Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 22

Screenshot of French fighters in Syria burning their passports. (Source: al-Hayat Media Center)


James Brandon

The videotaped execution of 18 Syrian soldiers and the U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig by the Islamic State organization garnered fresh international notoriety for the militant group when it was posted online on November 16. In addition to underlining the group’s brutal tactics, the French government’s rapid naming of two of the executioners as suspected French nationals also highlighted the large number of French Muslims who have joined the Islamic State organization and a range of other hardline Islamist militant organisations in Syria during the last few years. The extent of this trend was further confirmed in the wake of these events when the French prime minister said that “close to 50” French citizens were so far thought to have died in Syria,” far more than from any other European country (BBC, November 19). This echoes earlier statements by French officials; in September, the country’s interior minister said that an estimated “930 French citizens or foreigners [residing] in France are today involved in jihad in Iraq and Syria” (France24, September 15).

In the days following the release of the footage of the execution, a French prosecutor put the two men under investigation for murder, joining a terrorist organisation and conspiring to commit crimes. The first to be officially named, Maxime Hauchard, was identified as a 22-year-old from a small rural village in Normandy who had converted to Islam at the age of 17 after living an apparently unremarkable suburban life. French officials said that he had travelled to Syria in August 2013, having previously gone to Mauritania in 2012 (RFI, November 17). Hauchard, who now operates under the name “Abu Abdallah al-Faransi,” had previously given a Skype interview in July describing his life in Syria, which he described the training camp “as like a holiday” before saying that he wished to die “as a martyr” (Le Monde, November 18). The second man to be identified by prosecutors, Michaël Dos Santos, a Portuguese national who gained French citizenship in 2009, was already well-known to the French security services (Le Figaro, November 19). Dos Santos, under his nom de guerre Abu Uthman, had already appeared in several online videos threatening attacks on France and had also maintained an active twitter account where he posted Salafist material and graphic photographs from Syria. Following these developments, and further underlining the involvement of a significant number of French nationals in ISIS, a further video was released by the Islamic State’s al-Hayat Media Center onto YouTube on November 19, showing three French Muslims in Syria burning their French passports; the video has since been removed from YouTube (Le Figaro, November 19).

The French government has sought to take tough action against the developing jihadist threat. Although the number of French citizens in Syria remains disputed, with maximum numbers being estimated at around 1,000, the government has initiated a crackdown against jihadists seeking to return to France. In the week prior to the above events, on November 13, Flavien Moreau, the first French citizen to stand trial in France for involvement in the Syrian jihad, was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. Unlike committed extremists like Dos Santos, Moreau’s trial revealed him to be a somewhat eccentric jihadist. Of South Korean origin, but adopted and brought up in France, he had first travelled to Syria in November 2012, but left after two weeks after being unable to deal with giving up cigarettes, as his jihadist comrades in arms had demanded. Back in France, he then tried to return to Syria, but was prevented as various European countries denied him entry; he was arrested soon afterwards in France (France24, November 13). In addition to putting such returning jihadists on trial, the French government has also taken a number of other measures, for instance, preventing around 70 people from leaving France due to suspicions that they intended to go to Syria. The government has not, however, so far outlined a broader strategy for dealing with the longer-term challenges posed by the large number of experienced jihadists who may someday return to France; given the number of French jihadists now active in Syria, such a strategy is likely to become increasingly necessary in the coming months. Indeed, prison sentences alone are unlikely to the solution and may in fact make matters worse; an estimated 60 percent of the French prison population is Muslim and prison radicalisation is already a significant concern for the French authorities (Le Figaro, October 23; Reuters, May 17, 2013).


1. His twitter account, @abou_uthman_6, has since been suspended.


James Brandon

On November 19, the Islamic State organization dramatically raised the stakes in the group’s ongoing conflict with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds by carrying out a suicide car bomb attack on a local government building in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Although the bomber failed to breach the building’s perimeter, the attack killed at least six and injured 29 (Rudaw, November 20). It was the worst attack in the Kurdish autonomous region since August 2013, when a suicide bomber killed seven in an attack on the headquarters of the Asayish, the Kurdish internal security organisation, also in Erbil; this attack was purportedly an Islamic State, then the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), attempt to free prisoners being held there (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 8, 2013). Responsibility for the latest attack was reportedly claimed by the Islamic State in an announcement distributed online on November 21. The statement reportedly identified the bomber as Abdulrahman al-Kurdi, presumably an ethnic Kurd, and gloated that the attack had “breached all the security checkpoints… reached the heart of the city of Erbil” (al-Arabiya, November 21).

The aim of the attack is likely to have been to strike back at the Iraqi Kurdistan government, which since late October has deployed its peshmerga forces in Kobane. Kobane is the Kurdish-majority Syrian town that has been a focus for recent conflict between the Islamic State organization and Kurdish militants, who are backed by U.S.-led international forces. The bomb attack is also likely to be an attempt to undermine local and international confidence in the abilities of the Kurdish government to maintain security in Kurdistan, including business confidence in the economically-fragile region. Investor sentiment in Iraqi Kurdistan had already been badly shaken in August and September when the Islamic State’s rapid advance in northern Iraq seemed to threaten Kurdistan; foreign businesses in Iraqi Kurdistan responded rapidly, with international airlines reducing their services and some foreign oil companies scaling back their operations. The latest attack likely intended to dent such confidence further (Bloomberg, August 7; August 13). Moreover, the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly use an ethnic Kurd as the bomber, while no doubt partly undertaken for operational reasons, was also likely intended to send a powerful message to both the Kurdish government and its international political, military and economic backers that the Islamic State threat in Kurdistan is not just an external threat; the militant organization also draws on elements within Kurdish society.

Despite this, the net effect of the November 19 bomb attack may be to strength Kurdish and international opposition to the Islamic State organization. In the short term, for example, the attack is likely encourage the various Kurdish groups, many of which are long-standing rivals, to work more closely together. For instance, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and leader of the Erbil-based Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has traditionally favoured cultivating political and economic links with Turkey in preference to working with the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkên Kurdistan – PKK), whose offshoots have played the leading role in combating the Islamic State in Syria. The bombing is likely to renew awareness that both the KDP and the PKK face a common threat in the Islamic State organization and to encourage closer co-operation between these long-time foes. Turkey responded to the bombing by reaffirming its ties with Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, visiting Erbil on a pre-planned trip on November 21, two days after the bombing, publicly stressed the important of Turkey-Kurdistan security ties: “Turkey will provide support through any necessary means for the Kurdistan Region’s security” (Rudaw, November 21). In a further expression of Turkish solidarity with the Iraqi Kurds, Davutoglu publicly expressed his condolences for the victims of the November 19 bomb attack. Another impact of the attack is likely to be to bolster international support for both the Iraqi Kurdish government and for Kurdish militants in Syria who are on the frontline in the fight against the Islamic State organization; indeed, on the same day as the bombing, Barzani publicly appealed for the international community to supply more heavy weapons to the Kurds. For instance, in an interview the same day as the bombing, he called for the West to supply armored personnel carriers (APCs), helicopters and artillery to Kurdish forces (France24, November 19). On balance therefore, while the Islamic State’s successful bomb attack in Erbil has no doubt struck a powerful psychological blow at the Iraqi Kurdish government and its supporters, in the longer-term the attack is likely to further unify the Islamic State’s opponents and to cement military and political opposition to the group.