Daesh fighters sentenced to death in Iraq represent a French sociological phenomenon and a bilateral crisis between France and Iraq.

This June, eleven French nationals and a Tunisian with French residency were sentenced to be executed by the Iraqi courts for having fought alongside Daesh.

These cases in the Iraqi courts are significant in that an examination of the life trajectories of the accused serve as a revelation of what demographic in France was, or is, attracted by Daesh.

On another level, the cases highlight a bilateral international relations crisis. France refuses to repatriate these Daesh fighters, yet the French foreign ministry criticises Iraq’s passing the death sentence on the accused. On one level, France lectures Iraq on human rights violation, yet fails to accept responsibility for crimes committed by its citizens.

Theorising the foreign fighter phenomenon 

In a previous article, I analysed how the ideas of French academic Olivier Roy could be used to understand how an American convert to Islam, John Walker Lindh, joined the Taliban. 

In Roy’s 2017 Guardian article, “Who Are the New Jihadis?” he argues that there are two demographics that usually join ISIS (Daesh), second generation French Muslims, regularly recruiting their brothers and sisters, and “native” French converts.

These children of Muslim immigrants born in France lived a secular life, growing up in not-so religious households, going to night clubs, consuming alcohol and drugs, and/or were involved in petty crime. Then at some point, particularly if they are incarcerated, they become “born-again” Muslims who embrace their faith, but a version more austere than their parents, and usually convene in small religious groups rather than large mosques.

Daesh had little appeal for “first-generation” immigrants, who usually sacrificed everything for their children to have a better life. There are also very few “third-generation” French recruits, as by this juncture they are either well integrated into French culture and society or have found ways to reconcile both dimensions of their identity.  

It must be stressed that this is a small segment of “second-generation” French Muslims, but what this trend does represent is that the children of immigrant families comprise a generational revolt against their parents. They seek to prove that they are more Muslim than their parents.

French converts to Islam have ruptured with their parents, whether they be Catholics or secular, and then seek out a new family if they are disowned from or disavow their biological family.

Another familial element, according to Roy, is demonstrated by the trend where pairs of brothers or even sisters are attracted to Al Qaeda or Daesh. The Kouachi brothers were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and the Abdeslam brothers took part in the November 2015 Paris attacks, and the brothers Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain from Toulouse converted together and were killed in Baghouz, Daesh’s last holdout in Syria.

This is not just a French phenomenon. The Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 were second generation Muslims. The August 2017 attacks in Catalonia, Spain also included cells of brothers. 

The twelve accused 

Roy repeatedly emphasises that there is no single profile of the foreign fighter. An examination of the twelve accused sentenced in Iraq illustrates validates elements of Roy’s theory.

In terms of the phenomenon of siblings joining together, Fodil Tahar Aouidate left for Syria in 2013. France convicted two of Aouidate’s sisters for “financing terrorism” by sending funds to Syria. Karam el Harchaoui left for Syria in 2014 along with his younger brother. Yassin Sakkam left France in late 2014, and his brother committed a suicide attack at the Iraqi-Jordanian border in 2015.

French converts include Kevin Gonot, 32, who went to Syria with his half-brother Thomas Collange, 31, but also his mother, an indication that at least estrangement with one of his parents did not occur.

One of those convicted is Leonard Lopez, 32, a native Parisian who took the name Abu Ibrahim al Andalusi after joining Daesh, indicating his Hispanic origins in the south of Spain. In his case, he had his own family, a wife and two children which he took with him to Syria.

Two of the accused appeared integrated into French society, only to repudiate it. Vianney Ouraghi left France for Syria in 2013, abandoning his studies in psychology in France after having been persuaded to join through social media. Mustapha Merzoughi was a former French army soldier, who was also attracted to Daesh by social media

All of the accused are in their early thirties, meaning that were around their mid-twenties when they joined Daesh. Their similarities in age and the phenomenon of siblings do seem to indicate that the twelve were part of the “generational revolt” Roy mentions.

A double-standard

An analysis of the twelve accused undermines the argument that Islam as a faith is incompatible with European values. First generation and third generation Muslims rarely join groups like Daesh, and only a small percentage of the second generation and converts do. Rather than viewing this trend as a religious issue, it is more of a sociological issue involving the second generation’s alienation.

This case also reveals a double-standard. France refuses to repatriate these Daesh members, yet criticises Iraq’s execution sentence.

France, on one level, absolves itself of responsibility while at the same time, the French foreign ministry violates the sovereignty of Iraq by dictating how its judicial system should handle the cases. From a global normative perspective, speedy trials and executions should be condemned, but French double-standards on this issue should also be called out.

Most likely, the executions will not occur if France offers Iraq an incentive to incarcerate the prisoners for life. Paris will not provide a “payment-per-prisoner plan,” but will most probably offer increased security and weapons aid, which indirectly would compensate Iraq. This is still an ad hoc arrangement.

Other European Daesh prisoners have or will be handed over to Iraqi authorities. Many European states would love to wash their hands of their citizens and allow this to happen without having to introspect about their society's role in the radicalisation of these young citizens.

European nations still need to develop a strategy to deal with the problem and offer Iraq the financial resources and compensation to incarcerate these Daesh members, instead of lecturing Baghdad on universal human rights values. 

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