It is the summer of 2013. In Paris, counterterrorism investigators are chasing a jihadi recruiting network associated with Salim Benghalem, a French citizen and wanted terrorist seeking to bring foreign fighters into the rapidly escalating war in Syria.
What began as a trickle of recruits into the conflict will soon become a flood. As many as 2,000 will eventually leave France for Iraq or Syria, more than any other country in Europe, according to European authorities.
The challenge for counterterror officials is sifting out who among the returnees is a real threat.
On a recorded call between a fighter in Syria and a suspected recruiter in the Paris suburbs, investigators overhear a casual mention of a scooter crash. An alleged member of the network they are tracking — known only as “Abou Mohamed” — is in the hospital. It’s a crucial break, a clue that will help them identify — and eventually unravel — the network. Over the next several months, the investigators’ wiretaps and surveillance yield key details about the injured man’s life, including his real name: Karim Hadjidj.
Hadjidj is a married father of four and a devout Muslim who occasionally leads prayers at his local mosque. Of more interest to investigators is a 15-day trip that they learn he took to Syria earlier in 2013 — as well as a wiretap in which he’s heard promising to put money toward the fight there.
The authorities track Hadjidj for the next four months, and on November 12, they take him into custody. Arrested alongside him are three others: Younes Chanaa, Karl Douant and Mehdi Ider.
In a search of Hadjidj’s home, police uncover air guns, CDs and DVDs containing jihadi content, a laptop with files linked to radical Islam, foreign currency from Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and hidden envelopes containing thousands of euros.
By the time officials finish questioning him, Hadjidj is indicted for criminal conspiracy to prepare acts of terrorism, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The other three men are charged with the same crime. Benghalem is indicted in absentia. He will continue to carry out executions on behalf of ISIS in Syria, and eventually become a suspect in plots against France, including the Nov. 13, 2015, Paris attacks.
This story of Karim Hadjidj’s case is based on court records, trial testimony, police investigative documents, interviews with his lawyer and a letter Hadjidj wrote to FRONTLINE from prison. Prosecutors and police declined to comment.
As France marks the one-year anniversary of the November 13 attacks, Hadjidj’s case illustrates the challenges French authorities face as they try to piece together the intentions and level of threat posed by hundreds, if not thousands of potential jihadis.
Since the war in Syria began, the French government has responded by investing unprecedented levels of time, energy and resources on investigations into individuals like Hadjidj. In the last two years alone, authorities have brought more than 300 judicial proceedings against French nationals suspected of involvement in Islamist terrorism.
Underpinning many of these cases is a series of French laws dating back to the 80s and 90s that provide police, intelligence officers and a small cadre of specialized judges with the power to monitor, arrest and prosecute suspected jihadis, like Hadjidj, before they can carry out an attack on French soil. Under the law, acts of terrorism can include regularly consulting websites glorifying terrorism or financing attacks. Helping facilitate someone’s travel to Syria can lead to charges, as can communicating with members of a terrorist organization.
“It’s enough to prove that a person has joined a terrorist group, wanted to integrate a terrorist group or has conferred with a terrorist group,” says Marc Trévidic, a retired anti-terror magistrate in France. “It’s the same offense whether they stayed 15 days [in Syria] for cooking, cleaning or fighting.”
Since 2015, attacks linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS have killed more than 200 in the heart of Europe. With the threat considered by many experts to be greater than ever, the counterterror statutes that snared Hadjidj are being questioned and tested like never before.
“What has absolutely changed from right now and before is the scale. You know, a thousand people versus one hundred,” says Jean-Louis Bruguière, a retired anti-terror magistrate who was the architect of the criminal conspiracy statute used to prosecute Hadjidj. “How do you deal with that?”
It is 2012. Syria is descending into civil war. Karim Hadjidj, now in his early 30s, is leading Koranic courses at a mosque in Villejuif, a suburb south of Paris home to immigrant families just like his own. Born in Paris to Algerian immigrants, Hadjidj has already made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and traveled to Syria to study Arabic.
At the mosque, Hadjidj has become something of a mentor to a younger man named Mehdi Ider.
“In the beginning, he wanted to learn the Koran, he seemed to be a ‘lost soul,’” Hadjidj will later tell investigators. “I advised him like a younger brother. I told him to find a job, to stabilize … I encouraged him to learn Arabic and the Koran … I always told him that he had to work and assimilate, it’s important.”
But Ider is restless. He is unable to find steady work and ready to “ditch everything” in France, he’ll later tell investigators. In December 2012, he travels to Tunisia with the ISIS operative Salim Benghalem, who he knows from another mosque in the southwest suburbs of Paris. He returns to Paris less than a week later, saying that his family missed him too much.
Around the same time, Hadjidj is growing increasingly despondent about the situation in Syria and is even contemplating going there.
