Solo voy con mi pena/Sola va mi condena/Correr es mi destino/Para burlar la ley/Perdido en el corazón/De la grande Babylon
It was only a matter of time before a book about the Buttes-Chaumont group or 19eme network was published, and it is almost certain there will be more than one. Karim Baouz’s, “Plongée au coeur de la fabrique jihadiste: Enquête sur les filières du terrorisme Français,” is a journalist’s investigation based on work done in 2005 through to 2008 and then 2015 for documentaries for French television. His access to a number of the members of the group and persons from their environment in Paris appears promising but suffers from trying to be more than the sum of its parts.
The challenge for any book about the Buttes-Chaumont or 19eme group is to go beyond what is already in the public domain from journalists’ accounts in newspapers or documentaries and to shed additional light on this group, by introducing new facts and information, in constructing a coherent narrative account of the group and, perhaps, some kind of explanatory cadre for their activities. Unfortunately, Bouaz’s book is unable to do this with the exception of passages in the interview with Farid Benyettou, which give a more nuanced account of his evolving understanding of the legitimacy of violence. It is difficult to know what this book wants to be, a portrait of the Buttes-Chaumont group, an explanatory account of why the Kouachi’s turned to violence – personnel trauma, exclusion, charismatic preachers, and prison – or the story of the author’s own path from the ‘banlieues’ to journalism.
The insertion of the author into the narrative, particularly, in books about terrorism and political violence is problematic, the Bernard-Henri Lévy, book on the Daniel Pearl killing being the most extreme example, with the author morphing into a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Jason Bourne. While Baouz is nowhere near as excessive, his presence in the narrative distracts from the flow of the book and contributes to the mixing of genres. Because of this, Baouz’s book fails to paint a detailed portrait of the Buttes-Chaumont group nor does it deal with the why of the turn to violence.
Another problem, although this seems to be common to many French journalist’s book length accounts of terrorist related activity is a near absence of sourcing, where in Jordanov’s account of Merah’s activity, he states in the text if the information comes from interviews or police documents, Bouaz’s sourcing is limited to a reference to Le Monde and wikileaks and is for the most part vague; it is unclear if the material originates from interviews or other documents. A more minor matter are editorial errors like el-Ayouni’s return from Tunisia prior to his travel to Iraq being dated as September 2013, and not 2003 (p. 79).
The core of the book are the encounters with Said Kouachi from 2005 to 2008, meetings with Cherif Kouachi from 2007 to 2008, and an interview with Farid Benyettou in 2015. The first encounter with Said Kouachi is problematic given the author’s presence in the narrative, and that he, at times, seems less concerned with what Said Kouachi might have to say and more interested in how he overcame Koauchi’s distrust and reluctance to meet. Despite the fact that he met with Said Kouachi regularly between 2005 and 2008, there is little from these encounters that appears in the book, which is not already known from other journalistic sources. Similarly from his meetings with Cherif Kouachi between 2007 and 2008, the book contains little that is not already known nor do these meetings and what the author may have learned provide a set of convincing explanatory factors for their turn to violence.
The interview with Benyettou is more interesting but needs to be read in conjunction with interview screened in the 2015 documentary as some elements from the TV interview are not in the book. Of particular interest, and it is a shame that Bouaz does not develop this theme, is the role of loyalty and the sense of the group. Benyettou states that some members, especially Mohamed el-Ayouni, wanted to meet regularly after Iraq and their prison terms, up-to once a week at times. He states that there was a sense of strong bonds between them due to this history, and that Cherif Kouachi considered the group to be an elite. This is interesting in light of comments made by David Vallat, a former traveler to Bosnia and Afghanistan, who explained his initial engagement with what would become the 1995 attack network was due to loyalty. He states in the interview, that in the 1994, when the Pakistani security services started to detain foreign fighters, he was protected by the Algerians, who were feared by the Pakistani security forces. Thus, following his return to France and the approach from the Algerians in the 1995 network, he provided some logistical support before deciding to not to further engage in their activities. The role of loyalty in group formation, but also in the sustaining engagement over longer periods of time, and perhaps despite the better judgment of some members, is certainly an avenue worth pursuing but which Bouaz does not explore.
The interview account does contain a passage of interest in relation to Benyettou’s attitude towards violence and its evolution. Benyettou opposed Cherif Kouachi’s plan to racket or rob shops belonging to the members of the Jewish committee in the 19eme. Benyettou stated, according to Bouaz, “If we possess French identity papers, we cannot carry out holy war in our own country.” He was, initially, opposed to foreign fighting in Iraq. Benyettou believed that, “it would not achieve anything. On the one hand the Iraqi political parties would use the notion of jihad for the own ends, and eventually replace the occupier with a dictatorship. On the other hand the mobilization of combatants was so low that it would have not impact on history.” According to Benyettou, it would be better to educate the Iraqis in the theory of jihad through the sharia. When all of the Iraqi people would be educated in Islamic law, then jihad would be legitimate.” Baouz goes on to write that Benyettou was unable to maintain this discourse as those in the neighbourhood wanting to fight were turning instead to Boubakeur el-Hakim. Benyettou was annoyed by this and his loss of influence, and adapted his position, personally encouraging four of his students to travel (pp. 128-129). The dynamic nature of the positions of the group towards violence as well as the rivalry between the theorist (Benyettou) and the practitioner of jihad (el-Hakim) are illustrated. Of interest, is the fact that Benyettou eventually desisted from his belief in the legitimacy of violence while el-Hakim has persisted in his engagement.
The portraits of the other members of the group are minimalist, and they tend to contribute to a book structure that jumps between periods, as the trajectories of the various protagonists are outlined. While not as up-to-date, some of the early accounts of the members of the group contained in the reporting of Christophe Dubois for the Le Parisien newspaper in 2005 and 2006 and that of Jean Chichizola for Le Figaro in the same period, remain, if not definitive, then very good portraits – Mohamed El-Ayouni, Peter Cherif, Farid Benyettou and Boubakeur el-Hakim.
In relation to Peter Cherif, Bouaz’s account contains the detail that it was likely Bouabkeur el-Hakim, who traveled in 2011 to Marseille to meet Cherif and bring him to Tunisia. From there it appears that Cherif made his way to Yemen. It would have been interesting to learn more about the change in Cherif from the seemingly repentant or less naïve young man, who appears in the Paris Match interview of 2008 and the person who had decided to skip bail and leave France prior to his sentencing. In the Paris Match interview, Cherif is presented as ‘repentant,’ as having ‘turned the page,’ and as being ‘totally deactivated.’ Seemingly, between the March 2008 interview and March 2011, Cherif had changed his mind or the loyalty to his friends after his release from pre-trial detention had put paid to his initial disengagement.
Unfortunately, Bouaz’s account does not bring new information to light about a number of other individuals involved with the group, who have not been widely written about; Redouane el-Hakim, Abdelhalim Badjoudj, Tarek Ouinis – all deceased during the late summer and autumn of 2004 in the vicinity of Fallujah and Baghdad – or Chekou Diakhabi and Salah Toure, two other travelers to Iraq in 2004. All in all, while containing passages of interest, if this was to be the definitive account of the 19eme and the 19eme redux, ‘these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’