French government officials have confirmed to the media that up to ten of its former soldiers “have defected to the Islamic State. Among those defectors is at least one member of an elite fighting unit with advanced training.
The French are quick to add that the number of defecting soldiers is small – “around 10, and including former paratroopers and French foreign legionnaires,” according to the National Post – and includes both “Muslim converts” and “radicalized French from an Arab-Muslim background.”
Despite these assurances that the number of defectors is small, the French are visibly worried about a turncoat attack along the lines of Major Nidal Hasan’s Fort Hood attack in the United States. There are concerns that military defectors could return hope to upgrade the combat skills of home-grown French Islamist cells.
One defector in particular is a matter of grave concern, because he evidently has the kind of training that could significantly upgrade front-line ISIS units in Iraq and Syria. The man is described as “an ex-member of France’s elite First Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, considered one of Europe’s most experienced special forces units.” The man, believed to be North African, served France for five years before subscribing to radical Islamist ideology.
ISIS is clearly interested in putting that French military training to good use, as it is reported that the defectors have been assigned to train and lead squads of French Muslims recruited by the Islamic State to fight in Syria. There also seems to be a worrying amount of explosives expertise among the new ISIS recruits.
France is taking a number of forceful measures to combat ISIS recruitment efforts, including the use of moderate Muslim clerics to woo prison inmates away from Islamist theology, isolating radicalized inmates to keep them away from the general prison population, aggressively patrolling jihadi websites, beefing up cyber defenses in the wake of French newspaper Le Monde getting hacked by supporters of the Syrian dictatorship, and even debating the idea of “stripping offenders of certain civic rights,” possibly including the right to vote or hold a government job. The severity of this response is an eloquent testimony to how effective radical recruiting has been, if the official admission that French-trained military personnel are throwing in with the head-choppers was not eloquent enough.
A sidebar of the National Post article quotes European law enforcement admitting that foiling terrorist attacks “has become extremely difficult” because “Europe’s 2,500 to 5,000 radicalized Muslim extremists have little command structure and are increasingly sophisticated.” Another major element of the problem is that the authorities think there are only 5,000 of them. Just wait until more of those sophisticated extremists enjoy the benefits of top-shelf Western military training.
Counter-terrorism experts have often worried that ISIS – famously dismissed by a clueless Barack Obama as the “junior varsity league” of al-Qaeda – is much better at recruiting and spreading its ideology than its parent terrorist group was. ISIS pulls in new members, both within its conflict zones and around the world, several orders of magnitude more energetically than al-Qaeda ever did.
The greater popularity of social media today than in al-Qaeda’s salad days of the late Nineties might be one reason; the fact that al-Qaeda was swiftly pushed into caves and deprived of state sponsors by the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11, while ISIS was left free by Obama to carve a functional nation-state out of Syria and Iraq, is surely another. Osama bin Laden wrote about how people naturally prefer strong horses to weak horses, but he ended up with a sharply limited ability to present himself as a winner; the squalid compound where he hid for years, and was eventually bagged by Navy SEALs, sure didn’t look like the stable of a Strong Horse. ISIS, on the other hand, is very good at boasting of its successes and inflicting primitive carnage upon its enemies to terrorize them. They look like a winning team, so people with compatibly bloody minds join them.