Months and years went by, without anyone answering the distress call of the Syrian people. I decided I would make my contribution to help my Syrian brothers … This was in mid- to late 2012. That’s when I decided to go.
It is the spring of 2013. On a soccer field in Chevilly Larue, Ider introduces Hadjidj to Younes Chanaa. Chanaa is a Moroccan who had attended high school with Ider on the outskirts of Paris, and who now is involved in recruiting young Muslims to go to Syria and join the fight.
Hadjidj tells Chanaa he wants to go to Syria. He will claim during police interrogations cited at trial that he wants to help provide food or drive vehicles.
Chanaa, who is 23 at the time, says he knows someone who could host him there. His contacts on the ground include members of Benghalem’s terrorist network.
Hadjidj departs for Syria. Using the pseudonym “Abou Mohamed,” he drives to Stuttgart, Germany with Ider, Chanaa and two others to catch a flight to Turkey. From the road, Hadjidj calls Abdelmalek Tanem, one of Chanaa’s childhood friends and his contact in Syria, who says that someone will meet them once they cross the border.
A former delivery driver who had dropped out of school, Tanem had become a member of the militant Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra before joining ISIS in June 2013, according to statements he made at his trial. He and Benghalem were also in contact, and his role was to welcome recruits to Syria. “I wanted a purpose in my life and I found it,” he would later say.
After arriving in Antakya, in southwest Turkey, Hadjidj says he and Ider take a taxi, which drops them off near the border with Syria, and they cross on foot. A contact picks them up on the other side, then takes them to a safe house for dinner.
The next morning, according to various accounts, Tanem drives Hadjidj and Ider to Aleppo.
Along the way we witnessed bombings. Once we arrived in Aleppo we were escorted to a warehouse where fighters were based. In those days, the groups were more or less united, or rather they were in contact with each other online.
We were greeted by members of ISIS.
Hadjidj will later say that he was asked to join up with fighters on the ground in Aleppo — Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army may all have been present, according to different accounts, but he says he managed to avoid pledging allegiance or following military training.
In his letter, he writes that he was caught up in a battle.
A few days later, a surprise coalition of the Free Syrian Army called for general mobilization. Subsequently, I was taken with the fighters to help stop the offensive.
We experienced non-stop severe bombings for several days. We were poorly equipped with Kalashnikovs, RPGs, BKC machine guns and home-made grenades, along with a few home-made rockets.
Six days later, a wiretap picks up Chanaa and Tanem recounting the same battle. At trial, prosecutors will say the conversation proves that Hadjidj participated in an attack.
Abdelmalek Tanem: Abou Mohamed, he was in an attack (he laughs)
Younes Chanaa: Really?! (he also laughs)
Abdelmalek Tanem: Yeah!
Younes Chanaa: Abou Mohamed the first or the second?
Abdelmalek Tanem: The second. For months, they’ve been waiting. But he arrived and boom! Straight away!
Hadjidj says he was quickly disillusioned by his experience in Syria, and that this battle accelerated his efforts to return home.
Then, realizing what was happening and how unpredictable it was, I decided to leave and go back to France.
How could I leave my family to help people I didn’t even know, and risk my life like this, making orphans of my children and a widow of my wife?
So I made a deal to organize my return by participating in the funding of it.
A week later, Hadjidj manages to reach the Turkish border. He says he convinced his hosts that he was sick and urgently needed his medicine back at the safe house near the border.
By June 23, Hadjidj is back in France. Within days, on a recorded call, Benghalem tells Chanaa that a “buddy” who has just left Syria — and who investigators believe is Hadjidj — has promised money for the fight, and he urges Chanaa to waste no time in collecting the funds.
“Hit and hit quickly,” Benghalem tells Chanaa.
A few weeks after Hadjidj’s short stint in Syria, wiretaps reveal him promising Tanem several thousand euros for Benghalem’s network.
“You know that I was weakened, I didn’t stay long, but I looked like a skeleton when I came back,” Hadjidj tells Tanem in the recorded call. “I was tired like crazy, and now, I can’t stop eating.”
Over the course of the conversation, Hadjidj offers funds to buy walkie-talkies, night-vision goggles, equipment and clothing for the winter, and a DShK, a Soviet-era heavy machine gun common to the fighting in the Syrian civil war.
“You can call me,” Hadjidj tells Tanem, “for any need.”
At noon, Hadjidj is riding his scooter when it collides with a car, leaving him with a fractured right femur, a broken right wrist and serious head trauma. He is taken to a hospital where he has several surgeries on his leg over the course of two weeks. Investigators soon pick up Chanaa and Tanem talking about the crash on a wiretapped call.
A week later, Tanem tells Chanaa that ISIS was frustrated that he kept bringing people who were leaving, and he was told not to bring any more Frenchmen to Syria.
Honestly, we’re counting well, it’s been more or less seven people who came and went back … counting: Abou Mohamed (HADJIDJ), Abou Mouhajir (DOUANT), Abou Meghded (IDER), Abou Ismaël (M’BARGA) and these two, it’s already six people.
