A recent trial in France of three individuals alleged to have been planning travel to Syria included the comment that even if two members of the group were to be imprisoned, as requested by the Prosecution, this would not stop them from being involved in foreign fighting activity later as, “Jihad is still in their heads”. This comment is illustrative of the difficulty in mitigating the longer-term impact of the substantial mobilization by French nationals and residents to travel to Syria.
The January 30 and 31 trial of three French residents on charges of “criminal association with the goal of preparing a terrorist act” gives an opportunity to compare a Syria group or network with those involved in facilitating travel to Iraq a decade ago. A single trial of a small group is a very limited sample of the hundreds of French nationals and residents reported to be interested in fighting in Syria or already in-country participating in armed activity but does provide a opportunity for thinking about similarities and differences between foreign fighter activity related to Iraq and Syria.
The DCRI opened an investigation in March 2012 into activities by three individuals which led to their arrests in May 2012. The arrests prevented the travel of this group to Turkey and onwards to Syria. It is possible that the individuals came to the attention of the DCRI when they were investigating the Forsane Alizza grouping in Nice or due to the prior travel of one of the members of the group to Mali. This same individual is also reported to have been in Syria for the period of a month in 2011 although the time period is unclear from the press reporting.
The group seems to have formed through two of the individuals who were already friends. The three men, residents of the Isle-de-France area (Greater Paris region) first physically met as a group in Nice in December 2011 after responding to an invitation from a Facebook site connected to the now-banned Forsane Alizza grouping.
The group discussed a number of destinations including Mali and Yemen, even going so far as to buy a second hand 4X4 and small boat to drive to Sudan and then cross from there to Yemen. According to reports on the trial, nine days, before leaving, they were still discussing which destination to choose. This indecision about choosing a destination was also seen in the opening of a Mali-linked trial in early February 2014, in which one of the accused attempted five times (Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan and Mali) to join “a land of jihad”. The individual was frustrated in their ability to do this by their lack of connections and the distrust of the groups with which he tried to make contact. He was eventually arrested in Mali in November 2012.
Following the formation of the Syria group in December 2011, they proceeded to organize themselves to travel, training with games of paintball, the purchase of pistol holsters, night-vision goggles and binoculars. The paintballing led the group to conclude that one of their members was not a particularly good shot and that he would be better off filming the other two while they engaged in combat operations in Syria. They discussed purchasing knives but in telephone calls appeared concerned that the knives were not sharp enough ‘for cutting a head’. They self-financed their purchases, spending in excess of 1000 euros on a second-hand four wheel drive. The trial reports did not mention external financing.
At trial, the three individuals took slightly different strategies to defend themselves. The youngest, a former junior French athletics representative, admitted to becoming radical through watching videos and other material on the Internet but was shocked by the Mohamed Merah killings; “it shocked me. A solider of God cannot kill children”. He suggested that as the planning progressed he was less and less enthusiastic about the project but could not find a way to back out. The other two – both friends – tried to play down their willingness to join a Syria-based armed opposition entity; stating that they wanted to make a documentary about the humanitarian situation and the suffering of the refugees. Eventually, one of them admitted that if someone had offered to train him with small arms, he would have done it but he added that “you can also go to Thailand to shoot as well, but in Syria, it is free.” The President of the Tribunal asked, if the accused thought “Syria was a shooting-range open to everybody?” The Prosecution stated that the need for violence was part of the process of the group from the beginning and that they were going to “fight with a gun in the hand and their faith on the shoulder strap.” The alleged leader of the group admitted that he would have trained as “when a Muslim country is attacked, it is an obligation to defend it.”
The Prosecution stated that “Jihadist propaganda targets individuals with weak Islamic culture, like the three accused, lazy, from broken family situations, influenced by the internet, in these individuals violence is not religious and they are given more to reaction than thinking.” This statement tends to reflect current thinking in France that those involving themselves in Syria conflict, are driven in part by the influence of slick propaganda and social media networking, as opposed to deep understandings of orthodox or jihadist doctrine on the use of violence. The information from the recent trial suggests that social media networking may play a role but other factors observed in previous networks are still present – friendship ties as a basic cornerstone of a group or network operating clandestinely.
The original basis for the group formation was a prior friendship between two of the individuals. This friendship is reported to have been renewed when they met at a Mosque in 2010. The internet and a meeting through a third-party facilitated the joining of the third member of the group. They sent no-one into Syria, although, a member of the group had previously traveled there, prior to the group forming. This same individual had possible foreign fighting experience in Mali although his exact activities are not described in detail in the court proceedings. They self-financed and did some rudimentary training with paintballing, adopting some covert practices including the use of coded language in telephone conversations. Weapons were “fishing-rods”, Kalashnikovs were “rails” their planned trip was “holidays”.
The more successful Iraq-era networks in France (the 19th group, and Artigat network) tended to be larger built on kinship as well as friendship connections. These two networks or groups tended to have a “religious” authority in the network, someone viewed within the group as having a significant level of understanding of Islam, the Quran and Islamic doctrine. This does not appear to be the case with the Syria group where there was interaction via the Internet with a Nice-based individual, followed by a meeting and then no further contact with this person. The rest of the “theological” or “religious” teaching seems to have come via the Internet. The socio-demographic composition of this Syria network and the Iraq groups is similar; predominately young – military-aged – males, under-employed and with high-school levels of education.
The Syria group is similar to another small three person group which attempted to travel to Iraq in one of the later attempts by French residents to enter the combat zone. This group was comprised of two adolescents, both friends, and one individual in his early 30s. They left France and traveled to Syria in October 2006. They were arrested 4 days after their arrival in a Deir Ez Zor while trying to organize themselves to cross into Iraq. They were expelled five weeks later to France. The French authorities only became aware of the existence of the travelers when the father of one of the adolescents reported the departure to the police; the adolescent had left a testament. The investigation suggested that the group had no connections to known or established networks.
The Syria group was active for a period of less than 6 months before they were arrested by the French authorities. Some of the Iraq networks were longer lasting; the period of facilitating foreign fighter travel, between the first and last traveler, being up to 15 months in the case of the 19th group. The Iraq networks saw travel in waves – larger groups traveling at the beginning of the networks’ existence and smaller groups towards the end of the lifespan of the group. Both the Syria and Iraq groupings seem to have “precursor” members, i.e. an individual who traveled ahead of the formation of the network and is then instrumental in setting in motion the travel of others. The Iraq networks were disrupted by law enforcement operations but by the time of these interventions individuals had already traveled into Iraq. Individuals who did travel to Iraq fought in-country with some participating in suicide operations.
Time will tell whether the trial and possible imprisonment of the members of the Syria network will end their activities completely. At trial the Prosecutor maintained that in the case of two members of the group, “Jihad is still in their heads” and that even with their arrest and the trial, the court should “punish the potential for the accused to be able to reach their end of their actions”. Prior cases in France show that ex-members and hangars-on of the 19th network went on to involve themselves in two acts of violence (planning to blow-up the DRCI headquarters and planning to break-out of jail an imprisoned terrorist) that were foiled by the French authorities in 2008 and 2010. An ex-member is alleged to have been involved in the assassination of Mohamed Brahimi, a Tunisian politician. Finally, the Artigat foreign fighter network had linkages to the Merah brothers. Even where foreign fighter networks devote most of their energy and resources to facilitating travel and participation in combat, individuals on the edges of the networks, or frustrated in their ability to participate in foreign fighting can resort to domestic attacks. A significant challenge for state authorities in these cases is correctly assessing the intent of both core and peripheral group members over extended periods of time, particularly when the networks’ initial activities appear to have been successfully halted.