March 29, 2024 - 4:00pm

France’s schools are once again under shock. The principal of Maurice Ravel high school in eastern Paris resigned from his position following online threats subsequent to a confrontation with a student who refused to remove her hijabs while on school grounds, as required by the law.

The French have read this script before. In 2020, a young Chechen individual tragically took the life of the teacher Samuel Paty after the former had shared a cartoon of Muhammad during a discussion on freedom of speech. Previously, one of his students provided a highly provocative version of events to her parents, who then informed their neighbours, fellow believers, and local provocateurs. They labelled Paty an “Islamophobe,” putting a target on his back. The young Chechen came across the controversy and decided to take the matter into his own hands.

Paty, Bernard and so many others fell victim to what political scientist Gilles Kepel termed “atmospheric jihadism.” Kepel, an established authority on the Middle East and radical Islam, contends that grievance entrepreneurs seek to foster an “us versus them” narrative within Muslim communities, alienating them from the broader French society and, at the margins, giving a licence for individuals to punish their enemies. In essence, “atmospheric jihadism” encompasses the ideological and social factors that contribute to radicalisation within certain communities, emphasising the role of local dynamics and narratives in the rise of Islamist ideology.

What happened in Maurice Ravel is another textbook case. The Collective Against Islamophobia in Europe — the disbanded ex-Collective Against Islamophobia in France now resettled in Belgium — published a clip of the young girl claiming she had been manhandled. It quickly went viral and the death threats followed suit.

This atmospheric jihadism is not unique to France. If it had not been made very clear by the surge in antisemitic abuse in the UK in 2023 (+589%), the Khan Review published this week clearly indicated that the UK had its own network of toxic grievance entrepreneurs and Islamists provocateurs. We know MPs are under significant pressure from Islamist activists and jihadists. In Batley when a RE teacher was forced into hiding for showing a cartoon of Muhammad, the UK was soberingly close to having its own Samuel Paty. He is still in hiding three years later.

But France is especially under threat. Only last October, Dominique Bernard, another teacher, was killed by an Islamist terrorist. And over the last 10 days, 150 schools have reported receiving threats through their email systems over the past week, including the following message received by 74 students: “Tomorrow, I will explode the entire establishment and decapitate all your bodies of kouffars to serve Allah the Almighty.”

With the Olympics looming, France is also dealing with the possibility of larger terrorist strikes, as made obvious by the government raising the terror alert warning to its highest level and deploying across the country another 4000 military to the already 3000 tasked with anti-terrorist patrol duties.

In the last two years, while no major sophisticated attacks have been successful, a significant amount have been in the works, including a particularly gruesome plan by a cell to capture and execute an entire village in Brittany.

Leading jihadism expert Hugo Micheron long warned against the complacency of thinking ISIS’ territorial defeat meant the end of trouble. Islamist terrorism in Europe has ebbed and flowed over the decades, with three phases since the 1980s. Each had their goals and methodology, but at every ebb, the next generation regroups and builds a template for the future, and the next flow pushes the tide a little higher. Since the territorial collapse of ISIS we have enjoyed a low tide, but the last few weeks could be the premise of a new high tide.

This jihadist world and its sympathisers have been turbocharged by the emotional power of recent international developments, starting of course with the war in Gaza, the viral plight of the Palestinians and its aftershocks in the region, including the Red Sea frenzy of the Houthis. Intelligence services across Europe are all on high alert; in Britain they believe the war in Gaza is likely to become the biggest recruiter for militants since the Iraq war in 2003.

This is not to say that the Olympics are doomed. France’s intelligence services have done a remarkable job over the last decade dealing with jihadists and will be on high alert. But France, and the rest of Europe, might start to feel the pinch of the pincer movement between low-level atmospheric jihadism and the return of more lethal sophisticated strikes.


François Valentin is co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast and a Senior Researcher at Onward’s Social Fabric Programme.

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