Global Policy Forum

On Suspicion of Not Being One of Us


By Laurent Bonelli

Le Monde Diplomatique
April 2005

Since 9/11 the intelligence services of Europe and the US have constructed from many disparate groups a new global threat to freedom and democracy. The new terrorist threat replaces the red peril' and empire of evil' that previously justified the agencies' existences and their budgets.

AS the director general of Britain's MI5, Eliza Manningham-Butler said: "We have entered a new period in the history of terrorism. Less regional and national in focus, this phase is characterised by suicide terrorism, attacks by terrorists who purposely seek to inflict mass civilian casualties and who are affiliated to groups which have no interest in negotiation" (1). This is an authoritative assessment of the political difficulties groups such as al-Qaida have posed for western governments and intelligence services since 9/11.

Of course as far back as 1986 the French interior minister, Charles Pasqua, said: "We must terrorise the terrorists." But the struggle against terrorism is not as concerted as such pronouncements lead us to believe. Instead, it involves complex dealings between governments, intelligence agencies and clandestine groups, each striving to further its own political or organisational interests and impose its own version of the truth. The word terrorist does not denote a universally recognisable, objective reality: the German army applied it to the French resistance; Russia applied it to Chechen fighters. Clandestine organisations call themselves freedom fighters, nationalists, the avant-garde of the proletariat or soldiers of Islam. To describe people as terrorists is a way to delegitimise movements and their demands, which explains not only the impossibility of agreeing a universally acceptable definition, but also the strategies that governments use in response: non-intervention, pressure, negotiation, police repression and military action. These responses depend on the nature and evolution of the political balance of power between opposing parties, as well as on the objectives and tactics of the clandestine groups.

Governments want to be able to anticipate the emergence and development of a crisis, to decide who can be negotiated with and understand the strategies of their adversaries. They rely on intelligence services to locate, identify and monitor sources of potential political violence. This may be vital; but the agencies do more than facilitate political decision-making. Their strategic operations include publicly discrediting organisations, demoralising activists, exacerbating internal tensions, sabotaging actions and destroying leaders morally or physically (2). France's domestic intelligence service, the Renseignements Généraux (RG), went so far as to set up dedicated sections operating in secret, sometimes outside the law. There was a mental manipulation section and a special investigations group, as well as informal operational units. In Spain the Centro Superior de Información de la Defensa (Cesid) (3) supported the Anti-terrorist Liberation Group (GAL) death squads, who assassinated Basque refugees in France in the late 1980s. British intelligence helped develop the shoot-to-kill policy to eliminate supposed Irish Republican Army activists. Such semi-autonomous exercises in state violence influence strategies adopted by both sides in the struggle.

More subtly, the way that agencies routinely select, analyse, interpret and extrapolate from intelligence helps define the political game. Intelligence services determine whom the government can talk to. They are the guardians of the political order, although seldom recognised as such, and the way they see things determines the nature and functioning of that order. Unlike the judiciary, which venerates law, the intelligence community shares a common faith in the importance of the political balance of power. Some agents are members of the police. But they are distinguished from colleagues in criminal investigation or public order policing, not only by the nature of their assignments. They spend most of their professional lives isolated in the intelligence community, where they internalise established routines and attitudes. They have a sharpened interest in the political game and a practical mastery of its stakes. They develop a commitment to the legitimate order and its preservation. Their patterns of behaviour and belief reflect the suspicious view shared by most members of the police involved in political matters, which explains their constant readiness to suspect plots and manipulation. A clear example of this is the degree of organisation that intelligence services attribute to their adversaries. They see even the most insignificant local event as part of a global conspiracy, and regard autonomous groups or individuals as agents of a coherent, secret organisation. The head of the RG between 1992 and 2004, Yves Bertrand, said they had been vigilant in monitoring discussions in mosques since 9/11. "There was a widespread expectation that events could spiral out of control . . . Surprisingly, however, the leaders of mosques and other groups have kept their rank and file under tight control. This is not necessarily reassuring: all it proves is the ability of the various institutions to control their community" (4).

Such analysis posits that the calm is worse than the storm, since it may conceal something enormous. Such a paranoid view privileges the hidden over the visible. The almost unanimous condemnation in reaction to specific outrages is a bonus, since it justifies further surveillance. This desire to talk up the threat is not necessarily cynical, but it guarantees the intelligence community enormous benefits, both material (resources and budgets) and symbolic (institutional and personal prestige).

Perceived Islamic threat

Surveillance of Muslim communities - places of worship, leaders and religious organisations - predates 9/11. It has become a routine aspect of counter-espionage because the secret services of some countries of origin (particularly in north Africa) have long used religious infrastructures to monitor the activities of exiles.

