In the early hours of February 14, the anti-terrorism directorate of the French national police arrested 11 French citizens, including four women, on suspicion that they were part of a network recruiting volunteers to go to Iraq to fight the U.S.-led coalition. On February 17, the French prosecutor charged six men with “criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist venture” (e.g. facilitating the infiltration of jihadis into Iraq via Syria). Three of them have also been placed under formal investigation for financing international terrorism. Four have been remanded in custody, while two have been released with judicial supervision. The four women were released on February 15 and the last man was released on February 16. The names of those involved, however, have not been released.
French authorities have known since the summer of 2004 that some young Muslims living in France were seeking to infiltrate Iraq to fight against coalition forces. Between July and October 2004, three young Muslim French citizens were killed in the Sunni Triangle area of Iraq. By December 2004, the French anti-terrorism services identified “Fawzi D.,” a French Muslim, as an amir of an Iraqi armed group (estimated at 20 people) fighting against the U.S. Marines in Fallujah. These deaths prompted the French prosecutor’s office to open an investigation into the networks providing assistance to jihadis infiltrating Iraq. The investigation led to the dismantlement of at least three networks in Paris, Tours and Montpellier in the past two years (NouvelObs.com, January 26, 2005). According to press reports, the recruitment networks of would-be jihadis bound for Iraq used the Mosque of Adda’Wa in the 19th arrondissement of Paris and a musalla (prayer hall) in Levallois (a working suburb of Paris). The Levallois prayer hall was closed in 2004 while the Mosque of Adda’Wa was raided by police in December of 2005.
This latest operation was the result of a different, joint Franco-Belgian surveillance operation that began in May 2006. Both French and Belgian authorities have praised the cooperation effort as “excellent” (20minutes.fr, February 17). According to the Paris prosecutor’s office, “This [operation] is the result of an exemplary cooperation between the French and Belgian services, which took the novel approach of mutual assistance, with the creation of a joint investigative unit.” The joint surveillance operation led to 11 arrests in France and nine more in Belgium on suspicion of ties to a terrorist group. Six of the 11 were charged in France, while the nine Belgians were released after being interrogated.
These operations provide insight into the path of young French Muslims who leave their lives behind to face certain death in Iraq. The would-be jihadis trying to infiltrate Iraq are French Muslim citizens. They are the sons of Muslim immigrants born in France. They closely identify with the idea, repeated ad nauseum by jihadi propaganda, that the Muslim nation is suffering great injustices at the hands of the West in general and of the United States in particular. They do not necessarily come from destitute socio-economic backgrounds; two of those arrested in Montpellier, for example, were students in telecommunications and electronic engineering.
In these latest arrests, according to the police, the radicalization process began in Egypt. The recruits traveled to radical schools in Egypt, where they learned Arabic and underwent ideological and religious training (in Salafism). After successfully completing this training, the recruits made contact with a cell affiliated with al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. This cell helped them reach a network in Syria that was supposed to infiltrate them into Iraq (20minutes.fr, February 17). Their ultimate goal, according to the French prosecutor’s office, was to “commit terrorist acts such as suicide bombings” (20minutes.fr, February 17). There was nothing in the background of those arrested on February 14 hinting at their jihadi inclinations. The police did not have records on any of them, neither for criminal activity nor for association with radical Islamists or with terrorist groups. They also were not known for supporting “jihad” elsewhere (20minutes.fr, February 17). The run of this particular cell ended in Syria, when authorities intercepted two of them last December. Both men arrested in December were deported back to Paris on the February 14. The rest of the network was arrested in France on the same day.
Considering that terrorist networks and radical Islamists have used the wars in Afghanistan and Bosnia very effectively to radicalize young Muslims in the past, the French authorities greatly fear the possible effects of a blowback from the Iraq war on the French Muslim population. The networks uncovered so far do not seem to be as numerous and as sophisticated as those operating during the Afghan war, but the question remains as to how long this will remain the case.