The French government plans to open a center for young people returning to France after fighting alongside Islamic militants in conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced Wednesday.
"A structure will be created by the end of the year to take charge, on a voluntary basis, of young people returning from conflict zones who are not, of course, being prosecuted," Valls told a meeting of European Union (EU) counter-terrorism magistrates in Paris.
According to French radio station Europe 1, the government will first pilot a "small, experimental structure" in or around Paris, with plans to roll out the initiative if it is found to be successful. In the future, reports indicate the center may also cater to men and women facing prosecution and judges may be able to order compulsory counseling at the center as part of a sentence.
With the aim to reintegrate young French citizens into society, the center, said Valls, will offer individualized support, psychological care, and enhanced mentoring.
It is unclear how many returning jihadists would have access to the counseling, or indeed how the government plans to measure the success of its new initiative. When contacted by VICE News on Thursday, neither the prime minister's office nor the interior ministry were able to provide further details.
Paris attorney Martin Pradel, who specializes in terrorism cases, told VICE News he is often contacted by former jihadists seeking legal representation or advice on how to leave the caliphate. For Pradel, the center will only yield results if it open its doors to all returning Jihadists — including, and particularly, those facing prosecution.
"It's a big mistake to exclude those who face charges," said Pradel. "Those are the people you need to pay attention to."
Pradel also explained it was unlikely anyone returning from Syria or Iraq wouldn't face prosecution in France. For the French authorities, he added, anyone returning from those regions is automatically considered "a potential terrorist."
"Today, you would face prosecution for simply going to Syria or Iraq, regardless of what you had done once you were there," said the attorney. "I'm not sure who the young people are, who are returning from war zones and without being prosecuted."
For Pradel, the prosecution and incarceration of presumed Jihadists is all part of a vicious circle.
"We're scared of people who fit the Mehdi Nemmouche profile," said the attorney, referring to the gunman who killed four at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in May 2014. "Yet we bring all those people together in prison, which has the effect of creating even more Islamist militants."
More than a year ago, France launched a hotline for members of the public to report relatives and acquaintances suspected of wanting to join a radical group.
"In the space of one year, thanks to our initiatives, we received close to 1,900 reports, a quarter of which concerned minors and — an often overlooked fact — 40 percent of which concerned women," Valls said Wednesday.
According to the French government, 1,605 French nationals had either "shown a desire to leave, are in transit, are on the ground [in Syria or Iraq], are in the process of returning, or have already returned" from regions where militant groups are operating. Among them, 445 are currently in Syria and 99 have died fighting alongside militants.
In Fall 2014, France piloted a prison experiment in the Fresnes jail, which consisted of isolating suspected radical Islamists in a separate living unit, to prevent recruitment among prisoners. In March, France's prisons controller Adeline Hazan criticized the project, deeming it too simplistic an approach to the complex issue of prison radicalization.
According to Pradel, the best way to assess the sincerity and the risk posed by returning jihadists is to provide counseling to everyone, regardless of whether they are locked up or not.
"Many of us have been calling for a special unit to provide counseling, but it's important not to restrict access to that service," he added.
For sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, a research director at the EHESS social science school in Paris and author of a book on prison radicalization, opening a center that offers counseling is fundamentally "a good move," but could prove ineffective if it doesn't somehow integrate religion.
"There needs to be a religious outlet within the structure for these young people," Khosrokhavar, told VICE News, adding that by offering such a service, the government would leave itself wide open to criticism from defenders of secularism. "The de-radicalization centers that were open in Denmark, for example, integrate a religious dimension, even though their success can only be measured in hindsight," said the researcher.
For Khosrokhavar, there are three types of returning jihadist: the traumatized, who need counseling, the hardened, who may commit further attacks, and the repentant, who have lost faith in Jihad.
"A center that would provide counselling […] could work for those who are traumatized," said Khosrokhavar. "But to influence a hardened jihadist, you need a whole psychological and religious arsenal."
The repentant jihadist, the researcher explained, needs access "to a public forum to talk about their experience and dissuade others from going off to wage Jihad."
Like Pradel, Khosrokhavar questions the efficiency of isolating returning Jihadists in prisons.
"You have to separate the leaders from those who are easily influenced, but some of them lie, which makes it difficult to do that," he said. "And all you need is one mistake that leads to a terror attack on French soil, and suddenly, the whole system is challenged."
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Image of the Palais de Justice in Paris via Flickr / Wolfgang Staudt