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Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

‘Soft power’ financing of religious, cultural and educational networks that nurture the jihadi ideology: Mosques and Islamic centres in the West

Having said earlier that it is hard to judge whether specific Gulf attempts at exporting Islam are innocuous or potential precursors to explosive violence, there is no doubt that they are controversial and raise deep suspicions within host states in the West.  In 2012, when Qatar announced plans to invest €50 million ($65 million) to support small businesses in disadvantaged Muslim neighbourhoods in France, one commentator declared that “Qatar, the most fraudulent ‘moderate’, is sparing no effort to spread Wahhabi Islam across the whole world, discouraging integration [and] encouraging jihad”.

The commentator in question, Soeren Kern, cited a recent 2,200-page report, ‘Banlieue de la Republique’ (Suburbs of the Republic), commissioned by the influential French think tank l’Institut Montaigne, that described how Muslim immigrants were increasingly rejecting French values and identity in favour of Islam.[i]  According to the report, the suburban slums known in France as banlieues, where up to one million or more mostly unemployed Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East live, were already being exploited by Islamist preachers from countries such as Morocco and Turkey to create “separate Islamic societies” ruled by Sharia law.  France, which has a strong secular tradition, is home to between five and six million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in the European Union.  They are mainly undereducated low-income immigrants, and so their mosques depend on financial support from countries such as Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia – and now Qatar, Kern added – all of which, he said, pursue their own objectives in France.  Among other findings, the Montaigne report described the proliferation of mosques, Quranic schools and makeshift prayer rooms in the banlieues, the religious orientations of which are heavily influenced by the national origin of the founder or president of a given mosque.

It is beyond the scope of this research to explore in depth the history, evolution and diversity of Muslim communities in France, and their internal and external networks of relationships.  Much scholarly and journalistic work has been done on the relative strength and degree of integration of the various strands of Islam – moderate, fundamentalist, politically activist and jihadist – that have a presence in the staunchly secular republic, and we will return to this in section 7.4.1 below.  For now we will confine ourselves to identifying some of the networks among Wahhabi/Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated mosques and institutions across Europe, their Gulf-based sponsors, and their place in the intricate fabric of European Islam.

Belgium

One of the earliest links between the oil-rich Gulf states and European Islam was the introduction of Saudi Salafist preachers in Belgium as far back as the 1960s. At the time, Belgium was encouraging Moroccan and Turkish workers to come to the country as cheap labour.  Allegely keen to secure oil contracts, Belgium’s King Baudouin made an offer to the Saudi King Faisal, who had visited Brussels in 1967: Belgium would set up a mosque in the capital where the Muslim immigrants could worship, and it would hire Gulf-trained Salafist clerics.  The Saudis got a 99-year, rent-free lease on a run-down pavilion in one of the capital’s main parks.  It opened in 1978 as the Great Mosque of Brussels, as well as the seat of the Islamic and Cultural Centre of Belgium (ICC).

The conservative Salafist teachings of the new mosque’s preachers were very different from the more open and tolerant Islam of the immigrant Moroccan community, but many of them “were re-Islamified by the Salafist clerics and teachers from the Great Mosque’’. Some Moroccans were even given scholarships to study in Medina, in Saudi Arabia,” according to Belgian MP George Dallemagne.  The MP accuses the Salafist clerics of also trying to undermine attempts by Moroccan immigrants to integrate into Belgian society.  A WikiLeaks cable revealed in August 2015 that a staff member of the Saudi embassy in Belgium had been expelled some years previously over his active role in spreading the extreme so-called takfiri dogma (declaring people apostates, and thus deserving to be killed). The cable, between the Saudi king and his interior minister, referred to Belgian demands that the ICC’s Saudi director, Khalid Alabri, should leave the country, saying that his messages were far too extreme, and that his status as director meant he should not be preaching anyway.

As noted earlier, although the larger foreign-funded mosques in Europe spread hardline Wahhabi or Salafist readings of Islam, creating a climate of separatism and intolerance, they do not necessarily preach violent jihad.  However, the steady implantation of Wahhabi doctrine among immigrant Muslims may prepare the ground for a more violent ideology to sprout, and then become still more extreme and radical.  The Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, home to terrorist mentor and IS recruiter Khalid Zerkani and other jihadis linked to at least four terrorist attacks, has seen an evolution of this kind.  Researcher Hind Fraihi has noticed a pronounced shift over the past ten years from the often arcane theological debates of an earlier generation of jihadis, linked to al-Qaeda, to what she calls “gangster Islam”.  When she first started studying the neighbourhood more than a decade ago, the radical scene was dominated by extremist clerics well versed in religious texts.  This has mutated under the influence of IS propaganda, she says, into a criminal enterprise driven by “the synergy between banditism and Islam”.

