An interview with Spyros Sofos on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and everything that follows

Spyros Sofos is a visiting lecturer at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Lund University. He has previously been a Senior Research Fellow in International Politics at the Helen Bamber Centre for the Study of Rights, Conflict and Mass Violence of Kingston University, a Senior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Portsmouth University. He is member of the advisory board of Transconflict, a conflict transformation NGO.

Politheor: Hello, thank you for being with us today and for sharing your time with readers of Politheor. Would you be so kind and tell us a bit more about yourself.

Spyros Sofos: I am currently a lecturer in Middle Eastern Politics at Lund University, and I am engaged in various research projects, one on the Islamic State, which is particularly relevant to today’s discussion. Another focuses on Islamic radicalization, especially young Muslim radicalization in the European Union. Before joining Lund University I used to run a Master’s Degree at Kingston University focusing on international conflict that partly also touched upon these issues.

Thank you. It’s been fourteen days since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and we’ve seen different responses to these unfortunate events, ranging from extreme left to an extreme right on the political spectrum. My question to you is where we are today? How do we sum everything up now, from this perspective?

Yes, there are many different levels where one could locate interpretations of the events, both of the 7th January shootings, and murders, but also of what followed. So I would like to start with a few simple things. First of all these events have taken place in France, and I think that is quite significant. France has not seen any significant violence associated with Islamism since the 1990s, when the Algerian crisis had erupted, when FIS tried to transfer some of its activities in France. France obviously has experience of this but there was a long period of relative calm on that front. We have a lot of discussion whether the French intelligence as well as the French political establishment had been prepared for such an eventuality. I think that, although they haven’t managed to avert this, they were both prepared. There are number of quite significant reasons for that.

France obviously has experience of this but there was a long period of relative calm on that front.

France’s internal policy towards diversity, is one of these important reasons. The second important element is France’s involvement in European and Trans-Atlantic operations in Libya, and other parts of the Middle East. And another important factor, that has nothing to do with France per se, but found in France a fertile ground to unfold in some ways, is what I would describe as the competition between Al Qaida and ISIS.

Let me quickly talk about the French policy on diversity first. There is this ongoing debate about how the Charlie Hebdo attacks have been attacks on French freedom of speech. An attack on what the French Republic stands for. I do think there is this one issue that needs to be addressed. The French Republic is, of course, a democracy, it places high importance on freedoms and liberties, but it has also been exclusive in a number of ways.

The French Republic is, of course, a democracy, it places high importance on freedoms and liberties, but it has also been exclusive in a number of ways.

A good example of this is the Republic’s way of dealing with its Muslim population. Way before the 1990s, we could see that the Muslims were not included, at least as Muslims in the Republic. There was, what I called elsewhere, an expectation of these citizens being dissected…

Of their religious, and potentially ethnic identities?

Precisely, cultural, religious, etc. If we translate this into practice we can see that even the very few Muslims that have managed to enter the public domain, have not been proper representatives for 5 million Muslims living in France. There is not adequate representation at local, even national level. There haven’t been proper debates about the headscarves, burqas, whatever we may or may not think of these attires. Furthermore, there was not a single member of the French parliament that has voted against legislation to ban these, the rationale underpinning the relevant debate, its targeting of women, the assumption that women are always forced by a male to dress in the proscribed ways. I am not saying that there should be more Muslim mayors, senators and the like -this is a clear matter for French citizens, the electorate to decide. What I am saying is that I would have expected the 5 million French Muslims to be more adequately represented in administrative and legislative bodies – there clearly needs to be a debate about the inclusion of Muslims in France. This perceived exclusion has led to a lot of resentment amongst French Muslims.

There clearly needs to be a debate about the inclusion of Muslims in France.

Of course, I am not saying that this justifies what had happened, nor am I saying that anybody who resents the situation would express their feelings through extreme violence. Yet, this is one dimension of a very complex issue that involves structural exclusion, perceptions of marginalization and voicelessness, state indifference and, of course the personalities of the specific people, of certain individuals, who are in no way representatives of the average French Muslim, but who find a language, a method of expressing their various murky thoughts.

