Mar 16, 2017

French ‘de-radicalisation’ pioneer in court over embezzlement charges

Joseph BAMAT
March 14, 2017

Once considered one of France's leading figures in the fight to "de-radicalise" prospective jihadists, Sonia Imloul on Monday went on trial over accusations she embezzled as much as €60,000 and failed to pay her employees.

Imloul garnered wide attention in 2014 for creating one of the country's first organisations dedicated to helping the families of teenagers lured into joining the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group. Less than three years later she faces embezzlement charges, amid growing concerns that France is failing to identify and rehabilitate would-be terrorists.

Her organisation, "La Maison de la prévention et de la famille" (The Prevention and Family House), was entrusted by French authorities to assist families who feared their children were falling victims to jihadist propaganda. Generous subsidies helped launch a toll-free hotline and rent an expansive apartment in the Paris suburbs for interventions with at-risk youths and relatives. She was even featured in an article in The New Yorker magazine in August 2015.

But prosecutors say Imloul, 43, used falsified bank documents to syphon public money destined to the organisation. Three former staff members have also accused her of not paying them for months' worth of work and are seeking reparations.

One of the plaintiffs, Julien Revial, published a book last year outlining the alleged abuses. The young law student said the organisation's claim it had prevented between 15 and 30 young people from joining the IS group in Syria was exaggerated. The group, which "hosted more journalists than families" at their premises, could boast of only three successful cases, he wrote.

If found guilty, Imloul could face up to 10 years in jail and a €1 million fine, according to Le Figaro daily newspaper.

Scathing parliamentary report

The case against Imloul is only the latest to cast a shadow over France's efforts to tackle Islamist radicalisation – especially among youths.

Last year, another leading figure in the fight against radicalisation, Dounia Bouzar, quit her collaboration with the government. Bouzar, whose methods have been questioned by police and scholars, said she could not tacitly support certain policy initiatives, notably a failed measure to strip dual-nationals convicted on terror charges of their French citizenship.

More recently, a February 22 report by a special Senate committee called France's strategy a "total fiasco". Senators specifically looked into the country's first so-called "de-radicalisation" centre and the government's decision to isolate radicalised inmates from the rest of prison population.

France's first jihadist prevention site in the central town of Pontourny has only hosted nine would-be militants since it opened in September 2016 and is currently empty, while costing tax-payers €2.5 million per year, the report revealed. Meanwhile, the practise of separating radicalised prisoners has "delivered inconclusive results", senators said.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist and expert on radicalisation, acknowledged there was a problem but said the report was somewhat premature in its conclusions.

"It's been two and a half years since these measures were first launched," he told FRANCE 24 in a recent interview. "I don't think you can evaluate the results that quickly. You have to be patient and accept that it's going to be a case of trial and error. Although the results in France may not appear all that convincing, it's not a total failure. We're somewhere in-between," the researcher said.

Shifting battlefield

France may be slowly learning from its missteps in de-radicalisation, but it could soon be facing a much more complicated problem. Efforts have so far focused on youths hoping to reach Syria and Iraq, but in the future they will likely centre on those returning from IS-held zones in those countries.

Between 1,200 and 1,500 French nationals have been recruited by the IS group and other jihadist organisations, the most of any Western European country.

Now US military officials and civilian observers are reporting that IS foreign fighters are withdrawing from the battlefield as coalition-backed Iraqi forces retake control of Mosul – until recently, one of the IS group's main strongholds – raising the prospect that many are already on their way home.

"We're still going to have a few hundred youths returning from Syria and Iraq," Khosrokhavar warned. "The measures put into place need to make them think and reflect over the path they took in life."

He said France would have to respond with a mix of long-term measures, which would include de-radicalisation centres and programmes, but also prison. While many former Islamist militants will discover a new, more tolerant vision of Islam, or at least be convinced to disavow violence, some will never renounce their jihadist mission.

"Some people can be de-radicalised, but not everyone," Khosrokhavar believes. "It's impossible with the hard-core jihadists, those who are totally convinced. These types of profiles are very dangerous and represent about 10 to 15 percent of those who have been radicalised."

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