By Peter Neumann, Alexander Hitchens, and Scott Kleinmann
News reports today have linked the Toulouse gunman responsible for the murders of seven people, now identified as French citizen Mohammed Merah, to a recently banned French extremist group with connections to Britain.
Named Forsane Alizza (FA – the Knights of Pride), the group bears many similarities to the UK-based al-Muhajiroun/Islam4UK network.
Who are Forsane Alizza?
FA is led by a young French Muslim called Mohamed Achamlane, and has between 30 and 100 official members. However, it is not a formally structured organisation, and likely has many more sympathisers. On the internet, the group can count on nearly 2,000 supporters on Facebook and 400 followers on Twitter.
The group appears to be part of a loosely connected European network of extremist Islamists who share the same ideology and use similar tactics. Each group often has a number of names, one of which typically begins with the label ‘Sharia4’ followed by the country, such as ‘UK’, Belgium, or ‘France’. Among the names used by FA is ‘Sharia4France’.
Videos posted on YouTube show that FA has connections with its UK ideological counterparts, al-Muhajiroun (aka, Sharia4UK, Islam4UK, Muslims Against Crusades) (see below).
What do they do?
Groups like FA and al-Muhajiroun are known for their use of public – often provocative – protests and their sophisticated use of the internet to spread their message. They exploit issues such as far-right attacks against mosques and bans of religious symbols to mobilise followers in defence of their religion against an alleged secular, Western onslaught.
Through their strategy, members of groups like FA and al-Muhajiroun have developed a high profile in the national and international press, trying to portray themselves as Muslim community leaders. Alchamlane, for instance, regularly features in the French media.
Like al-Muhajiroun, the group has a significant YouTube presence, with at least 26 well produced videos. It also uses the video-sharing site Dailymotion on which FA has posted 75 videos.
In January 2012, FA was banned by French Interior Ministry for inciting racial hatred. Since then, the group has re-formed on the internet, establishing the Force de Defense Musulmane sur Internet (FDMI –Online Muslim Defence Force). Its website lists various campaigns aimed at removing web pages and YouTube videos that are deemed anti-Muslim. It claims to have succeeded in 21 cases, with 98 others pending.
Are they linked to Al-Qaeda?
The group is careful not to call for terrorism openly, but supports jihadist groups around the globe. Following its ban, however, Achamlane warned that ‘armed struggle is possible’ should French society become more hostile to Islam. Its promotional videos feature paintballing exercises and combat training, ostensibly for the purposes of self-defence.
The group as a whole is unlikely to have formal links with Al-Qaeda, but individual members may have attended Al-Qaeda training camps. The shooting suspect made trips to Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he may have sought terrorist training and/or participation in the insurgency.
The group promotes the same ideas as Al-Qaeda, blaming a conspiracy of apostates, ‘Zionists and Crusaders’ for the occupation of Muslim lands, and calling for the establishment of Islamic law and a caliphate. However, it also seeks to exploit specifically French issues, such as the controversy about the banning of the headscarf and anti-Islamic attitudes.
If anything, the group illustrates how fluid the boundaries are between terrorism and ostensibly non-violent groups such as FA. According to a 2010 CSC survey, 15% of UK nationals convicted of Al-Qaeda related terrorist offences had links to FA’s British ‘sister group’, al Muhajiroun. While having no direct links, experts believe that al Muhajiroun has served as a ‘gateway’ into terrorism, providing ideological indoctrination and access to recruiters and Al-Qaeda ‘middle managers’.
What do they believe?
According to its own website, FA is a Salafi organisation with the primary objectives of proselytising for ‘jihad’ and the establishment of a caliphate, ‘support[ing] the mujahideen everywhere’. They disavow democratic systems and elections.
The group’s principal targets are:
(1) The French military, which is portrayed as destroying Muslim lands as part of a Western conspiracy to destroy Islam.
(2) Jews, Jewish institutions, and Israel, which are blamed for the global persecution of Muslims. In June 2010, for example, two followers of the group harassed customers at a McDonald’s restaurant in Limoges, warning them to stop eating at restaurants that ‘finance Israel’.
(3) Perceived anti-Muslim prejudice, which it argues the French government has officially sanctioned. For instance, the group recently claimed that a neo-Nazi attack on a mosque was allowed to go ahead by French the ruling political elites.
Are they connected to the UK?
As well as sharing the same ideological outlook, FA seems to have coordinated activities with its UK counterparts. Among its official videos is footage which claims to be of a rally ‘for the defence of Islam’ held by FA in partnership with Shariah4UK and Sharia4Belgium. This video also includes footage of a British man addressing the crowd, standing in front of a ‘Shariah4France’ poster.