Alexander Gray

Research Fellow, Security & Extremism Read Full Bio

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Behind the scenes: The fight against Islamist influencers in France

Oct 20, 2021


Read the original French article in Le Figaro here.


Behind the scenes: The fight against Islamist influencers

By Christophe Cornevin

Posted 19 October 2021

INVESTIGATION – The Ministry of the Interior is developing a unit of republican counter-discourse. Analysts and web specialists have united to counter the rhetoric of hate preachers.

Against the offensive orchestrated for years by Islamists on social media to manipulate minds, spread their social codes and lay the foundations of an obscurantist counter-society on the scale of entire neighbourhoods, the Republic is fighting back.

The idea of ​​retaliating, advocated by Emmanuel Macron in his speech at Les Mureaux on 2 October 2020, became obvious the day after the assassination of Samuel Paty, beheaded in the middle of the street a few days after being hounded on the web. It is partly via Twitter that the killer identified the professor, learned how to kill him and espoused an ideology of “atmospheric jihadism” as it was described by Gilles Kepel.

“War of influence”

Anxious not to cede an inch of ground to political Islam which spreads hatred, and keen to stop the conspiracy theories on which radical clerics thrive, the Ministry of the Interior, under the leadership of Marlène Schiappa, the Minister for Citizenship, has been developing, since last November, a discreet unit of republican counter-discourse (UCDR).

With 17 members and aiming to expand in 2022, this structure is made up of “analysts” with knowledge of Islamist propaganda, community managers, former journalists or computer graphics specialists specialising in “motion design”, the art of making an educational video attractive. “These very varied profiles make it possible to keep a permanent watch, to analyse the content before leading the response on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or even TikTok where preachers of hatred are active,” says the Ministry of ‘Interior, whose services have established that “about 80% of content relating to research on Islam is now connected to the Salafist sphere and radical Islam”.

To carry out what the Ministry of the Interior calls the “war of influence”, these soldiers of the Republic retaliate to “thwart fallacious arguments, manipulations, slanders and lies that need to be rectified”. In total, around twenty Islamist influencers in particular, “all French-speaking and connected to foreign countries”, are in their sights. “Until now, no official body was concerned about it”, says the same source, explaining that they now claim responsibility for “name and shame” operations to unmask the propagandists and reveal their real intentions.

Victim Rhetoric

Thus, since last winter, the counter-discourse unit has targeted Marwan Muhammad, who has become, according to the Interior Ministry, the “spearhead of the “brotherist” movement since the fall of Tariq Ramadan”. As head of the former Committee against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) which was described by Gérald Darmanin as an “Islamist agency working against the Republic” and dissolved at the end of 2020, he is presented as the champion of the victim rhetoric commonly practiced by the radical sphere.

“According to its doxa, which aims to distort reality and concepts which are at the heart of the values ​​of the Republic, the Muslim community is the victim of a racist and xenophobic plot carried by the State which would do everything to muzzle, even criminalise French Muslims. The defence of secularism is, for its part, considered as a far-right concept”,explains an indignant source at the Ministry of the Interior. “We are not targeting Muslims at all, on the contrary we are protecting them. Muslims are the first victims of Islamism in the world”, adds the same source, recalling that a study by the Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol) established last month that Islamist violence caused the death of 210,000 people between 1979 and 2021, with a ratio of 90% of Muslims among the victims.

“The impact of Islamist influencers on social media is considerable and all of them will face our unit of counter-discourse which will establish what must be clarified and rectified”, warns one of the heads of the unit. Through the interministerial committee for the prevention of delinquency and radicalisation, the republican “task force” was behind 25 responses, targeting associations deemed dangerous and disbanded, such as BarakaCity, various activists, or even fake news linked to the wearing of the veil or the Strasbourg Mosque, for example.

In addition to promoting republican values ​​by sharing exemplary individual stories, such as that of Lassana Bathily, who saved lives during the hostage-taking of the Hyper Cacher in Vincennes on 9 January 2015, the UCDR also posts in-depth analyses, on @republic-gouv that have been greatly successful. One, for example, examined the amalgam between Islam and Islamism and was shared 2.8 million times on social media.

“Online, the war of ideas must be quantitative as well as qualitative, observes a prefect. Whatever the relevance and strength of the argument, it is drowned if it does not benefit from mass sharing.”

Regaining control

At the Ministry of the Interior, where no one seems to be unaware that France is lagging far behind the structured networks established for years, the challenge is therefore to regain control of the “social web”. “In addition to the phenomenal charges carried out by foreign powers, especially from Turkey, against France and the President of the Republic to discredit his speech, we must now also take into account the many robots which are at the origin of 75% of toxic content ”, whispers a source at the ministry, declaring a keen interest in soliciting “all the forces of civil society ”.

As part of a Marianne plan, led by Marlène Schiappa, 2.5 million euros were used to finance 17 projects. Supported by associations and well-established NGOs, they aim to decipher the processes behind conspiracy theories, and make pro-republican messages fashionable again while fighting cyber-extremists. “We are not naive and it is not in three tweets that we will force online hate propagandists to lay down their weapons, admits Marlène Schiappa. But to do nothing would be the worst of desertions, especially since each episode is exploited with significant bad faith.”

By trying to convince Internet users and calm tensions online, the musketeers of the counter-discourse also have far-right activists in their sights. With one objective: to avoid at all costs the “clash of civilisations” theorised by Samuel Huntington a quarter of a century ago, and which could fracture France at any time.

Alexander Gray

Research Fellow, Security & Extremism Read Full Bio

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