Study sees rise of radical Islam in the French workplace

November 27, 2005|By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | SEBASTIAN ROTELLA,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARIS -- Employees set up clandestine prayer areas on the grounds of the Euro Disney resort.

Workers for a cargo company at Charles de Gaulle airport praise the Sept. 11 attacks.

A Brinks technician is charged with pulling off a million-dollar robbery for a Moroccan terrorist group allegedly led by his brother.

Female converts to Islam operate a day care center that authorities eventually shut down because of its religious radicalism.

As France grapples with the rise of Islamic extremism abroad and at home, those are snapshots of what might be an emerging trend: radical Islam in the private sector.

The line between legitimate religious expression and extremist subversion can be blurry. But a recent study by a think tank here paints a picture of rising fundamentalism in the workplace, ranging from proselytizing to pressure tactics to criminal activities.

In companies such as supermarket chains in immigrant-heavy areas, for instance, militant recruiters cause workplace tensions by imposing fundamentalist ideas on co-workers and pressuring managers to boycott certain products, the study says.

On a more sinister level, the study asserts that Islamic networks are trying to establish a presence in companies involved in sectors such as security, cargo and transportation. Once they gain a foothold, operatives raise funds for militants via theft, embezzlement and robbery, the study says.

"Parallel to these sectlike risks, the spread of criminal practices has been detected in the heart of companies [with] two goals: crime using Islam as a pretext and in addition, local financing of terrorism," concludes the study by the Center for Intelligence Research in Paris.

The report was issued before the riots this month that spread arson and violence nationwide and focused attention on France's immigrant neighborhoods, which are predominantly Muslim. Although intelligence officials detected only a few cases of extremists inciting unrest, authorities worry that the tense urban climate strengthens the hand of hard-core Islamic networks.

French anti-terror officials agree with some of the findings of the study of the private sector, although they say parts of the report exaggerate or simplify a complex issue. In any case, the concern is justified in a wider context, officials say: Extremism is rising in France, home of Europe's largest Muslim community, and intertwining with a foreign threat.

Recent arrests reveal that France has been targeted by an alliance teaming Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, with an Algerian-dominated network, said a senior French law enforcement official, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. Al-Zarqawi operatives in Lebanon taught bomb-making to accused militants from the network who were arrested here, including French converts, the official said.

That underscores a development on the home front: a "significant increase" in converts, including women, said a French intelligence official, who also asked not to be identified.

In the northwestern Paris suburb of Argenteuil, female converts helped set up an unlicensed day care center for a dozen children at an apartment in a housing project. After intelligence officials determined that the center was run with an aggressively fundamentalist philosophy, authorities shut it down last year.

Conversions also result from militant recruiting in workplaces, according to the think tank report, which is based on a survey of corporate executives, private security officials and law enforcement experts. The author, Eric Denece, acknowledged that the issue was complex.

"The focus on the private sector is new because law enforcement does not work on it much -- they have other concerns," Denece said. "But also, company executives have not wanted to talk about this sensitive subject. Some were concerned about being called racists."

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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