French Court Convicts 7 for Helping to Send Youths to Join Jihadist Fight in Iraq

New York Times 

PARIS — A Paris court sentenced seven men to prison terms of up to seven years on Wednesday for helping to send French youths to fight alongside insurgents in Iraq, ending a four-year investigation into a jihadist recruitment ring.

The men — five French, one Algerian and one Moroccan — were tried on charges including criminal association with intent to commit terrorism.

Jean-Julien Xavier-Rolai, the prosecutor, had accused the group of sending about a dozen young Frenchmen to join Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed in an American airstrike in 2006, after funneling them through radical religious establishments in Syria and Egypt.

At a six-day trial in March, most of the men testified that they had either been to Iraq after the 2003 American-led invasion or had planned to go, but they denied having been part of a network that recruited insurgents.

The group’s leader, Farid Benyettou, 27, was given a six-year-sentence. Mr. Benyettou, a former janitor and self-taught preacher, was accused of recruiting fighters from Paris mosques and justifying suicide bombings in private sermons given in his family apartment.

Boubakeur al-Hakim, 24, who had fought in Iraq and was accused of running a way station in Syria for French youths headed for Iraq, was sentenced to seven years. So was Said Abdellah, 39, a Moroccan citizen.

Nacer Eddine Mettai, a 39-year old Algerian national, was ordered jailed for four years for forging passports. Three others — one who fought in Iraq and two who had been planning to — were given lighter sentences.

The prosecution had asked for sentences of three to eight years.

Along with three young French Muslims who died fighting against American forces in Iraq, the seven men were members of what has become known as the “19th Arrondissement cell,” named after the working-class, heavily immigrant Paris neighborhood where most of them lived. The cell had been under surveillance for at least a year before the seven men were arrested in early 2005.

Judge Jacqueline Rebeyrotte, who announced the convictions and sentences, called Mr. Benyettou the ideologue of a group “whose objective was to send young people from the 19th Arrondissement of Paris to fight in Iraq.”

The case received widespread media attention in France, home to an estimated five million Muslims, many from former colonies in North Africa. Memories of a series of terrorist attacks by Islamist networks in the mid-1990s are still fresh, and high rates of unemployment and crime in neighborhoods like the 19th Arrondissement and poor suburbs ringing big French cities have intensified concerns that disenchanted Muslim youths may be vulnerable to anti-Western rhetoric and recruitment by militant Islamist cells.

When the Paris cell was broken up in early 2005, investigators worried about what they called a new terrorist threat created by the Iraq war. Since then, fears of European jihadist fighters returning from Iraq to carry out attacks in their home countries have receded.

In sealed court documents and in open testimony presented during the trial of the seven members of the Paris cell, for example, prosecutors presented no evidence that any of the seven men intended to carry out terrorist attacks against France.

The Iraq war continues to fuel hatred, extremism and terrorism, the officials said. But now investigators are more concerned about North Africa and Pakistan as regions with a growing potential to recruit and radicalize young Muslims.

The men convicted and sentenced Wednesday have spent three years in pretrial detention, time that will be subtracted from their sentences.

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