Soon, Hadjidj would be identified, and he, Channa, Ider and Karl Douant — also accused of criminal conspiracy to prepare acts of terrorism — would be arrested. But Benghalem and his network would continue to recruit and plot over the next two years, and eventually strike.
It is Nov. 13, 2015. Terrorists kill 130 in Paris. Two weeks later, Hadjidj’s trial begins in the 16th Chamber of the High Court of Paris. He insists he went to Syria for humanitarian reasons, but he is accused of joining a terrorist group, receiving military training, participating in combat and financing these groups.
Six other men are also on trial with Hadjidj for criminal conspiracy to prepare acts of terror — including Benghalem. Although his role in the Paris attacks is unclear, Benghalem is already suspected of having links to the men behind the 2014 shooting that killed four at a Jewish museum in Brussels, as well as the January 2015 attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 12. He is tried in absentia for recruiting French fighters to join terrorist groups like ISIS, for participating in combat and jihadi activities, and for providing money and material support to terrorist groups.
The marble halls outside the courtroom are packed with cameras and reporters. “The lawyers fear that their clients, facing a 10-year sentence, will be judged very harshly,” a France 3 correspondent tells viewers.
“They will be judged in two ways,” says Xavier Nogueras, the attorney representing Hadjidj. “First, based on what they did. Did they get arms? Did they take part in trainings? Did they know Salim Benghalem? Second, according to their level of danger. Will they be dangerous in the future? I think that they find them very dangerous and they will condemn them heavily.”
Nogueras adds: “After such tragic events in France … it’s extremely traumatizing for the country. The first reaction is one of revenge.”
Over several days, the six defendants present are questioned by a panel of three judges and a prosecutor about the extensive evidence collected from the wiretaps and interrogations. They are asked about what they did in Syria.
Within the French legal system, judges take the lead in the investigation and prosecution of terror cases.
From the start, the court is skeptical about Hadjidj’s intentions in Syria because of his actions upon his return. He changes his story multiple times, culminating in one significant exchange:
In the local press, the prosecutor says that Hadjidj, the oldest of all the defendants, “has multiple faces, keeps lying and is obviously dangerous.” The prosecutor asks for an eight-year sentence — close to the maximum under the law for someone who has not actually committed a terrorist attack.
In his last statement before the end of the trial, an emotional Hadjidj says he was hurt by the prosecutor’s aggressive attitude. “I don’t understand,” he tells the court. “I have no violence in me. I have four kids.” Then, he collapses into tears.
One month later, on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the judge declares Hadjidj and the six others guilty. According to Nogueras, who was present at the sentencing, the judge states that because Hadjidj “immediately participated in a military operation” and “continued to finance these activities” in Syria, he “scared us.”
Hadjidj is sentenced to seven years in prison. But counting time served while awaiting trial, he may be eligible for parole in early 2018, once he’s finished two-thirds of his sentence.
The other co-defendants receive similar sentences, which are typical in France but light compared to what defendants might expect in the United States, for example. Benghalem is given 15 years, but he remains at large and is believed to be in Syria.
My intention was to take part in helping a people forsaken and in distress, which is jihad, so I see nothing to regret. However, if I had known what would happen to me in the future, then I would never have surrendered and yes on that note I’d say that I have regrets.
Since the Paris attacks, the French government has declared a state of emergency, placed hundreds of Muslims under house arrest and conducted thousands of warrantless searches. Up to 15,000 people are being monitored for suspected ties to terrorism, and the laws that were used to intercept Hadjidj and the others have been invoked in more than 260 cases this year.
That’s caused an outcry among Muslims across France, who say they are being swept up in the fear. Groups like Human Rights Watch have also spoken out, saying France’s crackdown has resulted in “abusive and discriminatory raids.”
But at the same time, many in France are questioning the comparatively short prison terms under the counter terror policies, and the French government is currently considering a proposal to increase sentences for terrorism cases like Hadjidj’s from 10 years to a maximum of 30 years.
Muslims account for roughly 60 percent of the French prison population, according to various estimates. In recent years, a growing list of French citizens have entered prison as petty criminals, only to leave as committed jihadis. Others, such as the men who carried out the assault on Charlie Hebdo, entered prison already radicalized, but went on to carry out attacks after serving their terms.
No one knows for sure what Hadjidj’s trajectory might have been before the scooter crash that led police to his hospital bed. And it may be just as unclear today as he sits in a French prison system that has been called a revolving door for jihadis and a hotbed of radicalization.
“I’m scared that prison will hurt Karim,” Nogueras, the defense attorney, said. “You cram them together like beasts in terrorist divisions. We’re creating the monsters of tomorrow.”
“Could Karim act? Yes, Karim could take action,” he said. “We all could if something goes wrong in our head.”