers, or even commercial wire transfers.
To accomplish this the group has recruited individuals and structured large-scale networks throughout the Western world. The majority of its ground networks of foot soldiers are recruited in prisons.
The prison systems throughout Europe have growing numbers of individuals of foreign descent, of vulnerable social standing and with little sense of community. These individuals make excellent recruiting material for targeted, religion based, recruitment drives. The majority of these individuals are incarcerated for relatively minor crimes, such as the sale of narcotics or armed robbery. According to multiple reports the security services in Europe are watching with dismay as radical Islamist dogma rises inside prisons.
The radicalisation often comes from individuals in jail on terror-related crimes. Several attacks planned from prisons have been prevented. However, many of those individuals involved in the planning were convicted of terror-related crimes. French authorities report that in 2018, 40 individuals were released from prison that were sentenced for having carried out terrorist activities.
Chekatt followed this pattern of unravelling social identity down to the proverbial letter. The police considered him a “gangster-jihadist,” a term referring to people with an immigrant background, who get sentenced for a string of petty crimes, drug dealing and robbery, only to graduate to full-fledged terrorism after finding religion in jail.
Chekatt overtly began his descent into extremism in 2013, while in prison, and would come to work for Salafist groups seeking to profit off of organised crime in Europe. In 2017, he was expelled from France. This expulsion was not enacted; instead Chekatt was allowed to roam Western Europe as an enforcer and overall foot soldier of the Islamic State. By the time of his death Chekatt had 27 convictions for theft, armed robbery, drug crimes and a string of enacted violence.
Another even more disturbing example is the militant Salafist Djamel Beghal who, during his time in prison, mentored at least three individuals that would later take part in the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo, a French newspaper headquartered in Paris, and the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in 2015.
Amongst those that Beghal mentored were Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, who on January 7th carried out the bloody attack on Charlie Hebdo leaving 12 dead and 11 wounded. Just a few days later, a Beghal recruit named Amedy Coulibaly entered the central Paris Hypercacher Kosher Supermarket, killing four people and holding fifteen hostage until the police stormed the store and killed him.
Beghal is set to be released from prison in the latter half of 2018, and will then be expelled to Algeria.
French authorities alone report that more than 500 people have been incarcerated on terror-related crimes, while documenting well over 1,200 individuals who have become radicalised while in jail having been convicted of “ordinary” crimes.
“The likelihood is very high that those who leave prison do not repent in the slightest, but on the contrary become more extreme during their time in prison,” said the Paris public prosecutor, Francois Molins, to French BFMTV in May.
The situation is similar across Europe. In a recent interview, one of the chief analysts at the Swedish Civilian Police Agency, Säkerhetspolisen (“SÄPO”), Ahn-Za Hagström, stated that the European security apparatus is facing a “great challenge.” As many as 1,500 individuals deemed radicalized are to be released from jails across Europe in the coming months. Hagström pointed out that the majority of these individuals became radicalised due to exposure while in prison.
Guidance on this extreme phenomenon can be found in the writings and teachings of applied behaviour psychologists, such as B.F. Skinner, Walter Reich and Daniel Antonius, as well as the more clinical anthropological studies based on Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death,” from Jeff Greenberg and Sheldon Solomon’s Terror Management Theory (introduced in “The Worm of the Core”). Along with pattern analysis, as applied by security professionals across, it becomes clear that the Strasbourg shooter, 29-year-old Chérif Chekatt, was a sadly predictable case study in what is quickly becoming one of the most substantial tactical-level problems facing Europe since the Red Terror wave of the Cold War.
With such a high number of prospective enemy combatants throughout Europe, the potential for violence is immense.
[Title Image: French soldiers stand guard at Place Kleber, in central Strasbourg. (Patrick Hertzog)]
John Sjoholm, Lima Charlie News
John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Lebanon. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC
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