background on the 19th network, Paris, France, 2000-2013

Tout part toujours dans les flots /Au fond des nuits sereines /Ne vois-tu rien venir?/Les naufragés et leurs peines qui jetaient l’encre ici/Et arrêtaient d’écrire… 

Notes from research on Belgian and French Iraq-era foreign fighter networks that give an overview of the activities, personalities and evolution of the 19th network.

19th Network, Paris, France, 2000-2013

The origins, if networks really have fixed beginnings, of the 19th group, (a reference to the Arrondissement in Paris where the majority of the members lived), can be traced back to Farid Benyettou’s contacts as an adolescent between 1997 and 1999 with two individuals, Youssef Zemmouri and Mohamed Karimi, and to Boubakeur el-Hakim’s travel in 2000 to Syria to study.[1] Benyettou’s contact with Zemmouri (his brother-in-law with connections to Algerian terrorist networks in France) and to Mohamed Karimi (a Moroccan, linked to one of the same networks as well as to a radical internet site Assabyle) brought him into the sphere of both militant Islamist doctrine and the organization and structure of facilitation networks. Sometime in 2000, Boubakeur el-Hakim travelled to Syria to study Arabic, which he continued to do intermittently until the impending United States invasion when he travelled to Iraq to defend the Iraqi people against the planned invasion.[2] It is probable that without Benyettou’s religious background and the bone fides of being Zemmouri’s brother-in-law as well as el-Hakim’s Syrian contacts that the network may not have been able to function. Given the function of the network – foreign fighter facilitation – it would have been difficult for it achieve its ends without the participation of these two individuals.

In March 2003, a French radio journalist in Baghdad, recorded Boubakeur el-Hakim yelling, “All my mates in the 19th, they need to come and take part in the jihad, I am here, it is me, Abu Abdallah, I am in Iraq, my brothers who are over there come and defend Islam”.[3] This statement in some ways defines the network; describing the contours (friends), ambitions (defending Islam) and the network’s core members; Boubakeur el-Hakim exhorts his friends but names Benyettou (Abu Abdallah). The wider group seems to have been mobilised or rather come to public attention at a series of protests against the Iraq war (2003) and against the banning of the veil (early 2004) where the group was both vocal and visible.[4] These protests and their public praying drew the attention of the French Renseignements Généraux (Police Intelligence).[5]

The 19th network may have been in contact with as many as 50 persons.[6] However, only a small fraction of these individuals were actively involved in foreign fighter activity. Press reports indicate that there were 11 participants involved in organizing or participating in traveling to Iraq.[7] The network was active from March 2003, when Boubakeur el-Hakim first traveled to Iraq until late January 2005 when the French authorities arrested its remaining members in France. In this 20-month period, particularly throughout the spring and summer of 2004, eight members traveled to Iraq. At least four of the eight fought in Fallujah; in mid-2004, three of them – Peter Cherif, Mohamed el-Ayouni and Tarek Ouinis – were together, along with Algerians, Saudis, Tunisians and Yemenis in a foreign fighter house in Fallujah.[8] In late 2004, US military forces captured Cherif and Cheikhou Diakhabi, Ouinis was killed and el-Ayouni survived, and was detained by the Syrian authorities and then expelled to France. The Syrian authorities captured Boubakeur el-Hakim and expelled him to France, Redaoune el-Hakim and Abdelhalim Badjoudj died in a suicide attack while the fate of Salah Touré remains unknown.[9]

The network was comprised of the el-Hakim brothers and friends (Peter Cherif, Mohamed el-Ayouni, Tarek Ouinis and Thamer Bouchnak) from the same neighbourhood or schools in Paris, aged in their late teens to early twenties, all of them French but born to families with ties to Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, or Mali.[10] The majority of the members were single, with high-school level qualifications, and were unemployed or had menial jobs; pizza delivery, a janitor, an itinerant seller in outdoor markets. Some had prior convictions for minor criminal offences but were not actively involved in criminal activity at the time of their engagement in foreign fighting activities.

The network does not appear to have resorted to criminal activity to finance the travel to Syria and into Iraq. They were self-financing using their own savings and money collected from sympathizers or supporters. Benyettou collected €2000 to pay for trips from sympathizers.[11] There was also intra-group solidarity, Thamer Bouchnak used €8000 of his own savings from odd jobs, to finance his projected trip to Iraq. He also paid for another member, Chérif Kouachi, who was to travel with him; both were arrested in January 2005 before they could fly to Syria.[12]