The second element is the fact that France has again pursued a number of policies, international policies that have alienated a number of its Muslim population. Again, I am not suggesting that France should, or shouldn’t have done this. I am simply suggesting that there should have been more inclusiveness in this process. Regardless, France is one of the states that was, I am sure, expecting something to happen, and I relate this to both social and political circumstances. There have already been worries of course that a segment of Muslim youth was bound to be radicalized, to find inspiration in what is happening in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. For instance, the French conservative MP Alain Marsaud has called repeatedly for the extra-judicial assassination of all French citizens who go to Syria and Iraq join ISIS. To be fair, his is a lonely voice, yet, you can discern a type of expectation inspired by fear and, more importantly, by the conditional and incomplete inclusion of French Muslims expressed in the very drastic measures for severing the links of France with its citizens that he proposes.

So, would you say that French policies are created in a way where they alienate its Muslim citizens, which could result in their potential involvement with ISIS and other radically Islamic groups, where they could find their identities within these fundamentalist factions, rather than within a French state, as French citizens?

Yes, but I would like to complete this remark, since it might sound as if I am proposing a one-dimensional explanation where because France is ‘bad’ and Muslims are mistreated we have Islamic radicalism. We often say that in the Middle East, phenomena such as ISIS and Al Qaeda emerged in context of weak, or even failed states. The notion of failed, or weak state is very vague in the best of circumstances, as there are many definitions of it and critics attribute to it a certain ideological bias. But, these criticisms notwithstanding, we can apply it, in some ways, to the policies of European States towards their Muslim populations. For a lot of Muslims, not all of them of course, the vocabulary that comes naturally when they discuss their relationship to their respective states is effectively that used to describe failed states. In France, as journalists remembered the banlieues after the Charlie Hebdo events and descended there to obtain interviews from their residents, it is telling that some of the descriptions they obtained of life in these suburban localities remind you of those of failed states.

Life of residents in some of the Parisian banlieues reminded the journalists of those in the failed states.

No effective and sustained services, no policing, territorial and social segregation no future, no trust towards the authorities. Therefore, as we would expect that a terrorist or a rogue organization takes advantage of a failed state, and seizes the opportunity presented by a vacuum of state presence in the Middle East, I propose that the same might happen as far as specific aspects of the presence and effectiveness of some European States are concerned. This is why we see organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda using this opportunity to attract interest, perhaps even open new fronts in their war against the West.

That is a very interesting perspective. Would you address these actions as acts of terror, or as deliberately planned diversions by these radical organizations?

I think that the two are not mutually exclusive. Here it would be good to introduce the ISIS – Al Qaeda rivalry. In a conversation I had with a young radical Muslim from Britain some time ago, I was impressed with the way in which he saw Al Qaeda. He said the organization had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Like the “Queen” he said, Al-Qaeda  was reduced to producing videos sending wishes to its followers for Eid  interlaced with empty messages of struggle and never-ending fight. The perceived fossilization of Al Qaeda as opposed to the perceived dynamism of the Islamic State, a relatively fresh radical group, has meant that the latter has been seen as much more attractive an option within some quarters of Muslim opinion. Indeed, as I am following discussions in certain radical forums and message boards, I could see a certain level of excitement amongst radical Muslims who have seen ISIS as something new, something important, emotionally appealing, challenging, and most importantly, something that had achieved a certain degree of territoriality to base its ideas and goals.

The perceived fossilization of Al Qaeda as opposed to the perceived dynamism of the Islamic State, a relatively fresh radical group, has meant that the latter has been seen as much more attractive an option within some quarters of Muslim opinion.

Al Qaeda was in dire need of retrieving its dynamism. It required certain action in order to recapture the attention of past supporters who now had another option and attract new ones. Therefore, we can see a certain link between this type of rivalry with what happened in Paris. Al Qaeda needed to come back to relevance, but it couldn’t offer the element of territoriality that ISIS had – it does not have the means or the know how to achieve this. Therefore, it needed to reemerge as an organization that is important, that can do something reminiscent of its past mode of operation. I am not sure how much they were actually involved in this particular targeting. But I do know that they were cultivating this particular type of action against a Western target, they were encouraging and welcoming such a possibility – or should I say opportunity.

So you wouldn’t say that they were involved in this particular attack, but instead more of an organizational background to some type of diversionary / terrorist action in Europe.