Italy

The rise of Islam and Islamism in Italy has also proved contentious.  Italy’s first modern mosque, in Catania in Sicily in 1980, was financed by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi; in 1988 the Muslim Brotherhood established a mosque near Milan; and in 1995 a vast mosque part-financed by Saudi Arabia, reportedly with capacity for 12,000 worshippers, opened in Rome, the capital. Today Italy has over 500 mosques, and thousands of small prayer rooms and Quran schools.  Many of Italy’s largely Catholic Christian population have felt uncomfortable or even hostile as they witnessed the rise of Islam in their country, though multiculturalists were more sanguine.  Speaking about plans to build a major new mosque in Salemi, Sicily, with Qatari funding in 2012, the town’s Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi said: “Sicily is excited about hosting Islam.  Nothing is more important than finding common feelings and beliefs in the different religions that believe in a single God.”  The Vatican has engaged in dialogue with various Muslim representatives, and signs joint messages of peace.  However, the strong influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in a majority of Italian mosques, and the extremist preaching in some of them, quickly became a sore point, and in 2003 the government felt compelled to sack the imam of the Rome mosque.  The man was an Egyptian-born cleric who reportedly did not understand Italian, and was removed after complaints that he had been preaching jihad.  At the end of one particular Friday sermon, given front-page coverage by the newspaper La Repubblica, he prayed for victory for Islamic fighters in Palestine, Chechnya and elsewhere, adding: “O Allah, help us to annihilate the enemies of Islam”.  In a separate statement to the paper he praised suicide operations “by the mujahedin against the Jews in Palestine” as legitimate “martyrdom operations”.

Spain

Spanish intelligence had raised the alarm as far back as 2011 about the financial aid that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Libya and above all Morocco were providing to the 1.2 million Muslims living in Spain.  A report from the director of the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) to the ministries of interior, foreign affairs and defence said:  “This financial aid is resulting in negative attitudes toward a peaceful coexistence, such as the emergence of ghettos and parallel societies, Islamic courts and police forces outside the law, girls being taken out of school, and forced marriages… The financial flows, namely the donations and financial aid from other countries to Spain’s Islamic community, are not sufficiently controlled…  It is necessary for the donor countries to become fully aware of the risks involved in supplying individuals with funds.”

A delegation of Spanish officials subsequently toured the Gulf states, urging them to provide aid only through the officially approved Spanish Islamic Commission.  While the delegation found their hosts generally willing to cooperate, it was reported that Qatar, for one, preferred to make donations through the Islamic League for Dialogue and Coexistence in Spain.  This body, according to the CNI, was “closely linked to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood”, which was believed to control, for example, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Catalonia.

As elsewhere, the authorities in Spain were not wishing to throw suspicion on all aid from Muslim countries, let alone Spanish Muslim communities themselves, but they were not at all keen to allow uncontrolled foreign influence.

According to the CNI, the mosques and centres sponsored by Saudi Arabia, for example, “are not characterised by their high degree of radicalism,” but they “submissively” follow the guidelines set forth by Saudi Arabia. The danger, rather, was that funding might end up in the hands of extreme and unaccountable individuals who “arrogate to themselves the role of legitimate representatives of the Muslim communities in Spain” and even “misappropriate funds supplied by the Arab nations”.  That, the CNI warned, is why some trips to the area aimed at raising funds “are made in secret and without the knowledge” of the Islamic community on whose behalf these individuals were asking for funding.

Today, as we saw in section 5.1, Spain has become a European financing hub for jihadis in Syria and Iraq.  Hundreds of young residents in Spain, mostly Moroccans, have joined IS, and at least 13 have died in suicide missions against Syrian regime forces.  However, any direct links between the original external Arab input of financing and doctrine and the violence now being perpetrated, would be hard to pin down with any certainty.

Germany

In December 2015, Germany’s Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel publicly accused Saudi Arabia of funding Wahhabi mosques in the West linked to extremism, which he said were becoming a threat to public security.  King Salman had earlier offered to build 200 mosques in Germany for Syrian refugees, while facing criticism in the German media for the kingdom’s refusal to take in any Syrian refugees itself. Fears have been raised that refugees arriving in Germany from Syria may harbour terrorists among their number, or alternatively that they may be radicalised and recruited for IS by Salafists appearing at asylum shelters in the guise of volunteers and helpers.