After the arrests, initial reporting suggested that the group were considering planning terrorist attacks against French or foreign interests in France. Citing investigators, members of the group were alleged to have evoked the “possibility” of violent activity against Jewish interests although there was no evidence of planning or a specific target.[13] There were internal disagreements about the legitimacy of carrying out an attack in France, with the acknowledged religious expert and alleged leader, Benyettou, opposing the idea. Part of the motivation for the eventual attack against Jewish interests appears linked to the fact that a group member had been sacked by his employers and he wanted to take revenge.[14] One report suggests that this member may have carried out the attack although this incident was not mentioned at trial.[15] Investigators did not find arms or bomb-making material.[16] They did recover videos of the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Palestine as well as speeches by Karimi, one of Benyettou’s mentors, from the Assablye website. At trial Benyettou stated that, “these videos, it’s the same ones that you find on other guys in the neighborhood, even on the mobile phones”.[17] The primary energy, financial resources as well as the beliefs and intent of the network were directed at facilitating travel to Iraq.[18]

The French authorities’ investigations led to further arrests in France of small groups or individuals with alleged connections to the 19th network. On the 23 May 2005, one person was arrested who had followed Benyettou’s religious courses, the individual was not charged and not brought to trial and does not figure amongst those who traveled to Iraq.[19] In July, another individual, with connections via his brother to members of the network in which Benyettou’s brother-in-law had been involved in 1998, was arrested and expelled to Algeria.[20] In September 2005, another six individuals were arrested. This group was in the process of setting up a network to transit potential foreign fighters through Cairo, Egypt and then to Syria. One of this group’s members was in contact with Benyettou.[21] This individual would appear in later Iraq foreign fighter facilitation investigations in 2007 in France.

Between 2005 and 2007, following the January 2005 arrests of Benyettou, Bouchnak and Kouachi, the three of the four surviving members of the group who had traveled to Iraq returned to France while one remained in prison in Iraq. The Syrian authorities expelled el-Ayouni and el-Hakim, and Cherif who escaped from Badush prison in Iraq traveled clandestinely to Damascus, Syria, where he sought French diplomatic assistance to return to France.[22] The majority of the network were tried in March 2008 and sentenced in May 2008.[23] The trial and sentencing marked the end of the 19th group that had not been effectively operational since the police disrupted it three years earlier.

However, it did not mark the end of the network’s influence in terms of the relationships and connections developed during its existence between 2003 and 2005. In December 2008, the French authorities arrested Rany Arnaud, who they believe was in the process of organizing the logistics for an attack against the headquarters of the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (French Internal Security Service: DCRI) in Paris.[24] French investigators established that as early as 2005 Arnaud was in contact with the 19th group, In March 2007, he had been in contact via email with Peter Cherif. In the same year he traveled to Syria as well as to Algeria in 2008.[25]

On 18 May 2010, the French police, arrested 14 individuals, in connection with a plan to free an imprisoned terrorist sentenced for the 1995 Paris metro bombings; nine of the individuals were charged and remanded in custody including Thamer Bouchnak, Mohamed el-Ayouni and Chérif Kouachi; all of whom had previously been involved in the 19th network. A search of Bouchnak’s house found plans of the prison.[26] The French courts tried and sentenced 8 of the 14 in December 2013.[27]

In July 2013, the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior announced that they were seeking to arrest Boubakeur el-Hakim in connection with the assassination of two opposition politicians in Tunisia. Press reporting alleged that el-Hakim was responsible for shooting both men. El-Hakim’s links to armed networks in Tunisia were unclear but it appears that he has remained active with Sunni extremist elements.[28]

The primary, if not exclusive, activity of the 19th network between 2003 and 2005 was foreign fighter related. Involvement in domestic terrorist activity occurred through the activities of individuals on the periphery of the network or the regrouping or continued association of elements of the network.

Notes

[1] Patricia Tourancheau, “Un ticket pour le jihad,” Libération, 21 February 2005. Patricia Tourancheau, “Destination fatale,” Libération, 22 February 2005.

[2] Jean Chichizola, “Boubaker el-Hakim : des geôles syriennes à celles de la DST.” Le Figaro, June 04, 2005.

[3] Christophe Dubois, “Sur la trace de jeunes des 19eme.” Le Parisien, September 19, 2005.

[4] Patricia Tourancheau, “Un ticket pour le jihad,” Libération, 21 February 2005. Patricia Tourancheau, “Destination fatale,” Libération, 22 February 2005.

[5] Patricia Tourancheau, “Un ticket pour le jihad,” Libération, 21 February 2005. Patricia Tourancheau, “Destination fatale,” Libération, 22 February 2005..

[6] Jean-Louis Bruguière, “Ce que je n’ai pas pu dire,” (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2006), 446, Jean Chichizola, “Un chef spirituel de 23 ans à la tête du groupe des Buttes-Chaumont.” Le Figaro, February 04, 2005.

[7] Jean Chichizola, “Boubaker el-Hakim : des geôles syriennes à celles de la DST.” Le Figaro, June 04, 2005 and Christophe Dubois, “Mohamed, enrôlé pour combattre en Irak; Terrorisme,” Le Parisien, February 09, 2005.

