PARIS – Latifa Ibn Ziaten knows a thing or two about terrorism.
Her son, Imad, a soldier in the French military, was shot dead in 2012 by Mohammed Merah, who killed six other people, including three children, at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
Now, as France emerges from the trauma of its worst terrorist attacks in more than 50 years, she says children of immigrants in poor, crime-ridden ghettos need a chance at a future to keep them from falling prey to those peddling radical Islam.
Shootings this month in Paris by three self-proclaimed Islamist gunmen claimed 17 lives, leaving the country shaken and bringing millions into the streets to honor the victims.
“We can’t forgive what they did, but we have to do something,” Ibn Ziaten said in an interview. “We can’t just demonstrate and go on with life. We have to do something for this lost youth. There’s so much work to do, with youth educators, in schools, in neighborhoods, with families. That’s how we can prevent these youth from becoming jihadis.”
In the days since the attacks, the French government has said little that would reassure Ibn Ziaten. Faced with home-grown terrorism, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has pointed to “failures of 30 years of integration policies.” France, like the U.S. after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, has focused on tightening security. It plans to reorganize prisons, which are seen as a hotbed of radicalization. It has added more cops in the streets and will beef up its spying machine to target people deemed potentially dangerous.
“So far, most of the responses have been in the area of tightening security,” Arthur Goldhammer, co-chairman of the French Study Group at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, said in a blog. “The problem isn’t going to be solved by assigning a team of security agents to keep tabs on these kids for the next 20 years. Something has to change at the base.”
A new law being considered will give the government greater leeway on listening in on private conversations and monitoring Skype, with 1,000 jobs to be created between now and 2017 to bolster spying capabilities.
“The law will enable us to detect and anticipate so that those who are preparing an attack can be arrested in time,” Jean-Jacques Urvoas, the head of the parliamentary commission on intelligence, said on Europe 1 radio on Jan. 14.
The state is seeking a freer hand to access computer information and set up cameras and microphones in private spaces to monitor people. The moves set the stage for greater tensions with the Muslim minority, which already feels unloved by state authorities.
“The government is going in the opposite direction of what it should be doing, stigmatizing Muslims instead of reassuring them,” said M’hammed Henniche, spokesman for UAM93, a regional federation of Muslim organizations, who organized the religious burial of Ahmed Merabet, a policeman killed in the attacks. “That’s not going to work; people will be even angrier.”
The savagery of the attacks by the gunmen — all three of whom were children of immigrants born and raised in France — has hardened many in France. Marine Le Pen, head of the nationalist, anti-immigration National Front, called for tighter border controls and revocation of French citizenships.
Even the Socialist government is throwing its hands up. “When real urban ghettos are created, where people keep to themselves, where people advocate insularity, opting out of society,” there is not much the state can do, Valls said in parliament last week.
Although tightening security in the aftermath of an attack may be a logical response, some analysts say France isn’t addressing the social distress and discrimination that are at the root of disaffected youths turning to jihad.
The government is implying the gunmen “are representative of a community, when they are exceptional cases, given the size of populations linked to immigration in France,” said Patrick Simon, a researcher at the Ined institute in Paris.
Far from the grand boulevards of Paris, poor suburbs, or “banlieues,” have a disproportionate number of immigrants from France’s former colonies. Soviet-style blocks of buildings with graffiti dot the neighborhoods. Unemployment is typically twice the national rate of about 20 percent. For young people, it can go as high as 40 percent.
Successive governments have unveiled plans for these troubled suburbs, announcing billions of euros in social programs. Since the 1970s, plans have been approved every two to three years on average to improve housing conditions, safety, schools or help inhabitants find jobs.
Yet little has improved — and some would argue things have gotten markedly worse — since the violence and grittiness of French suburbs was made famous in the 1995 film “La Haine” (“Hate”).
The gunmen in the new attacks, who were shot dead by the police on Jan. 9, all grew up in such circumstances.
The brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, 34 and 32, who killed 12 people at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, were born to Algerian immigrants of modest means in Paris and were orphaned as teenagers. The state placed them in a home in a village in Correze. Returning to Paris as adults, they took on petty jobs: Cherif delivered pizzas, while Said did odd jobs at neighborhood bars.
It wasn’t long before they turned to religion.
“Someone goads these youths, creating havoc in their minds, transforming them into monsters and killers,” said Ibn Ziaten, who emigrated from Morocco at the age of 17 and runs an association that seeks to talk youngsters out of joining extremist groups.
Cherif Kouachi wasn’t able to resist the lure of one such group. He was arrested in 2005 for his role in a jihadi recruitment cell sending fighters to Iraq, the first such group identified in France. It was called the “Filiere des Buttes Chaumont” after the leafy park in Paris’s 19th arrondissement near where they met.
Elder brother Said may have trained for jihad in Yemen, according to information from French and U.S. intelligence agencies. Cherif may also have visited Yemen, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.
The third gunman, 32-year-old Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four hostages at kosher grocery in Paris, was one of 10 children growing up in a neighborhood in La Grande-Borne, an area in Grigny, a crime-ridden suburb of Essone.
He was imprisoned several times for burglaries and other crimes, and for attempting to help a terrorist escape from prison.
Cherif Kouachi and Coulibaly met in prison, where the government says their radical Islamic views deepened.
Greater controls in prisons are among measures the government plans to put in place, including the isolation of extremist inmates from other criminals.
A disproportionately high 60 percent of France’s 66,000 inmates are Muslim, either by religion or by “culture,” a parliamentary report in October said. About 10 percent of the country’s population of about 65 million is Muslim, the highest proportion in Europe.
France said last week that it has 152 inmates considered radicalized Islamists, including people from the country’s 1995 terrorist attacks and jihadis who have come back from Syria in the last few years.
Moderate French Muslims have been unable to prevent youngsters from turning to more radical elements, said Didier Leschi, deputy prefect in Seine-Saint-Denis, a working-class Paris suburb that is home to a large Muslim community and was at the heart of the country’s worst riots in 2005.
“The French Muslim community lacks a unified representation system that would prevent disaffected followers from falling prey to self-proclaimed fanatic leaders,” he said.
France and the rest of Europe, which face similar challenges with the integration of Muslim youth, need to take a two-pronged approach of greater vigilance and more support, said Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. “We have to respond firmly with legal and police measures against terrorism, but we also have to invest billions and billions in education and integration to give opportunities to those who feel excluded from society,” he said. “Otherwise we will lose the battle against terrorism.”
Just how difficult the task will be was brought home when children as young as 10 years old disrupted the minute of silence being observed at their schools for the 12 victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
There were 100 such incidents, according Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Another 100 incidents since have been reported, of which 40 were referred to judicial authorities because they involved defending terrorist acts, she said.
The experience of Iannis Roder, who has been teaching history and geography at an immigrant-dominated school in Seine-Saint-Denis for 17 years, shows what France is up against with an emerging hard-line younger generation.
In a Europe 1 radio interview on Jan. 14, he said he discussed the Charlie Hebdo attack with ninth- and tenth-graders.
“There were varied comments, from ‘It’s not right to kill but they had it coming’ to ‘Serves them right; they shouldn’t have drawn the prophet,’ ” he said.