After international events involving political Islam, the focus of western intelligence shifted significantly. In France milestones in the development of dedicated sections were the Iranian revolution of 1979; the situation in the Middle East; the attacks by the Fuad Ali Saleh network in 1985-86 (5); and the civil war in Algeria from 1991 that precipitated attacks in 1995. Security services concentrated on the activities of armed Islamist groups, mostly Algerian, to prevent attacks on French territory and disrupt propaganda, recruitment and finance. The British intelligence services paid attention to Muslims after an influx of Pakistani refugees and members of the Muslim Brotherhood being sought in former British colonies. Yet for a long time the troubles in Northern Ireland were more important. In Spain the Basque question took all the security services' attention until recently.

Although 9/11 and the 2004 Madrid bombing shifted the attention of agencies, their most important effect was to change the historically determined methods that agencies had developed to deal with political violence. Western states were not used to indiscriminate massacres in peacetime with no concern for the social, political or religious status of victims. These attacks subverted fundamental perceptions of the political landscape. The groups behind them did not represent the ethno-nationalist or class principles and demands that had previously inspired political violence and still do in many conflicts, including those involving radical Islamist movements (Palestine and Chechnya). The groups inspired by al-Qaida reject traditional political negotiation. Their tactical and strategic autonomy and their lack of a territorial or social base have made the development of any such relationship more difficult. Security services were used to negotiating with clandestine groups through representatives, who might be associated with the organisations (or their political wings) or with governments that supported them. Now they had to deal with what the Spanish intelligence chief, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo (6), called "an anonymous, faceless enemy".

One aim of security services is to identify people in the Muslim community most likely to gravitate towards radical groups. Although they continue to monitor mosques and cultural groups, they rely more on profiling. Basing their work on case studies of people in clandestine activities, they develop typical social trajectories and watch activities of those who fit these profiles. Things that attract the attention of intelligence services include foreign birth (particularly in a Muslim country), a relatively high level of education, membership of an organisation or mosque (especially fundamentalist or Salafist), frequent travel, breaks from work and time abroad. They investigate converts, who have become a metaphor for the invisible enemy, blending into the population and enjoying the advantages of nationality (freedom of movement, legal rights, public services). It is not easy. Governments are rightly fearful of the threats they face and feel powerless to counter them, which explains and legitimises calls for restrictions on individual liberties and the introduction of special police and legal powers (7).

We are witnessing a significant shift in the balance between the logic of intelligence, based on suspicion, and the logic of the legal system, which requires proof. Suspicion is becoming more significant than established guilt. Guantánamo Bay is the most striking demonstration of a security ideology that incarcerates people to extract information, in breach of their legal rights. It is an extreme example, but not an isolated one. Britain's Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act allowed the indefinite detention of anyone suspected of involvement in international terrorism, without having to prove their guilt in court (see Keeping control).

French paranoia

In France wide application of the anti-terrorist legislation of 1986 has led to indictments for "criminal conspiracy relating to a terrorist undertaking". Stirring up the anthill has been a deliberate strategy, designed to disrupt networks, with mass arrests of people suspected of possible links to underground groups. Who cares if most are released by the courts after up to two years in preventive detention? Where "Islamist terrorism" is concerned, the relation between the number of those arrested and those actually charged and proved guilty is utterly disproportionate.

This emphasis on suspicion goes beyond the struggle against terrorism. In France it extends to the loyalty of Muslim communities. Intelligence agents judge the world by their obsessions and easily regard any alien belief or activity, cultural or religious, as subversion of the established order by hidden organisations. French security services pay particular attention to proselytising Muslim groups, such as Tabligh Jamaat, active in working-class areas. They are suspicious of the role of organisations and religious leaders in defusing local tensions. Since they have no way of measuring the direct impact of these influences, they invoke the vague idea of communautarisme (communalism), which they regard as self-segregation that threatens national unity by exalting a Muslim identity.

The RG has drawn up a scale to measure the challenge of communautarisme within neighbourhoods. It has eight indicators: "a significant number of immigrant families, some practising polygamy"; "a community-oriented social fabric"; "the presence of ethnic businesses"; "an increase in the number of Muslim places of worship"; "the wearing of eastern and religious dress"; "anti-semitic and anti-western graffiti"; "the existence in schools of classes that bring together newly arrived children who do not speak French"; and "difficulty for native French people in maintaining a presence". These appeal to the idea of republican integration, part of the historical model of the development of the French state, characterised by the elimination of regional and cultural divergence. They open the way to the forced reintegration of anything that seems to question that model.

