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French men suspected of being ‘top al Qaeda’ propagandists

Video by Siobhán SILKE , Karim YAHIAOUI

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-05-12

Two French men charged with being members of an al Qaeda cell are believed to be leading al Qaeda figures in Europe, involved in online Islamist communication and recruitment of would-be suicide bombers.

Italian authorities on Tuesday charged two French nationals of being key figures in al Qaeda’s European operations, accusing them of involvement in militant communications and planning terrorist attacks.


The two men - Bassam Ayachi and Raphael Gendron - were arrested in the southern Italian city of Bari in November for links to trafficking in illegal immigrants.


Subsequent investigations revealed more serious jihadist activities, including running cyber jihadist operations and plots to conduct attacks in Western Europe, according to Italian prosecutors.


Investigators probing the cases of Ayachi and Gendron uncovered a web of online jihadist activities stretching across Italy and Belgium, where the two men operated before moving to Italy. The targets of their operations, according to Italian prosecutors, stretched from France to Afghanistan.


“They are top leaders of al Qaeda in charge of communications, especially in Europe,” said Mathieu Guidere, an expert in radical and terrorist groups at the University of Geneva.


Guidere said the scale and scope of this case is extensive. “This case is interesting because the two men have reached the stage of recruiting suicide bombers,” said Guidere. “Past cases haven’t reached the recruiting stage. Investigators found recorded testaments of would-be suicide bombers.”


Ayachi, a 63-year-old Syrian-born imam, and Gendron, a 33-year-old electronics engineer who converted to Islam, have since been served with arrest warrants for planning “organized terrorist attacks and guerrilla actions."


A tale of two investigations in two countries


Following their November arrest in Italy, police found incriminating documents stored on CDs and USB sticks linking them to al Qaeda, according to FRANCE 24’s Alexis Masciarelli, reporting from Rome.


Meanwhile, Belgian authorities were monitoring the two men for their alleged al Qaeda links.


In January, an Appeals Court in Brussels found Gendron, along with Ayachi’s son, guilty of inciting hatred and violence against Jews on a Belgian-based jihadist website called "Minbar”. The site has since been shut down.


Ayachi and Gendron also ran an Islamist center in Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels, which included a mosque as well as a training school for imams.


The official Molenbeek site, according to Guidere, also included propaganda for al Qaeda’s operations in Europe.


‘Classical targets of al Qaeda’


According to Italian prosecutors, taped conversations between Ayash and Gendron in prison referred to an attack on Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. No further details have been provided.


“The attacks they were plotting are traditional – that is, they were targeting official buildings and especially the airports,” said Guidere. “That’s the classical targets of al Qaeda.”


But French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the French government did not have "any information that would allow us to seriously consider the threat of an attack on (the airport)".


"The individuals in question are known for their propaganda and recruitment operation, and for belonging to networks," she told the French parliament.




Date created : 2009-05-12