After Returning to France, He Disavowed Radical Islam. Was He Lying?

Adam Nossiter, New York Times, April 26, 2016

Ten young Muslim men, bored by a mundane life in France and haunted by a “feeling of uselessness,” as one put it, were seduced by a leading Islamic State recruiter in Europe in 2013. Within months, they were in Syria under the watchful eyes of hooded, Kalashnikov-wielding militants, doing push-ups, fiddling with weapons and imbibing the ideology.

But the harsh regimen, most have since told investigators, was not to their liking, and it was not long before they hastened back to their families in the Strasbourg area, where they were almost immediately picked up by the French authorities.

What to do with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such young men in Europe is now among the biggest challenges facing governments and security services.

After the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, which were carried out in part by Europeans who had spent time in Syria with the Islamic State, France and other countries are grappling with how far to go in tightening laws to prosecute, monitor and restrict the movements of returnees.

At the heart of the debate is whether to take pre-emptive legal action against people who have not committed terrorist acts or even been implicated in a plot, but who have simply been to Syria and possibly received training in Islamic State camps.


At least 14 European countries have made receiving terrorism training a criminal offense. Nine have made travel to the war zones of Syria and Iraq an offense.

In France, more than 900 people have left the country to be jihadists, making it Europe’s biggest wellspring of foreign fighters. The government is now debating whether to allow house arrest even if there are merely “serious reasons for thinking” someone has been in an overseas war zone.


At least 1,300 European jihadists have returned to the Continent, and those are only the ones identified by the police. Three times as many Europeans may have gone to Syria, some slipping back undetected, with disastrous consequences.

One member of the Strasbourg group, Foued Mohamed-Aggad, returned after the others and was not detected by the authorities. He ended up as one of the three killers at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, where 90 people were shot dead on Nov. 13.

Of the nine others from Strasbourg known to have gone to Syria, two were killed there in January 2014, but seven returned, were quickly arrested in May 2014 and now await trial.


Fifteen to 20 officers per jihadist are required for constant surveillance, said Magnus Ranstorp of the National Defense College in Sweden, a country where about 80 have returned. In Belgium, the biggest per-capita furnisher of jihadists in the European Union, 50 to 120 have returned.


The Strasbourg group, all men in their mid- to late 20s, had met in hookah bars and fast-food joints. {snip}


In the eyes of the authorities, their crime was simple: being enlisted by a well-known French recruiter, traveling to Syria and Islamic State safe houses or training centers, training with Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons, and returning to France.

Yet in their interrogations, none of the men admitted wrongdoing, and several insisted that they had gone to Syria for humanitarian reasons.

The men now claim to reject Islamic State ideology and tactics and profess regret for their “stupidities,” as one put it under questioning.

But investigators are well aware that Islamic State training manuals urge recruits to practice the art of taquiya, or concealment. One suspect in Strasbourg, Mohamed Hattay, went through five interrogation sessions before admitting he had even been to Syria.


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