Europe's fears of returning Jihadists from Iraq subside, but fears of returning Jihadists from Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Africa are still strong.
After the Paris police smashed a cell suspected of sending insurgents to Iraq early in 2005, the French authorities predicted a new and dangerous threat: would-be fighters lured to the Iraqi battlefields who would return to use their newfound battlefield skills in terrorist acts inside France.
Dominique de Villepin, as interior minister, singled out the cell in a speech two months later as proof of a risk that Iraqi-trained jihadists would "come back to France, armed with their experience, to carry out attacks."
Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, then France's senior counterterrorism magistrate, later warned that Iraq was a "black hole sucking up all the elements located in Europe." Some of them were coming back to Europe, he added, and some of those were armed with chemical and biological weapons training.
Now, as members of the cell are awaiting a verdict in their case, French and other European intelligence and law enforcement officials are adjusting their analysis. They say their fears of young would-be fighters from Europe traveling to Iraq and returning more radicalized and better trained were overblown.
The logistical challenges and expense of reaching Iraq have been one deterrent, they said, particularly since Syria has made episodic efforts to halt the use of its territory as a transit route. Compared with the thousands of European Muslims who joined the fight in Afghanistan in the 1990s through networks in Britain , the numbers of fighters going to Iraq has been extremely small, according to senior French intelligence officials.
Another factor, the officials say, is that European Muslims lacking military training and good Arabic-language skills are neither needed nor welcomed by Iraqi insurgents - unless they are willing to be involved in suicide missions.
The nature of the battle has also changed, making Iraq an alien destination for many would-be insurgents. The fight in Iraq is no longer a pure jihad against foreign occupiers, but also a confusing civil war pitting Muslim against Muslim. Many young people have family and ethnic ties to Pakistan or North Africa, making those places more attractive destinations and further advancing those regions' potential for recruiting and radicalizing young Muslims.
"At the moment, the major threat to Europe is coming from elsewhere - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," the North-African-based terrorist organization - said Bruguière, who now investigates terror financing for the European Union.
He and other law enforcement authorities, particularly in countries like France, Italy and Spain, are convinced that their sweeping legal authority to eavesdrop, make arrests, hold suspects for long periods of time and win convictions on the vague charge of association with a terrorist enterprise has made it easier to take preventive action.
"It's impossible to give numbers, but fewer young people are leaving Italy and other European countries to wage jihad in Iraq," said Armando Spataro, Italy's senior counterterrorism magistrate. "I'm convinced part of the reason is that we've been successful in arresting and prosecuting people, even before they go to Iraq."
Even France's domestic intelligence service, known as the DST, has altered its analysis.
"It's not easy to get to Iraq - it's expensive and they have no family there," said one French intelligence official. "We haven't seen the waves we expected."
By contrast, the DST took a more alarmist line when it first authorized the undercover judicial investigation of the Paris group, nicknamed the "19th arrondissement cell" after the working-class Paris neighborhood where most of the suspects grew up and lived.
"The return on national territory of jihadists, strongly indoctrinated and trained in the handling of arms and explosives, obviously constitutes a grave threat for the national territory" of France, the DST wrote in a sealed document in July 2004 made available to The New York Times.
It argued that the investigation of the 19th arrondissement cell would give important evidence of individuals going to Iraq and "presenting a threat after their return."
Certainly, Bruguière and Spataro, and other European law enforcement and intelligence officials, stress that the Iraq war continues to fuel hatred, extremism and terrorism, and that at any time an individual or group returning home from Iraq could carry out a terrorist act inside Europe. In addition, they say, the flow of would-be insurgents to Iraq from several countries throughout the Arab world continues.
But the case of the 19th arrondissement cell captures both the complexity of assessing the terrorist threat posed by the Iraq war and the wisdom of sweeping prosecutions of people who may never have even stepped foot in the country.