[8] Christophe Dubois and Francoise Labrouillere, “Itineraire d’un petit francais saisi par le djihad.” Paris Match, No. 3069, March 13, 2008.

[9] Jean Chichizola, “Boubaker el-Hakim : des geôles syriennes à celles de la DST.” Le Figaro, June 04, 2005 and Christophe Dubois, “Mohamed, enrôlé pour combattre en Irak; Terrorisme,” Le Parisien, February 09, 2005

[10] Christophe Dubois, “Mohamed, enrôlé pour combattre en Irak; Terrorisme,” Le Parisien, February 09, 2005and Elaine Sciolino, “France Seizes 11 Accused of Plotting Iraq Attacks,” The New York Times, January 27, 2005,

[11] Elise Vincent, “Farid Benyettou, 26 ans, le prédicateur devenu recruteur,” Le Monde, March 27, 2008.

[12] Patricia Tourancheau, “Un ticket pour le jihad,” Libération, 21 February 2005. Patricia Tourancheau, “Destination fatale,” Libération, 22 February 2005.

[13] Associated Press, “Filières irakiennes: projets d’attentats en France,” Associated Press, January 28, 2005.

[14] Patricia Tourancheau, “Un ticket pour le jihad,” Libération, 21 February 2005. Patricia Tourancheau, “Destination fatale,” Libération, 22 February 2005.

[15] Piotr Smolar, “Trois hommes mis en examen et écroués après le coup de filet dans l’enquête sur la “filière irakienne”,” Le Monde, February 01, 2005.

[16] Associated Press, “Filières irakiennes: projets d’attentats en France,” Associated Press, January 28, 2005.

[17] Jean Chichizola, “Un chef spirituel de 23 ans à la tête du groupe des Buttes-Chaumont.” Le Figaro, February 04, 2005. Jean Chichizola, “Un «référent religieux» à bonne école,” Le Figaro, February 09, 2005. Anne-Charlotte De Langhe, Filières irakiennes: sept jeunes djihadistes jugés à Paris,” Le Figaro, March 20, 2008.

[18] Associated Press, “Filières irakiennes: projets d’attentats en France,” Associated Press, January 28, 2005; Piotr Smolar, “Trois hommes mis en examen et écroués après le coup de filet dans l’enquête sur la “filière irakienne”,” Le Monde, February 01, 2005 and Jean Chichizola, “Les islamistes du XIXe arrondissement voulaient frapper en France.” Le Figaro, January 29, 2004.

[19] Le Figaro, “Un suspect interpellé; Filières Irakiennes,” Le Figaro, May 25, 2005.

[20] Thierry Portes, “Un imam radical expulsé vers l’Algérie ; Islamisme Reda Ameuroud avait déjà été arrêté plusieurs fois. Une dizaine d’autres prêcheurs devraient être renvoyés dans les jours qui viennent,” Le Figaro, July 30, 2005.

[21] Pascal Ceaux, “Une filière égyptienne de départ pour l’Irak a été démantelée en Seine-Saint-Denis; Six personnes ont été placées en garde à vue,” Le Monde, September 21, 2005. Christophe Dubois, “Une nouvelle cellule islamiste démantelée; Filières irakiennes,” Le Parisien, September 20, 2005.

[22] Jean Chichizola, “Un chef spirituel de 23 ans à la tête du groupe des Buttes-Chaumont.” Le Figaro, February 04, 2005; Christophe Dubois and Francoise Labrouillere, “Itineraire d’un petit francais saisi par le djihad.” Paris Match, No. 3069, March 13, 2008 and Elise Vincent, “Des Français âgés de moins de 25 ans, habitants d’un arrondissement populaire de Paris, avaient décidé de partir combattre au nom de l’islam,” Le Monde, March 27, 2008.

[23] Le Monde, “Jusqu’à sept ans de prison pour les membres de la filière irakienne du “XIXe arrondissement”,” Le Monde. May 15, 2008.

[24] Jean Chichizola, “Un apprenti terroriste voulait « faire sauter » la Direction du renseignement,” Le Figaro, March 11, 2009.

[25] Jean Chichizola, “Un apprenti terroriste voulait « faire sauter » la Direction du renseignement,” Le Figaro, March 11, 2009 and Jean-Marc Ducos, “Garde à vue dans une enquête antiterroriste; Projet d’attentat,” Le Parisien, March 26, 2009.

[26] Le Monde, “Djamel Beghal projetait de faire évader un ancien terroriste,” Le Monde, May 25, 2010 and Damien Delseny, “Le commando rate des braquers et des islamistes,” Le Parisien, May 19, 2010.

[27] Agence France Presse. “Confirmation De 10 Ans De Prison Requise en Appel Contre Djamel Beghal.” Agence France Presse, October 8, 2014.

[28] Patricia Tourancheau and Isabelle Hanne, “A Tunis, un Français derrière la mort de Brahmi”, Libération, July 26, 2013.