Interview with Alexandre Rodde on the Rise of Jihadist Threat in France in May 2024

In May 2024, France experienced an increase in jihadist activity, exacerbated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the preparations for the 2024 Olympic Games. Alexandre Rodde highlights the need for continuous vigilance and long-term responses to counter this persistent threat.

The month of May 2024 was marked by increased jihadist activity in France. Is the threat stronger today than in the past?

Alexandre Rodde: It depends on how we define “the past.” It is certain that the current terrorist threat is less severe than during the period from 2015 to 2016. However, the signals have become more concerning since 2023, with a rise in attacks in France and abroad, as well as arrests. The reasons for this increase are manifold: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has “re-energized” the movement, a certain domino effect following attacks in Arras and on the Bir-Hakeim bridge last year, and increased efforts by domestic security forces in light of the upcoming Olympics. There have also been a relatively high number of arrests in neighboring countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland) and two attacks since March in Zurich and Mannheim. While the government is trying to reassure the French, it raises concerns about the security of the 2024 Paris Olympics. Should the scale of the events be reduced?

If the risk is real in France, it is necessary to put it into perspective. The French domestic security forces have considerable expertise in managing large-scale events. I would like to remind you that the Euro football tournament took place in France in the summer of 2016, in 10 stadiums, attracting 2.5 million people. The terrorist threat was at its peak. The Islamic State had a stable territorial base at that time, experienced operatives on national territory, and sought to strike during the event. Larossi Abballa declared during the Magnanville attack that “the Euro would be a graveyard.”

The work of anti-terror units prevented these attacks from occurring, notably through the arrest of Reda Kriket. However, it is clear that the Olympics present a much greater challenge: over 300 events, spanning three weeks, attracting 15 million people, including 2 million foreign supporters. The opening ceremony on the Seine, with its potential 500,000 spectators, is the largest opening ceremony ever organized and the first outside a stadium. The risk exists, and French jihadists seek to strike during the Olympic Games, as evidenced by the arrests in Haute-Savoie in April and Saint-Etienne in May.

The security apparatus, including law enforcement, armed forces, and private security agents, is significant, but the possibility of an attack persists. There is a tendency towards amnesia on the subject of jihadism in France. With each incident, we suddenly open our eyes. Are we not making a mistake by forgetting the reality of jihadism in France? Does the return of war to our doorstep make us less vigilant?

There is indeed a certain tendency towards amnesia on the subject of jihadism in France. Since the reemergence of the threat in 2012 with the attacks in Toulouse and Montauban, France has experienced over 50 attacks, making it the most affected Western country by the jihadist threat. Yet, with each new attack, we talk about the “return” of jihadism, which remains a constant threat. Beyond the war in Ukraine, media cycles tend to address the issue in the moment, whereas jihadism is a fundamental issue that requires regular attention. We have been facing it every year for the past 12 years, and it will remain a persistent security challenge over the long term.

In your book “Le Jihad en France,” you demonstrate the evolution of jihadism. How has it transformed to become increasingly significant?

The evolution of the jihadist threat depends on a number of internal factors within the movement (recruitment, attacks, support from a foreign group, etc.) as well as external factors (arrests, neutralization, societal events, geopolitical crises, etc.). In my work, covering the period from 2012 to 2022, we can distinguish four major phases. Between 2012 and 2014, after sixteen years without an attack in France, the jihadist movement reappeared with the attacks in Toulouse, Montauban, Sarcelles, La Défense, and Joué-les-Tours. Following the rise of the Islamic State Caliphate and its many French recruits, we entered a period from January 2015 to September 2016 where attacks became more frequent and lethal, culminating in the November 13 attacks. The period from 2017 to 2019 saw a decline in the jihadist threat due to government efforts and international coalition actions. Finally, since 2020, we have seen a transformation of the threat, becoming more diffuse, and a change in the profile of the perpetrators and their methods. These evolutions are constant and will require ongoing analysis of the phenomenon in France.

Jihadists and Islamists try to exploit every crisis to their advantage. Jihadism also involves ideological dissemination. Shouldn’t this truth concern us more, especially as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides fuel for Islamist propaganda?

We are dealing with two different problems that act in symbiosis: jihadist violence and Islamist radicalization. The former requires a security and judicial response to better protect the population. The latter, more multifaceted, requires action at various levels: security and judicial, of course, but also cultural, social, financial… We have seen in a number of attacks, including the assassination of Samuel Paty in 2020, that statements from certain Islamist preachers can motivate and guide jihadist attacks. Moreover, jihadists and Islamists try to exploit every crisis, whether local, national, or international, to their advantage. In 2023, the ban on wearing the abaya in schools and especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict motivated a number of individuals to carry out or plan an attack, who were considering an attack before but were encouraged by the events.

Social media plays a significant role in radicalization. Have we transitioned to a mass jihad? What can we oppose to it?

If we talk about jihadist terrorism, we have not transitioned to a mass jihad, especially compared to previous years. Two attacks occurred last year, but with a higher death toll than in 2022, which remains concerning. The increasing number of arrests in France and neighboring countries is also worrying, as is the substantial number of individuals released from prisons (486 to date). The responses are manifold: recruitment within domestic security forces, protecting sites where an attack could occur, especially by training the public to react to such attacks, developing a greater capacity for anticipation in the field, for example.

However, I believe that the most important response is to address the issue in the long term. Jihadism in France is a long-term challenge that requires a fundamental, firm, and sustained response year after year, unaffected by the vicissitudes of current events.

*Alexandre Rodde, a graduate of the George Washington University Law School, is a security consultant and researcher specializing in terrorism issues. He has been working with the intervention units of the Gendarmerie and the National Police for several years. His latest book, “Le Jihad en France,” was published in October 2022 by Éditions du Cerf.