Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Europe Fears Converts May Aid Extremism

(Source: New York Times)
Published: July 19, 2004

T.-PIERRE-EN-FAUCIGNY, France — The Courtailler brothers grew up in this medieval Alpine town, children of a butcher who went broke, who divorced his wife and moved to a job in a meatpacking plant far away. Two of the three brothers, David and Jérôme, educated in Catholic schools, foundered in drugs until they found religion: Islam.

Within five years of David's initial conversion at a mosque in the British seaside resort of Brighton in 1996, the brothers embraced many of the leading lights of Europe's Islamic terror network. David, 28, is now in jail, and in late June, Jérôme, 29, turned himself in to the police in the Netherlands, days after he was convicted by a court there of belonging to an international terrorist group.

The Courtaillers are part of a growing group of people who found a home in Islam and then veered into extremism, raising concerns among antiterrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic that the new recruits could provide foreign-born Islamic militants with invisibility and cover, by escaping the scrutiny often reserved for young men of Arab descent.
A handful of Westerners have already been arrested on terrorism charges. Their experiences, the authorities fear, could foreshadow a deepening problem.

"Converts will be used for striking more and more by jihadist circles," said Jean-Luc Marret, a terrorism expert at the Strategic Research Foundation, in Paris. "They have been used in the past for proselytism, logistics or support, and they are operationally useful now."

Islam is Europe's fastest-growing religion, and many experts say that while there are no reliable statistics, they believe that the number of converts has grown since Sept. 11, 2001, in many ways because of the campaign against terrorism.

Antoine Sfeir, a French scholar who is writing a book on the trend, said a small number of converts, many of them disaffected and often troubled young people, saw the current wave of Islamic terrorism as "a kind of combat against the rich, powerful, by the poor men of the planet."

Only a small fraction of Western Islamic converts sympathize with terrorism, and even fewer become engaged in terrorist activity. A few dozen militant converts have been identified so far. A report by France's domestic intelligence agency, published by Le Figaro, estimated last year that there were 30,000 to 50,000 converts in France.

However small the number of them drawn to terrorism, the police are focusing on this subset as a serious and growing threat.

"The conversion to Islam of fragile individuals undoubtedly leads to the risk of diversion to terrorism," the intelligence agency's report said, adding that radical groups have recruited converts because they could cross borders easily or serve as front men for renting accommodations or providing other logistical support.

A Transnational Trend

The trend is not only happening in Europe.

Jack Roche, a British-born Australian taxi driver, converted to Islam, trained in Afghanistan and returned to Australia, where he was recently sentenced to nine years in prison for trying to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Canberra. While planning the attack and videotaping the embassy, he was questioned by a guard, whom he told that he was interested in the district's architecture.

"Is that what it is?" the guard, clearly believing him, casually replied in a conversation recorded on the video and later presented at Mr. Roche's trial. "I didn't think you were going to bomb the joint or anything."

In the United States, Jose Padilla, held by the government on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks, converted to Islam in 1992 while in a Florida jail.

Both David and Jérôme Courtailler, the French brothers, moved freely through Europe without attracting the kind of attention focused on Arab men, even after the French authorities were notified when David was spotted leaving Afghanistan.

In an interview, one French anti-terrorism official said many recent converts were women, further complicating the standard profile.


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