Terror attacks: France’s war on jihadism marked by turmoil

Frustration and confusion often permeates the state’s reaction to suspected Islamists

Mohamed Merah (left) who murdered three French Muslim soldiers and four people from a Jewish school, including three children, in 2012 and Olivier Corel, the so-called “white imam” who received some of the most lethal jihadists.

Mohamed Merah (left) who murdered three French Muslim soldiers and four people from a Jewish school, including three children, in 2012 and Olivier Corel, the so-called “white imam” who received some of the most lethal jihadists.

 

Farouk Ben Abbes returned to his home in Toulouse this week. 

Since the November 13th, 2015, attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, the Belgian-Tunisian Islamist (31) has spent three months in prison for violating the conditions of his house arrest, then nearly two months in a village in northeastern France because his presence in Toulouse was deemed a threat to the Euro 2016 football championship.

The most absurd moment of Ben Abbes’s French peregrinations occurred on July 22nd, when heavily armed gendarmes descended on the hotel in Brienne-le-Château, population 3,000, where the authorities had confined him.

Ben Abbes was taken to Roissy airport and put on a commercial flight to Tunisia with police escorts. As the plane taxied down the runway it was called back. Ben Abbes was the object of an expulsion order at the same time he was banned from leaving France.

In other ways too, Ben Abbes’s case seems to symbolise the frustration and confusion that often permeates France’s war with jihadism. 

Ben Abbes’s name first came to police attention in connection with the “Artigat network” that sent Muslims from Toulouse to Iraq in 2006-2007. 

Artigat is a small village at the foot of the Pyrenees, 60km south of Toulouse, where Olivier Corel, the so-called “white imam”, who will turn 70 in November, settled a decade ago and received some of the most lethal jihadists. Among them was Mohamed Merah, who murdered three French Muslim soldiers and four people from a Jewish school, including three children, in 2012.

Corel was born Abdel Ilah al-Dandachi in Syria, but changed his name when he and his wife were naturalised in 1983.

Fabien Clain and his family lived with Corel for several months in 2004-2005. Clain was sentenced to five years in prison for running the Artigat network. After his release in 2015, he moved to Syria. It was Clain who recorded Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the November 13th atrocity.

Clain and Ben Abbes became friends in Gaza in 2008. In 2009, Ben Abbes was arrested in Cairo after a nail bomb exploded in the touristic Khan el-Khalili quarter, killing Cécile Vannier, a 17-year-old French lycée student.

Ben Abbes claimed he knew nothing about the nail bomb, but told Egyptian police – under torture, he says – that he was involved in a plot to attack the Bataclan music hall because it was owned by a Jew who held fundraisers for Israel. 

Evidence

The French reluctantly dropped all charges against Ben Abbes in 2012 because Egyptian police ignored repeated requests for supporting evidence.

Because of his past associations with Clain and the Bataclan – the scene of greatest carnage last November 13th – Ben Abbes was placed under strict surveillance in November. He broke the rules by leaving Toulouse to buy a used car.

Ben Abbes and Corel are free, if under constant scrutiny. But a 16-year-old girl from Melun, outside Paris, was arrested on August 4th and formally placed under investigation four days later for “associating with evil-doers in relation with a criminal, terrorist undertaking” and “provoking acts of terrorism through on-line communication”.

The girl was enrolled in school and comes from a moderate Muslim family. Investigators told Le Parisien newspaper that “she never condemns the recent attacks. On the contrary, she says that all these actions are legitimate since they were forbidden from reaching [Syria].”

The teenager used the encrypted Telegram app to communicate with like-minded young people. In custody, she says the message in which she threatened to stage an attack was “a joke”. Police have no evidence of a specific plot.

Last March, Le Monde published the stories of five radicalised adolescent girls who were tracked by police. Two succeeded in reaching Syria. The others talked on Facebook of suicide attacks in France. They admired Mohamed Merah, who said, “I love death the way you love life”.

Under questioning, a 17-year-old girl who radicalised three years earlier said, “Some want to do like the singer Rihanna. As for me, I want to do like Merah.”

Last spring, the ministry of the interior said 867 teenage girls were known to have been radicalised. Women accounted for 35 per cent of the French citizens who joined the jihad in Syria last year.

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