Lorry driver convicted of al Qaeda ties

A French court has sentenced a 35-year-old lorry driver to six years in prison for ties to al Qaeda's branch in northern Africa. The man had told the court he was an informer for French intelligence.


French journalists didn't know what to make of 35-year-old Kamel Bouchentouf, a lorry driver from Nancy, in eastern France. For some, he is a would-be jihadist; for others, an informer sacrificed by the French domestic intelligence agency, the DST.

But on Thursday a Paris court handed down its decision, sentencing Bouchentouf to six years in prison for having ties to Al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian terrorist group that has become al Qaeda's branch in North Africa.

Bouchentouf, known online as "brother Abu Zhara", was arrested in May 2007 for "association with preparing acts of terrorism" in France.

It was 6 am when the agents of the DST and RAID (an elite counter-terrorist unit) knocked on Bouchentouf's door.

According to trial documents, Bouchentouf confessed that he was planning attacks against the American consulate in Luxembourg and the French 13th Regiment (paratroopers) at Dieuze. Prosecutors also said Bouchentouf had made email contact with the network of the Al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb. According to prosecutors, the email contained a video attachment in which he spoke of building a small makeshift bomb that would "show to France" that al Qaeda could hit "at any moment".

Bouchentouf’s own version is quite different. The ex-serviceman says that his admissions were acquired under pressure and that he had been inserted by the DST into the Islamist network of Abelmalek Droukdal, the leader of North African al Qaeda branch.

On April 30, 2007, the DST is said to have intercepted a video of Bouchentouf in which he says he wants to prepare attacks.

"An unstable personality"

Bouchentouf’s cellphone records show that in fact he maintained a close relationship with the DST. The investigation revealed about 30 telephone contacts between Bouchentouf’s mobile phone and the French agency during the eight months before his arrest.

In a late note to the trial, the DST justified these contacts with the defendant.

"Kamel Bouchentouf came to the attention of our services", wrote a police commissioner. The official said that Bouchentouf displayed "a sufficiently unstable personality to require maintaining pressure" and concluded that "this procedure can in no way be considered recruitment."

During a house search, the policemen found two gas canisters, an empty extinguisher and documents on manufacturing explosives. The public prosecutor is asking for seven to eight years of imprisonment for Bouchentouf.

Attorney fights official version

According to defence lawyer Frederick Berna, the DST approached Bouchentouf, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, to infiltrate Islamic circles. He said the agency baited him with the possibility of getting custody of his daughter in exchange for services he would perform online, such as creating Web sites and sending emails.

That's how Bouchentouf is supposed to have established contact with Salah Gasmi, the intelligence head of the North African al Qaeda group, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (or GSPC, its initials in French). According to emails, the defendant had a meeting with Gasmi in Algeria.

In the last correspondence between the two, Bouchentouf ends his message rather cryptically: "Would you be kind enough to point out to me the Koranic references that deal with treason by a Muslim brother towards another brother," wrote Bouchentouf. This request immediately aroused Gasmi’s suspicions.

In the following days Bouchentouf was arrested.

Could the DST have lost control of its recruit and created a potential danger for France? According to a former agent, this is not impossible. If the defendant is telling the truth, the affair’s conclusion doesn’t make sense, says the agent.

"We don’t arrest someone we work with," the agent said. "Either the individual escaped the agencies, or one of the agencies wanted to go further, or perhaps there was a dysfunction between the services."

Liberty, equality, efficiency

"We have no way of checking on troubling facts with the DST", says defence lawyer Berna, who’s stunned that the inquiry has been entrusted to the same agency.

In spite of requests by Bouchentouf’s lawyers, DST agents were not heard during trial proceedings. Judge Philippe Coirre asked the DST for permission for its agents to testify, but the intelligence agency refused, stating that the matter was classified as top secret.

The DST's role occupied in the trial is problematic, according to Ann Guidicelli, head of the Paris-based consultants Terrorisc. "The problem is that the party responsible for the inquiry is also involved, creating a conflict of interest," she said.

The DST's double role — as a domestic intelligence agency and investigating police force — is a feature that has become a key element in France’s fight against terrorism since the events of 9/11.

"Since the 80s, France has learned to recognise the terrorism that is born in the Middle East," explained a former DST agent. "It developed a legislative structure adapted to terrorism," said the agent, which allowed it to centralise its work and encouraged communication between magistrates and the agency.

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