Photo via Islamic State video
Twice as many French nationals have joined or are planning to join the Islamic State in 2014, marking a 116 percent increase from the previous year, the French government has revealed.French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve unveiled the staggering statistics Wednesday at a meeting of France's council of ministers, according to local radio station, France Info.According to Cazeneuve, some 1,200 French nationals have left or have tried to leave the country since the beginning of 2014. Four hundred of them have already joined the ranks of the Islamic State or al Nusra Front — al Qaeda's Syrian arm.
The number of French nationals who have returned from fighting in Syria (234) has also risen by 50 percent since the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition conducted its first wave of airstrikes against militant strongholds in August, the figures show.Concern is growing in France over the number of nationals leaving to join militants in Syria and Iraq. Figures released in the fall showed that France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim population, has produced more jihadists than any other European nation. French nationals have also appeared in a number of recent Islamic State propaganda and execution videos.People Are Fleeing a Small Town in the South of France to Join the Islamic State. Read more here.French authorities have dismantled some 13 jihadist recruitment networks since fall 2013, according to the government. Anti-terror police units launched a series of raids on Monday in the southern town of Toulouse and in the northern region of Normandy, leading to a number of arrests. Authorities have also foiled several terrorist plots in France over the past year, including one targeting the famous Nice carnival in the country's southwest.Romain Caillet, a Beirut, Lebanon-based researcher and specialist in Islamist militant movement, recently identified several French nationals fighting alongside militants in Syria in posts to social media. He told VICE News he believes the recent arrests "are not aimed at stopping those wanting to leave."
"You don't need a network for that, just a Facebook contact," he said.Caillet says he is not surprised by the significant increase in the number of aspiring jihadists. The figures have risen across the board in Western nations since the Islamic State first began their lighting offensive and declared an Islamic caliphate across large areas of land in Iraq and Syria this summer.According to Caillet, France's "intermediate strategy" to tackle its growing jihadist problem has been less extreme than in some other countries."Canada has confiscated jihadists' passports to prevent them from leaving the country, but then they had a domestic terror attack," Caillet said. "Morocco prefers letting them go, hoping they'll die over there."Cazeneuve noted Wednesday that there was no longer a typical profile for jihadists, and that people from a wide range of backgrounds have left the country to join the swelling ranks of the Islamic State.Aspiring militants come from both major urban areas and small regional towns, according to the interior minister. At least 100 French women have also left to join militants in Syria in recent months, and one fifth of all French jihadists are recent converts to Islam, he said.Caillet says that, while there may not be one single "type" of jihadist, there are some identifiable dominant characteristics. Jihadists from France are overwhelmingly "Muslim men with a north-African background, who come from a modest social milieu," he said.But Cazeneuve insisted this week that of these people, only "a tiny fraction of individuals had drifted [towards radicalization].""It is of the utmost importance not to stigmatize the French Muslim community," he said, "for actions that French Muslims overwhelmingly and deeply condemn."A French Jail Is Trying to Halt Radicalization by Isolating 'Radical Muslim' Prisoners Together. Read more here.Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @Meloboucho