By Anne-Diandra Louarn
A year after the Toulouse attacks by Mohamed Merah (pictured), French counterterrorism experts are monitoring the practice of "taqiyya" - or deceiving society by concealing one’s faith – and its uses in jihadist circles.
Nearly a year ago, as one of France’s longest-ever police sieges was about to end on the morning of March 22, 2012, Mohamed Merah – also known as “the Toulouse gunman” – uttered a cry that seemed enigmatic to the uninformed, but was weighted with meaning for counterterrorism experts.
“It’s not the money, it’s the deception that’s critical,” said the 23-year-old French-Algerian shortly before he jumped off his Toulouse apartment window and was gunned down by an elite French anti-terror unit.
The somewhat cryptic cry was a likely reference to “taqiyya” – a form of religious dissimulation or legal dispensation in which believers deny their faith or even commit blasphemous acts as a deception if they are seriously threatened or at risk of persecution.
"Concealment is a technique as old as the world," explained French anti-terrorism judge Marc Trévidic in an interview with FRANCE 24. “It’s also an essential component of any war strategy, regardless of the people involved.”
In Islam, taqiyya dates back to the time when Shiite Muslims were hounded and persecuted by the Sunni caliphs following the 7th century schism between the followers of the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, and the Sunni caliphate.
For the traditionally persecuted Shiite minority, deception – or taqiyya – was considered a matter of survival. Although the term does not exist in Sunni jurisprudence, there have been rare cases of Sunnis practicing taqiyya in extraordinary circumstances.
But it was not until the term was recovered by Sunni jihadists trained in the Afghan terror camps that it began to get the attention of counterterrorism experts as trained and radicalised young men began practising taqiyya as a means of integrating and disguising themselves in Western societies.
“Taqiyya, as it’s understood today, is actually a radicalised version of concealment, in the sense that some religious extremists have found 'dalils' (or 'evidence') in the Koran that would justify their actions,” said Trévidic.
From Afghanistan to Europe and Canada
In France, intelligence agencies have been aware of the radicalised adoption of taqiyya since the mid-1990s, when al Qaeda began to advocate this technique among recruits plotting attacks on Western targets. The message was also targeted at French citizens of North African origins.
“These people who took the path of taqiyya were called ‘sleepers’. This is when we began to discover that after their passage through the jihadist training camps in Afghanistan, the recruits were sent home and directed to make a show of their ordinary, integrated lives - sometimes even masquerading as unbelievers,” said Trévidic.
One of the best-known jihadist sleepers was the "Hamburg cell", the infamous group of radicalized students in that German city who went on to execute the September 11, 2001, attacks – including 9/11 leader Mohamed Atta.
Another example of a terrorist in disguise was Fateh Kamel, a handsome Algerian-Canadian who was sentenced to eight years in jail by a French court in 1999 for supporting a terrorist plot against targets in Paris.
Assessing the danger of Islamists
But while Merah’s behaviour may have been deceptive in keeping with taqiyya norms, his activities were well known to the French secret services, according to Trévidic.
According to the anti-terror judge, the challenge for French authorities is not so much to identify the followers of taqiyya, but to assess their threat levels. "That is the whole problem of the DCRI [Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur – or the French domestic intelligence agency] in the Merah case," noted Trévidic.
If Merah’s suspicious trips to places like Pakistan were being monitored and French intelligence agents were aware that he belonged to a small Toulouse-based Salafist group, they failed to distinguish between a low-level delinquent and a potentially dangerous Islamist militant – or at which point the former could become the latter.
Trévidic acknowledges that it’s a challenge for the DCRI to identify radicalised youth ready and capable of putting their plans into action. But that’s the strength of taqiyya followers: in the impoverished, immigrant-dominated French suburbs – or banlieues in French - they often behave like local gangsters or gang leaders. To escape the counterterrorism radar, it’s not uncommon for potential terrorists to engage in minor acts of delinquency.
‘Rediscovering what we already know’
"No country is truly equipped against concealment. What we know today is that practices such as taqiyya require a deep infiltration of our territory, an in-depth knowledge of groups and individuals, as well as an effective system of recovering and retrieving information in the field,” said Trévidic.
The dismantling of suspected sleeper cells, such as the March 7-8 arrests of three terror suspects in the southern French town of Marignane (a suburb of Marseille), has intensified in the wake of the Merah case. "In terrorism, we are constantly rediscovering what we already know," notes Trévidic.
It’s a view mirrored by Alain Gresh, deputy director of the left-wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Gresh noted that taqiyya is not a new phenomenon. "Who are the terrorists who shout their intentions from rooftops?" he asked.
In a blog post published on March 2, Gresh argued that the media treatment of taqiyya has sometimes been “racist” and inappropriate. "Some journalists have suggested that Arabs have a perverse way of thinking that is permitted by their religion. Concealment is not limited to radical Islam. It is found in all religious doctrines and even in political doctrines,” he noted.