I think so. That is what they wanted, and I would say that this is exactly why they “gave” a certain type of mandate to the Kouachi brothers. We do know now that there is a circle of supporters who have offered logistic support and help to the attack, etc. but I think this was part of a broad ‘mandate’ and not an operation designed and micromanaged by Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.

This leads me to a question of rivalry, and really trying to understand what this rivalry between the two most notable radical groups actually means. On the one hand we have Al Qaeda on the other the newly-founded ISIS. With these two organizations being similar, yet vastly different in certain aspects of their operation, how do you see this dynamic of rivalry evolving?

There is a definite rivalry that has originated in Al Qaeda’s break-up in Iraq. There have been differences of opinion on aims, tactics, and strategies between the two. And I do have to say that Al Qaeda’s lack of dynamism is something that at least partially prompted some of its cadres to move towards the establishment ISIS. There has been a competition, and I think we will see this competition evolving. ISIS has two dimensions at the moment. Its motto – to persist and expand is illustrative of this. It is trying to consolidate itself upon a certain territory it controls and expand in two ways, as I see it. The first way is war effort expansion. The second is through a process of conversion – converting existing radical and Jihadi networks, from Al Qaeda for instance, to ISIS. We have seen that in Libya, where a chunk of the Barqa province around the town of Derna controlled by an Islamist group that has joined IS now operates as the IS Wilayat Barqa.

There has been a competition between ISIS and Al Qaeda, and I think we will see this competition evolving.

This makes Al Qaeda very concerned – the more ISIS seems dynamic, the more attractive it will be. Which also ties well with the situation in Europe. ISIS still relies on recruiting people and raising funds from Europe for their war in Syria and Iraq. As long as this is the case, I think it is very careful on how it challenges the European countries. Because of this, I think that they have been very restrained in the way they mobilize people in Europe, but this, of course, doesn’t mean that they don’t have substantial groups of supporters. And this comes from my personal experience, from field work where I had the opportunity to speak to radicalized Muslims in Europe and would usually receive a similar answer where ISIS is the one seen as the only option while Al Qaeda has lost its importance.

Interesting. I would say that this opens up two potential questions. Firstly, you have mentioned that ISIS has a certain level of structure, control of territory upon which they are able to exercise a certain level of governance. As rudimentary as it is, it is still a type of governance. Now, my question relates to this territory governance and its relation to what has been said in yesterday’s State of The Union by President Obama, who urged Congress to finally approve military action against ISIS. Coming back to ISIS having an actual control of a certain geographical region, and a type of a quasi-state even, would you say that this would lead to a shift of military doctrine of United States when combating ISIS, especially in contrast to Al Qaeda and the guerrilla warfare tactics that they were using. How will this influence the United States’ involvement in the region?

That is a very interesting question. I think that we need to try and better understand ISIS, to the extent that is possible. ISIS is a hybrid organization that was created though an osmosis between circles of jihadists and Baathists who happened to be in the same US-run Iraqi prisons at the same time. So we can see that it combines the tradition of Al Qaeda, which is insurgency without territory, etc., and the experience of Baath of running territories, controlling populations, organizing oppressive apparata, etc.

The ISIS combines the non-territorial tradition of Al Qaeda with the Baatch experience of running territories.

The current proxy wars against ISIS do not seem to curb the latter’s ability to operate reasonably effectively in the territories it controls. I don’t think that the current Western military policy against ISIS can be successful. Air support and reliance on local proxy forces cannot easily dislodge IS from its current positions. And it cannot work in the long run, especially as a part of the organization can easily mutate into something similar to Al Qaeda.

To add to that, I was only yesterday reading comments by a number of former CIA high echelon staff who have been suggesting that the failure of United States mirrors in the lack of firm commitment, even in Afghanistan. They argue that if you are to win such a war you have to have a strong commitment and even endure more casualties than what US had in Afghanistan. I do not think this will happen. No political party can, or will take the responsibility of potential war casualties in the thousands, and this type of commitment. Of course, there might be some changes in the types of support that proxy forces are given, and some low-level direct confrontation between US ‘trainers’ and the IS, but currently we are lacking evidence that there is an actual movement towards a full-fledged action.

No political party can, or will take the responsibility of potential war casualties in the thousands.

