French jihadist 'followed road traced by bin Laden'
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Self-declared jihadist Gilles Le Guen, originally from Brittany, was arrested by French forces near Timbuktu in Mali on Sunday. While Le Guen claims to be a follower of Osama bin Laden, the extent of his links to Islamic militants remains unclear.
A self-declared jihadist was taken into French custody in northern Mali, a military spokesperson announced Tuesday,as more details emerged about the Frenchman's murky past.
Gilles Le Guen, a former merchant marine originally from Brittany, was arrested overnight Sunday just north of Timbuktu, according to Colonel Thierry Burkhard of the French army.
Le Guen, believed to be in his 50s, would soon be turned over to Malian authorities, who may then decide to extradite him to France, Burkhard told the AP news agency.
Although Le Guen is well known in his homeland as one of a handful of French nationals fighting against their own forces in Mali, precise details about his background and activities in Mali remain unclear.
France launched a military intervention in January in response to an attempt by Islamist forces to take control of the country, a former French colony.
Following the road traced by bin Laden
Last October, Le Guen, who goes by the name of Abdel Jelil, appeared in a YouTube video in which he threatened France, the United States and the UN, should they decide to intervene in Mali.
Seen in the video wearing a black turban with an assault rifle by his side and posing in front of a black background bearing the symbol al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Le Guen states that he is married with three children and converted to Islam in the 1980s while still in France.
Former sailor Le Guen is believed to have travelled extensively, telling French newspaper L’Express in a January interview that he lived in Morocco and Mauritania before settling in Mali in 2011.
In the same interview, he claimed to be “following the road traced by Osama bin Laden” and revealed he had received military training in Timbuktu.
Le Guen is unusual among France’s homegrown jihadist fighters in that he has openly flaunted his radicalism and presence in northern Mali since the French intervention.
However, some question the extent to which he has been involved in the Islamist movement in Africa and the strength of his links to AQIM.
Not a 'true hardliner'
“He was not what you might call a true hardliner,” said Serge Daniel, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Bamako, who met with Le Guen prior to the Islamist capture of Timbuktu.
On one occasion, Le Guen intervened to stop the mistreatment of local civilians by a group of jihadists. “He pleaded with them forcefully to stop,” said Daniel.
Prior to the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu, Le Guen had been working as a shepherd around 30 kilometres outside the city, said Daniel. Once the Islamists took control, he moved to Timbuktu and was given responsibility for the distribution of electricity in the city.
Diadie Hamadoun Maiga, who was part of a crisis committee set up to liaise between Timbuktu’s residents and their Islamist rulers during the ten-month-long rebel occupation, confirmed that Le Guen had been seen as comparatively moderate in his dealings with the local population.
“He openly took a position against Mohamed Mossa [the head of the Islamic police] especially in regards to the brutal treatment of women,” Maiga told the AP news agency.
“Gilles Le Guen won a lot of points with us because he took our side. He openly criticised Mossa, including in speeches that he gave at the market. One day he even burst into the prison and liberated the women that had been arrested by Mohamed Mossa.”
Reports suggest that in November 2012 Le Guen was even held for a few days by AQIM leaders on suspicion of being a spy, but was later released.
After French forces began reclaiming control of Timbuktu, the Islamic fighters fled the city but reportedly left Le Guen behind and it is unclear if the Frenchman remained by choice, or was simply abandoned.
“The jihadists gave him a car. They had stolen lots of cars in the area. And they gave him a luxury, two-cabin 4x4.They also gave him two barrels of gasoline, each of 200 liters,” said Maiga.
Le Guen’s arrest follows the capture in March of another French jihadist, who was also apprehended by French forces in northern Mali. He has since been sent back to France where he is being investigated on terrorism charges.