Most of Germany’s 4 million Muslims originally came from Turkey and attend Turkish-speaking mosques that are partly funded by Ankara.  The Muslims among the Syrian asylum-seekers (some are Christians) would prefer to worship in Arabic-speaking mosques where they can understand the sermons, but these tend to be funded by Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states and therefore follow the very rigid, literalist and conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.  The newly arrived Syrians, coming from a non-Salafist background, reportedly find the atmosphere in these mosques alienating, and unhelpful for the purposes of integrating into the host society.  They are said to be wary of being seen as radicals if they attend the Arab mosques.

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency reportedly recorded more than 320 attempts by Salafist Muslims to contact refugees in 2015, often by offering food, clothes, free copies of the Quran and help with German for asylum seekers in shelters. The intelligence agency is said to have advised local authorities against housing asylum-seekers near Salafist or Wahhabi mosques.

Calls for an end to foreign funding of mosques

As bomb attacks by homegrown jihadis have become an intermittent feature of European life, politicians have grown more impatient.  In France, about 20 mosques and prayer halls suspected of promoting Islamist radicalism have been shut down since December 2015. There are some 2,500 mosques and prayer halls in France, about 120 of which are considered to be preaching Salafism, according to a report on Al Jazeera.

Al-Islah mosque in Villiers-sur-Marne

On November 2, 2016, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced the closure of four more mosques, in the Paris suburbs of Yvelines, Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne. The closures were made on the basis of article 8 of the state of emergency legislation that has been in place since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in which 130 people were killed. The article provides for “the closure of places of worship where advocacy of hatred, violence, terrorism or justification of terrorism” takes place.  The Al-Islah mosque in Villiers-sur-Marne reportedly housed a clandestine Quranic school and was frequented by a dozen people convicted of participating in a jihadist recruiting network.  In Yvelines, a prayer room in the Ecquevilly district was described by authorities as being an influential hub of the Salafist movement.  In Seine-Saint-Denis, the Ar Rawda and Masjid Al Fath mosques were closed because worshippers were suspected of involvement in plotting terrorist attacks and recruiting jihadis.

In July 2016, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he was “in favour of the idea that – for a period yet to be determined – there should be no financing from abroad for the construction of mosques”. He also called for imams to be “trained in France, not elsewhere”.  At present, France only has two centres that are qualified to train imams.  As a result, some 300 imams are hired from abroad, including many “whose French language skills are poor”.  Valls, whose comments were welcomed by the main opposition party, added that Salafism “has no place in France”.

Pierre Conesa, a lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris and author of a report on counter-radicalisation, has described the Salafist movement as “the most racist, sectarian, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynous and sectarian branch of Islam”, and said France had been guilty of allowing Salafism to thrive on its soil.  “You lay the groundwork for violent action when you allow this kind of anti-republican ideology to spread on your territory, notably through Salafist imams who are paid by Saudi Arabia,” he told France 24.

However Senator Nathalie Goulet, one of the authors of a wide-ranging report on Islam in France, which detailed Moroccan, Algerian, Saudi and Turkish investment in French Muslim organisations, said a ban on foreign funding of mosques would be “absurd and impossible… [Valls’] comments are based on the assumption that radicalisation takes place inside mosques, which is not true.”  Bernard Godard, a former interior ministry official in charge of relations with Muslim institutions, added that foreign funds tended to reach the larger mosques, those least likely to foster radicalism.

Austria has already outlawed foreign funding of mosques.  In February 2015, the Austrian parliament passed controversial reforms to a 1912 law that made Islam an official religion in Austria.  The new bill, partly aimed at tackling Islamist extremism, gave Muslims more legal security – protecting religious holidays, for example – but banned foreign funding for mosques and imams.  Integration Minister Sebastian Kurz said Austria didn’t want its Muslim community to be dependent on foreign funding, but Muslim groups said the ban was unfair, as international support is still permitted for the Christian and Jewish faiths.  Some said they planned to contest it in the constitutional court.  Kurz, however, stated that the reforms aimed to stop certain Muslim countries using financial means to exert political influence.  “We want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values,” he said.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] Kepel, G. Banlieue de la République : Société, politique et religion à Clichy-sous-Bois et Montfermeil.  Gallimard, 2012