PARIS – To stop the stream of French youths pursuing jihad in Syria, France is preparing to try to tackle terrorism before it starts, by involving schools, parents and local Muslim leaders, The Associated Press has learned.
This is part of a still-confidential plan prompted by fears that young radicals who travel to Syria could return home with the skills and motivation to carry out attacks — a Europe-wide concern. French officials say the plan will be made public soon.
The fears resurfaced last week when authorities revealed the discovery near Cannes of three soda cans packed with nails, bolts and explosives plus bomb-making instructions at the apartment of a 23-year-old man who had returned from Syria. Memories are still fresh of a radical Muslim Frenchman who gunned down children at a Toulouse Jewish school in 2012, after training in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
To combat terrorism, France amassed one of the West's toughest legal arsenals following terror attacks in the 1990s, focusing on prosecuting proven extremists instead of trying to prevent radicalization.
That's about to change, according to several top government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan is still being finalized. They spoke after President Francois Hollande convened a special council last week and adopted a strategy to counter the accelerating threat posed by hundreds of French heading to Syria.
"We are working upstream," said one high-ranking security official. "That's new in France." Another government official said France is "not on the forefront when it comes to the prevention of radicalization." They said France has consulted British authorities to try to learn from similar efforts there.
The new French push will be a challenge in a country where distrust runs high between police and minority youth in hardscrabble housing projects, and provokes occasional riots. And it could prompt controversy if it is directed solely at Islam. France, a secular nation that demands a clear separation between church and state, has been accused of stigmatizing Muslims with measures such as banning face-covering Islamic veils.
The new French government plan also includes tough measures to bolster intelligence and border surveillance, including restricting minors from leaving France, the officials said, confirming a report in Le Monde. Authorities also want to improve cooperation with counterparts in Turkey, a key route into Syria for fighters.
French authorities said in January that up to 700 French had left for Syria, were planning to go or died in battle. The migration to Syria — including teens as young as 15 — far outstrips the number of Europeans who left for Iraq and Afghanistan in years past.
French officials say the West's vehement stance against Bashar Assad's regime may, for vulnerable youth, have conferred some legitimacy on fighting the regime. Some youths see themselves as defenders of a civilian population under assault. Others see glory in helping to seize territory with the dream of creating an Islamic state.
Not all those traveling to Syria become hardened jihadists. Some even turn back. France wants to prevent them from taking the journey in the first place.
That includes working with local governments, schools and religious leaders in the country with Western Europe's largest Muslim population, at least 5 million. It remains to be seen how teachers and parents will be expected to identify potential extremism.
The plan would involve the French Council for the Muslim Faith, a conduit for the government with France's Muslim communities. Dalil Boubakeur, the group's president, says it is working with authorities "to understand why these youths are drawn to this."
A top French expert in radical Islam said some town governments have already worked with French intelligence on detecting potential jihadis, but now the government wants to do it more systematically and overtly.
Authorities want to offer vulnerable youth an alternative to the world view offered by jihad recruiters. Local prevention centers would reach out to families of youth who have started radicalizing, Le Monde and the officials said.
The thrust meshes well with Hollande's focus on education and his Socialists' penchant for community outreach.
"From a security point of view, it doesn't make sense to rely on the repressive approach alone," said terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defense College.
Security should not be "the first and only recourse .... There will always be fires breaking out," said Ranstorp. "The preventative approach is the only way forward."
Denmark and the Netherlands are among nations with such programs, along with Britain.
Critics of some British programs say they put schools in difficult positions, expected to rat on students, and that success is impossible to measure. One target is the Channel project, part of a larger effort called Prevent which liaises with schools, volunteer agencies and other local groups. Of the 2,653 people spotted as potential risks since the Channel program's inception in 2007 until March last year, 22 percent — not all Muslims — were considered vulnerable enough to violent extremism to be placed in the program, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Louis Caprioli, a former No. 2 French counterterrorism official, doubts that the prevention effort would help in the short term. "We are in a demarche that will take years."
"Radicalization no longer takes place inside the town, which you can control, inside mosques, which you can control," he said. Today, children communicate via social networks.
"We are in a dimension that no one masters anymore at all," Caprioli said. Many parents "don't know what a tweet is, what a chat is" and their children sometimes have two phones — one to communicate with those in Syria.
As long as Syria is a battlefield, he said, the "jihad phenomenon will continue."
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.