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Fundamentalism in French Workplace

Private employers wrestle with expressions of Islam, while study alleges criminal links.

November 26, 2005|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

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

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

A Brinks technician is charged with pulling off a million-dollar heist 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, 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 firms involved in sectors such as security, cargo, armored cars, courier services and transportation. Once they gain a foothold, operatives raise funds for militants via theft, embezzlement and robbery, the study alleges.

"Parallel to these sect-like 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 recent riots 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-terrorism officials agree with some of the findings of the study of the private sector, though 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 to 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 Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, with an Algerian-dominated network, said a senior French law enforcement official, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

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."

Denece's study cites a case examined in 2004 by Renseignements Generaux, the domestic intelligence agency, involving the discovery of "about 10 clandestine prayer rooms" on the grounds of Euro Disney.

Denece also alleges that fundamentalists were detected in the resort's security force, but a spokesman for Euro Disney said that claim was inaccurate. As for the prayer areas, spokesman Pieter Boterman said the company resolved that issue.

"I thought it was exaggerated to talk about prayer rooms," Boterman said. "During Ramadan, they took a few minutes to pray somewhere. We made it clear that we thought the work floor was not the place to express your personal religion."

There are a few clear-cut examples of alleged infiltration of companies. Last year, police investigated a heist at the Brinks Co. that was allegedly engineered by an operative of a Moroccan terrorist network that has been implicated in the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

Hassan Baouchi, who was 23 at the time, worked as a technician stocking ATMs; his brother, Mustafa, was a veteran of two stints in Al Qaeda's Afghan camps and an alleged leader of the network.

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