We need to be careful about this. Islam comes in many different shades, from the spiritual to the cultural, reflecting different motivations and leading to unrelated observances, behaviour and social customs. What does a student of theology have in common with an alienated adolescent who has turned to Islam for a sense of identity and personal dignity (8)? Where is the common ground between religious leaders who demonise the West, community-minded local organisations that criticise Israel, and kids from an estate who vote for the far right to separate themselves from groups they fear to be subsumed in, and who blame women, Jews or the West for their situation? There is no common ground. Ideology, motivation and behaviour are different, and all are capable of unacceptable actions that must be resisted. But we should not confuse them.

This is not a concern shared by the merchants of fear, who want to impose an apocalyptic vision of the world that serves their political or economic interests. Academic studies have stressed the uniqueness of the trajectories and histories that led people to take violent political action (9). But writers such as Alain Bauer and Xavier Raufer have no qualms about calling arson a "low-intensity attack" and claiming that "in lawless areas, out of bounds to the forces of law and order and crawling with weapons, setting up a terrorist network is child's play" (10). Such assertions conflate into a menacing whole the vision of an all-conquering, homogeneous, warlike religion, dreamed up by those who need a new global enemy to replace the collapsed Soviet Union (11), and the emergence of demands associated with the practice of Islam in western countries.

The attack on communautarisme, as it has developed in French official state discourse, may be no more than an attempt to shrug off responsibility for the devastating effects of the economic and social policies of the past 20 years. In France in 2004, 33% of 20- to 29-year-olds in officially designated urban problem areas were unemployed or economically inactive (and not receiving training) compared with a national level of 12%. Non-European immigrants in these areas have 17.2 times less chance of finding work than their equivalents elsewhere (12).

The widening gap between French political parties (particularly leftwing ones) and the working classes has intensified political alienation and encouraged self-exclusion. Given the deterioration of public services, discrimination, constant police harassment and the denial of justice, the fuss about communautarisme is a joke. By ignoring the precariousness of life in these areas, we endorse the moral condemnation of individual and collective adaptations to poverty, rallying France around a republican ideal whose failure to create equality is carefully masked.

Since the restructuring of communism along post-Fordist capitalist lines and the collapse of the USSR, there has been a vacancy for a subversive global conspiracy; and whether we talk about "terrorism" or communautarisme, Islam has the job. It has a transnational dimension that appeals to our fears of foreign intervention, plus strong local communities inside western states, although in low positions in the social hierarchy. Our prejudices are the direct result of the work of intelligence services and the assumptions of their agents. But the success of the secret services is not only attributable to their institutional position in the political system. We have to recognise the role of the discourse of certain religious groups - with an interest in polarising positions - which credits them with a strength and credibility they do not have. Immigrant is not synonymous with Muslim, nor Muslim with Islamic political activist.

This self-serving redefinition of social issues as questions of security or religion has a purpose. We can ignore the fundamental causes of the real problems that confront a working class politically and socially devastated by decades of neo-liberal reforms. This process redefines and perpetuates fault lines within the working class, making the collective attainment of a better future more difficult. Perhaps that is the object of the exercise.

(1) MI5 is Britain's domestic intelligence agency. James Smart lecture to City of London Police HQ, 16 October 2003: Global terrorism: are we meeting the challenge?"
(2) See Gary Marx, Undercover: Police Surveillance in America, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988.
(3) Now the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI).
(4) Jean-Louis Debré, "Rapport fait au nom de la mission d'information", Documents d'information de l'Assemblée nationale, 1275, December 2003.
(5) Fuad Ali Saleh, head of a terrorist network with links to Iran and Lebanon, was convicted in 1990 of bombings in Paris.
(6) Director of the Cesid and then the CNI, from 2001-04.
(7) An observatory of anti-terrorist practices and policies in individual EU states and across the community has been set up as part of the European Challenge project : The Changing Landscape of European Liberty and Security
(8) See Jocelyne Césari, Musulmans et républicains: Les jeunes, l'islam et la France, Complexe, Brussels, 1998.
(9) See Stéphane Beaud et Olivier Masclet, "Un passage í  l'acte improbable?", French Politics, Culture and Society, vol 20, 2, New York University, summer 2002.
(10) Alain Bauer and Xavier Raufer, La guerre ne fait que commencer, J-C Lattí¨s, Paris 2002.
(11) See Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996.
(12) Observatoire des zones sensibles, Rapport 2004, Editions de la DIV, 2004. There are 751 French quartiers, with nearly 4.7 million inhabitants, in urban problem areas.

Translated by Donald Hounam

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