The seven men - five French, one Algerian and one Moroccan, from the ages of 24 to 40 - have been prosecuted as an "association of wrongdoers" with an intent to commit acts of terrorism. The prosecution has asked for sentences from three to eight years; the verdict will be rendered in mid-May.
In sealed court documents and in open testimony presented during the six-day trial that ended last week, prosecutors presented no evidence that any of the young men intended to carry out terrorist attacks against France. Their only training in France was jogging in the wooded Buttes-Chaumont park in their neighborhood and minimal consultation of basic weapons manuals.
Jean-Julien Xavier-Rolai, the prosecutor, said that the group had sent about a dozen young Frenchmen to fight alongside Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq who was killed in an American airstrike in 2006.
Xavier-Rolai charged that the group's leader, Farid Benyettou, a 26-year-old janitor-turned-preacher, gave sermons from the apartment where he lived with his family calling for jihad in Iraq and justifying suicide bombings.
"I taught" that "suicide attacks were legitimate under Islam as part of jihad," Benyettou said in one sealed deposition by anti-terrorism investigators.
In the courtroom and in depositions, however, Benyettou, a rail-thin man with long curls and oversized glasses who served as his own lawyer, insisted that he preached that French citizens were forbidden to commit jihad in France.
"We are in France, we are in France," Benyettou said in his closing argument, adding, "We enjoy a certain number of liberties," and that the laws of France had to be obeyed.
Complicating Benyettou's situation is the fact that his brother-in-law, Yousef Zemmouri, was a leader of a radical Islamist cell with ties to Algeria who was sent back there by the French authorities in 1998.
Only two of the accused actually went to Iraq to fight. One, Boubakeur el Hakim, gave a damning interview to French radio and television in Baghdad in 2003 in which he exhorted his friends "from the 19th" to join him in suicide missions in Iraq.
"I'm ready to make myself explode, set off dynamite and boom! boom! We kill all the Americans!" he said, adding, "We want death. We want paradise."
Hakim said that among his tasks was accompanying insurgents as they laid mines, and that on four missions several Americans were killed. The prosecution acknowledged that there was no evidence that he had laid mines himself or killed anyone.
The other, Mohamed el Ayouni, was wounded in an American attack on Falluja and returned home without his left arm and blinded in one eye. He insisted that he had done only humanitarian work in Iraq; the prosecution had no evidence that he had been a fighter himself.
Prosecutors identified another as a professional counterfeiter who specialized in false passports and identity papers, but could not prove that he was an extremist.
Another, Thamer Bouchnak, now a taxi driver, was described by his lawyer as a simple man, and easily swayed. Far from craving suicide, he bought a round-trip ticket to Syria, where he was to meet a contact, and had applied for a job working for the Paris Métro.
"He was a bit crazy - he wanted to go to the war in Iraq as an adventure, like you'd go on vacation," said Dominique Many, his lawyer.
He was arrested along with Cherif Kouachi, now a fishmonger, as they were about to leave France for Syria.
Their point man in Damascus was Salla Touré, an ethnic Malian from their Paris neighborhood who was 13 at the time and is now a fugitive. He had received his parents' permission to head to Syria to study at a Koranic school.
Court documents identified the boy as the contact who was supposed to meet then at the airport in Damascus and arrange their passage to Iraq.
Three other men alleged to be part of the cell, including the younger brother of Hakim, were killed in Iraq in 2004.
Defense attorneys for some of the accused have argued that their clients were "freedom fighters" not unlike partisans in Spain's civil war, and that a desire to fight in Iraq was logical, given France's opposition to the war and its declarations that an American-led war would violate international law.
They even cited as evidence the famous antiwar speech by Villepin, when he was foreign minister, to the United Nations Security Council just weeks before the American invasion in 2003.
"It is not because these young men went to Iraq that they have criminal intentions" in France, said Eric Plouvier, the lawyer for Ayouni.
Source: IHT (English)
See also: France: Extremists Dream of Jihad in Iraq, Paris: al-Qaeda Iraq recruiting network trial