Coming back to my second question, you have mentioned that there are many Europeans supporting ISIS, as well as many Europeans joining it. We have also seen that there are different ideas on how to deal with these citizens when they decide to come back. I guess that my question is what the impact of these alienating policies on European Muslim’s desire to join ISIS, who at that point presents something better, something more representative of these people’s ideas, is. How do we deal with this issue? Is it possible to reintegrate these people, do we judge them using our own judicial system? Would they ever be able to become normal-functioning members of the society? There are certain arguments claiming that reintegrating ISIS supporters into European societies would be paradoxal, ironic even, given that this way Western Governments would technically be incentivizing their decisions to pursue an ideology that has a goal of destroying everything that our societies stand for. Finally, how do we differ between people who actually move to Syria to join ISIS, and those who remain in Western societies, but still support them?

What is important to understand is that in the case of Charlie Hebdo, the attackers were 2nd generation French citizens. The majority of attacks that have taken place, in the past 10-15 years in the UK, the Netherlands and France, were committed by people who have been 2nd generation ‘immigrants’. A very important fact – in the video recording the getaway of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the attackers address each other in French, and I think that many people missed this. So, we are talking about people who are not only nominally European, but also experience-wise could be called European. Nevertheless, the debate focused on the need to curb migration misrecognizing the issues at hand.

What is important to understand is that in the case of Charlie Hebdo, the attackers were 2nd generation French citizens.

ISIS has a lot of European fighters in its ranks, but, if one is to put this into its proper context, this is not a uniquely European predicament. For instance, there are around 3.000 Tunisian fighters that have joined ISIS. Given the democratic transition in Tunisia, one needs to think that in a country of a size of Tunisia, 3.000 absent jihadists might have made a huge impact on the calmness of democratic processes and events. What happens when these people return? Even half of them? These are very serious issues that might affect not only Tunisia, but the entire Euro-Mediterranean area. We should also not forget the Balkans where we have a lot of Albanians and Bosniaks joining ISIS on a daily basis. And a Crisis Group report that came out yesterday paints a similarly gloomy picture as far as the Central Asian republics are concerned.

But let me return to Europe. The issue of returnees is serious. We need to think what we have to do with people who will eventually return. We have already several cases of returnees. And the problem is that we have no actual answers. This can very well become yet another example of the aforementioned state failure. In Britain, there is a discussion underway. Many argue the government should revoke people’s citizenship, a rare occasion to date, but one with legal precedence. A lot of legal experts talk about this as a way of legally ‘killing’ people, removing an essential element of their legal status. The main discussion however revolves around using our legal systems to deal with these returnees. In Britain, once again, there is an ongoing trial of a documented active ISIS fighter. The evidence is present, and it is rather clear that this person has committed terrible crimes and, as a result, would be incarcerated. There is another case though, of a returnee extracted from Syria by his family. He hasn’t been active, but he was caught up in the conflict, and was quite supportive of ISIS in their fight. The British prosecution service has interestingly enough decided not to prosecute this person. But also they have decided not to offer any support. So, here, you have someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in a war zone, with all the effects this can have on him and because he does not pose a threat in the current conjuncture he is left to cope with adjusting to the routines of dailiness in the UK. No rehabilitation resources are available in this instance and no effective plan of reintegration. Experience from the rehabilitation of some of the fighters of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s indicate that such support is necessary and can be effective in turning men and women accustomed to violence and the liminal situation of war into people who can coexist peacefully with others.

To conclude, if there are people who do not pose a direct threat, people who have miscalculated their importance in this struggle, people who have a genuine interest in coming back to the society, taken into an account of course that it would be very hard to accurately prove this, incarceration does not present a good solution for them, since numerous cases have proven that incarceration frequently provides opportunities for further radicalization.

Yet there are those who argue differently. For instance, many are ready to claim that offering support to these people would include them enjoying certain privileges of societies, democracies that they have pledged to destroy when they joined ISIS. So here, we have this debate about helping people who have just returned from a trip, from a crusade if I may use this term, to destroy everything that you are using to help them. How do you get these two together, how do you reconcile these insurmountable notions?

