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France

Jihad suspects in France deny 'terrorism' label

© FRANCE 24 screen grab | Archival pictures shows French counterterrorism police escorting Isère attacker Yassin Salhi in June 2015

Text by Aude MAZOUE

Latest update : 2015-08-25

The Moroccan man suspected of staging a foiled assault on a Paris-bound train last week has become the latest would-be attacker in France to deny having terrorist links. Analysts say jihadists are instructed not to claim failed attacks.

If Ayoub el Khazzani boarded Thalys train Number 9364 on August 21 with the intention of striking fear into the hearts of Western infidels and advancing the cause of global jihad, he is not yet ready to admit it to French police.

Since the 25-year-old Moroccan was overcome by a handful of audacious passengers, including two off-duty US servicemen, and placed into police custody, he has insisted his only goal was to rob the train.

The information that has filtered through to the public nevertheless suggests that the Thalys attack was not planned as an ordinary heist. The Spanish press reported this week that Khazzani underwent a process of religious radicalisation between 2009 and 2012, and Spanish intelligence officials said he travelled to Syria last year.

Furthermore, he boarded the train with an arsenal that included a Kalashnikov rifle, an automatic pistol, cartridges of ammunition for both firearms, and a box cutter. On Monday, President François Hollande commended three Americans and a Briton who subdued Khazzani for preventing what would have likely been a bloodbath.

Police, who have been questioning Khazzani for more than three days, must by law bring him in front of a judge sometime on Tuesday. So far he has rejected the terrorism label, and while that may sound surprising to many, it’s become a common defence among would-be jihadists brought before the French justice system.

In June, Yassin Salhi, 35, admitted that he had decapitated his boss before attempting to blow up a gas plant in southeast France. Firemen said the man screamed “Allahu akbar” (“God is Greatest” in Arabic) when he was being apprehended, while police sources revealed the man had sent a picture of himself and the dead body to a contact in Syria. Salhi said the entire violent episode was the result of arguments with his employer and his wife.

And in April Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old Algerian man, was charged with killing a young mother and planning an attack on one or two churches in the southern Parisian suburb of Villejuif. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Ghlam had received “orders from what appears to be Syria and on behalf of a terrorist group”. Ghlam, who apparently shot himself in the leg in a botched attempt to steal the victim’s car, claimed he had in fact thwarted an attack that went unnoticed to everyone but him.

Jihadi textbook

So is admitting criminal intent but denying terrorism just a convenient legal defence strategy?

According to Mohamed Sifaoui, a French-Algerian journalist and an expert in Muslim extremist movements, few terrorists ever admit that they are behind the carnage they unleash.

"It’s nothing new,” Sifaoui told FRANCE 24. “From Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, to those responsible for the [1995] RER B train bombing in Paris, there are countless people who have never owned up to attacks.”

Sifaoui, who claims he once infiltrated an al Qaeda cell and wrote a book about it, said it is Islamist organisations that claim terrorist attacks, as opposed to the actual assailants, but only when they are carried out successfully.

“The [terrorist groups] have no interest in linking their image to a failed terrorist plot, nor do they want to claim responsibility when the attacker has been taken into custody or was in any way foiled,” Sifaoui said.

He said manuals that have been circulating among jihadist groups for more than a decade tell would-be gunmen how to behave before, during and after a terrorist act. One such guidebook includes a chapter on what to do and say once in police custody.

“It tells readers to deny any links to terrorism,” said Sifaoui. “Why would terrorists confess a terrorist act to police, whose authority they do not even recognise, when such an admission would make their punishment worse?”

Other observers said the suspects’ unwillingness to admit to terror links had less to do with established methods of operation and more to do with the amateurishness of the men who had been apprehended by French police.

“The fact that Ayoub el Khazzani is drawing back reflects that he is not a professional terrorist … like the Kouachi brothers [behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks]," said FRANCE 24’s Wassim Nasr, a specialist in jihadist movements.

“There are those who are ready to pay the ultimate price for their cause, and others who are simply not.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

Date created : 2015-08-25

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