Henry Samuel, National Post, January 22, 2015
Several French former soldiers have joined the ranks of jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq, the country’s government confirmed on Wednesday, as it outlined a series of new anti-terrorism measures following the Islamist attacks in Paris.
Most of the ex-soldiers, reportedly numbering around 10 and including former paratroopers and French foreign legionnaires, are said to be fighting on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Most worrying is the reported presence of an ex-member of France’s elite First Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, considered one of Europe’s most experienced special forces units and which shares the “Who Dares Wins” motto of the SAS.
The unnamed individual, of North African origin, had received commando training in combat, shooting and survival techniques. He served for five years before joining a private security company for which he worked in the Arabian peninsula, where he was radicalised before heading for Syria, according to L’Opinion, a news website.
One of the defectors had become the leader of a group of a dozen or so French-born Islamists operating in the Syrian region of Deir Ezzor who had all received combat training, reported Radio France International, or RFI.
Others, apparently in their twenties, were explosive experts. Some were Muslim converts while others were radicalised French from an “Arab-Muslim” background, said RFI.
Jean-Yves Drian, the French defence minister, confirmed the existence of a handful of ex-French military personnel among jihadist fighters in the Middle East, but tried to play down their presence, saying the phenomenon was “extremely rare”.
However, they will raise fears over the risk of a French version of the 2009 gun rampage at Fort Hood, the U.S. military base in Texas, where Nadal Hasan, a U.S. army major who turned to radical Islam, killed 13 servicemen scheduled to leave for Afghanistan.
Drian said that the French armed forces’ internal security and protection unit, DPSD, would “reinforce its vigilance and see its means increased.”
News of the defections came as Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, unveiled anti-terrorism measures worth over $600 million after France’s worst Islamist attack in which 17 people were killed earlier this month.
It coincided with a government pledge to cut 7,500 fewer defence jobs in the next five years than previously planned.
Valls said 2,680 new jobs would be created to fight terrorism by 2018 – around half in intelligence.
France now has to monitor almost 3,000 people involved in “terrorist networks” following a 130 per cent jump in those linked to jihadists in Iraq and Syria in the past year, he said.
An extra 60 Muslim clerics would be recruited to work with potential militants in France’s overcrowded prisons, while five units would be created to isolate radicalized inmates.
Valls said the idea of stripping offenders of certain civic rights – a measure mirroring a post-war law barring Nazi collaborators from voting, holding office or working for the state – would be debated.
Other moves included the creation of “cyberpatrols” to track jihadists and recruitment online and the launch of a website dedicated to countering Islamist indoctrination.
The decision to boost web surveillance came after a group of hackers loyal to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, broke into the Twitter account of Le Monde.
The attack by the Syrian Electronic Army forced Le Monde to suspend temporarily its Twitter account, which has 3.3 million followers, but the paper later said it had regained control of its computers, adding: “We apologize for any fraudulent posts on our behalf.”
Before that, the hackers managed to post messages including: “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (I am not Charlie). This was reference to the now famous “Je suis Charlie” message brandished by millions in tribute to the 12 people killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly, earlier this month.
They were shot dead by Cherif and Said Koachi, two French brothers of Algerian origin with links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The same week, Amedy Coulibaly, a home-grown Islamist, killed a police officer and four hostages at a Jewish supermarket east of Paris. Four men aged 22 to 28 were placed under formal investigation yesterday over the Coulibaly killings.