If we see security as a public good, we need to dedicate resources to ensure we have security. For instance, we must ensure that returnees, those who do not pose an immediate threat, adjust. We must try to avoid situations where they would think they made a mistake returning, and since they cannot go back they must do something dramatic. Think how we deal with former prison inmates. Once these people leave prison, we support them in finding a job, help them settle down. Many people question this too – how do we reward criminals by providing funds and resources that might better used to support law abiding citizens they say. The reason we do it is because a notion of a greater good necessitates their reintegration into society.

But, would you say that there is a difference between a bank robber who just served 20 years because he wounded a bank teller in his attempt of robbery, and a person who joins ISIS in their interpretation of Jihad?

As I say, there are people who would have to go through a justice system. Just have to. And then yet, there are those who would have to go through this justice system, but maybe not end up incarcerated, perhaps they might have their freedom of movement reduced. The question is whether we leave these people in a state of perpetual marginalization. We already know that these people are prone to radicalization. So the question is how to avoid marginalization that might move them towards further radicalization. I am not naive to say that we shouldn’t use the justice system, that’s why we have it in the first place, but the justice system should not necessarily open up a one way to jail system. We must be very careful, both with support and reintegration, as well as with using our justice system.

We must be very careful, both with support and reintegration, as well as with using our justice system.

Finally, I would like to come back to the Balkans, an indisputably important part of Europe, especially in terms of having a substantial Muslim population, as well as having a history of inter-religious violence. There are strong evidence that there was, and to this day is a type of collaboration between certain radical groups in the Middle East and certain Bosniak and Albanian movements in territories of Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Southern Serbia. The extent of these activities is quite unknown, but it obviously exists as a result of war-time collaboration. What are your thoughts on further radicalization of Muslims in the Balkans, especially having in mind a rather dire socio-economic situation in the region? How will this influence the region, and Europe as a whole?

There is a lot of factors one needs to take into an account. I think that there is some evidence that Bosniak identity has shifted slowly from being more or less secular, to a more of a religious one. I am not suggesting that all these people who have embraced Islam are going to join ISIS obviously, but if you do combine these shifts with the reluctance of Europe to speed-up accession processes for the poorer Balkan countries, which they, in my opinion, should have done, for political reasons alone, just like it was done with Greece some decades ago, we get to an obvious problem.

The European Union should speed up the accession processes for the poorer Balkan countries, for political reasons, just like it was done with Greece some decades ago.

Additionally, there is also an abysmal development problem, alongside something extremely important, and often overlooked, which is youth unemployment. This brings Balkans to a similar demographic position with North Africa, where we also see huge youth unemployment and not many prospects of change.

We do have evidence that disaffected Albanian youth from Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia have joined the Islamic State. I also possess videos where you can see IS fighters using Serbo-Croatian (If I may use the term, laughter) in their military communication. Therefore, we have evidence, anecdotal as well as statistical that indicates an obvious reality that there is a contingent of people from the Balkans, mostly Albanians who have joined ISIS. We must also not forget the fairly recent Kosovar UCK activity and the incomplete socioeconomic reintegration of its fighters, and the Macedonian conflicts that continuously erupt, taking forms that are very similar to the forms of conflict in the Middle East – kidnappings, ambushes against soldiers, policemen, etc.

There are a lot of factors that indicate that we may have a problem, perhaps not now, but in the near future. I do not want to add to the panic that is ever so prevalent in the Balkans with regards to the ‘Muslim threat’, but I do think that the concern is real. Especially taking into an account a recent spread of Wahhabism in Bosnia. Although Wahhabism is directed by Saudi agents in the Balkans, Wahhabism is also one of the chief ideological elements of ISIS. The same kind of rejection of alterity is there. The real problem arises from the fact that Saudi Arabia can disseminate Wahhabism but cannot control its eventual impact in Bosnia.

Thank you very much for your time. It has been extremely interesting listening to your thoughts on the recent events surrounding Charlie Hebdo events, and everything that follows them.

Thank you!


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  • Anonymous
    28/02/2015, 5:59 am

    Sofos is an incompetent researcher. He’s also not a moderate. He supported Marxist Syriza. I would trust his opinion about anything about as much as I would trust comrade Tsipiras.

    • James@Anonymous
      28/02/2015, 9:42 pm

      What part of the interview did you not agree with?


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