French jihadis' deaths in Syria could be turning point

Questions over whether apparent killings in bombing of IS training camp were justified


If the French government targets French jihadis in Syria with Mirage 2000 bombers, is it extra-judiciary killing or legitimate self-defence?

On Monday morning, unidentified French officials told journalists that up to six French citizens had been killed in the bombing of an Islamic State (IS) training camp near the group’s headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, during the night of October 8th-9th.

On a visit to the base in Jordan from which the Mirage jets had flown, prime minister Manuel Valls said only that Frenchmen had “perhaps” been killed in the raid.

The ensuing ethical and legal debate has been muted, compared with criticism of the US military’s killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda sheikh, and his son Abdulrahman, both US citizens, in Yemen four years ago.

“In French law, the crime of associating with terrorists is punishable by 10 years in prison,” the lawyer Grégoire Etrillard told l’Opinion newspaper. “The death penalty has been abolished and there is no reason to kill someone for a criminal office. If we arrest someone on their return to France, we prosecute him. If he’s in Syria, we kill him?”

Extend operation

Francois Hollande

But the number of French citizens and residents involved in jihadist networks has tripled since January 2014, to an estimated 1,880 at present, of whom 491 are present in Syria and 158 are women. Some analysts believe the need to gather intelligence on French jihadis, and to prevent them from returning to attack in France, was a main reason for the change in strategy.

About 10 Frenchmen are believed to have carried out suicide attacks. At least six were Islam converts, with French- sounding names such as Nicolas Bons and Kevin Chassin.

The French air force has carried out only two bombing raids in Syria: on September 27th and the October 8th-9th strike. In the most recent raid, the defence ministry said: “France struck a camp in which we knew there were foreign fighters, probably including Frenchmen and French speakers, who were training to carry out attacks in Europe and France.”

Electronic surveillance

Perhaps by coincidence, anti-terrorist officials on Tuesday leaked a report that Ahmedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four Jewish people in Paris last January, received instructions from abroad, probably Syria. An email found in Coulibaly’s computer told him to choose easy targets and to make a video recording.

In a video posted after his death, Coulibaly claimed he acted on behalf of IS. The person who wrote to Coulibaly also assured him that his pregnant wife, who left for Syria shortly before the attacks, was being taken care of.

When David Cameron announced on September 7th that Britain had killed three people, including British citizens Reyyaad Khan, from Cardiff, and Ruhul Amin, from Aberdeen, in a drone strike on August 21st, he justified it as “self defence”. France is using the same argument.

Rights Watch (UK) filed proceedings against the British government on September 8th, demanding publication of the legal advice upon which the government based its decision. The discretion of the French government may be motivated by the wish to avoid similar action, or lawsuits by the families of slain jihadis.