The French Salafist accused of killing Tunisian politician
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The main suspect in last week's killing of Tunisian politician Mohamed Brahmi is a well-known figure in French intelligence circles. Boubakeur Hakim (pictured), a Frenchman of Tunisian origin, has come a long way on the jihadist trail.
From Paris’s 19th arrondissement, to a network dispatching militants to Iraq, to prison cells in Syria and France, Boubakeur Hakim has come a long way on the jihadist trail.
Now the 30-year-old Frenchman of Tunisian origin is implicated in what could be his most high-profile case to date.
A day after Thursday’s shocking assassination of prominent Tunisian leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi, Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou named Hakim as the main suspect in the killing.
Hakim is well known in French and North African intelligence circles. Tunisian authorities say the Franco-Tunisian Salafist belongs to the 14-person cell allegedly responsible for the February murder of another respected leftist Tunisian politician, Chokri Belaid. According to Tunisian officials, most members of the 14-person cell belong to the local hardline Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Tunisian Interior Minister Ben Jeddou said the gun used to shoot Brahmi 14 times in front of his home was the same 9mm semi-automatic pistol that killed Belaid back in February. According to Ben Jeddou, both attacks were conducted by an “al Qaeda-linked cell”.
In addition to the two murder cases, Hakim is also being sought for suspected weapons smuggling from Libya.
From a Paris park district to the Iraqi border
Born and raised in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, Hakim first came under the radar of French intelligence officials in 2003 during the demonstrations against the Iraq War.
Hakim was a member of what was known as “the 19th arrondissement cell” – also called “the Buttes Chaumont cell,” after the sprawling park in northeastern Paris.
The leader of “the Buttes Chaumont cell” was Farid Benyettou, a former janitor turned self-taught preacher who lectured outside mosques in the area, including the Addawa mosque in the 19th arrondissement.
Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, Hakim began recruiting jihadists to fight in Iraq as part of a network dubbed the “Filières Irakiennes”. In July 2004, his brother, Redouane Hakim, was killed while fighting US troops in the western Iraqi town of Fallujah.
At that time, Hakim himself was based in Syria, where he was arrested in late 2004 and held for a year before his extradition to France.
Charged and sentenced back home in France
In May 2008, a Paris court sentenced Hakim and six other men for helping French youths fight alongside jihadists in Iraq.
Paris prosecutor Jean-Julien Xavier-Rolai accused the group of sending about a dozen young Frenchmen to join notorious militant leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group, al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Zarqawi was subsequently killed in a 2006 US airstrike in the central Iraqi city of Baqubah.
According to French court papers, Hakim ran a way station in Syria for French youths en route to Iraq. He was a given a seven-year sentence with a minimum of two thirds of the prison term to be spent in jail.
Hakim was released in January 2011 and traveled to Tunisia, where French intelligence officials immediately alerted Tunisian authorities to his presence there, according to the AFP.
“He was a well-known figure, clearly identified as a radical Islamist in France and Tunisia,” an unnamed French intelligence source told the AFP on Monday.
In Tunisia as Ben Ali falls
Hakim’s trip to Tunisia came shortly after the toppling of Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was known to crack down on Islamist networks across the country. The Tunisian dictator’s ouster saw the release of several Islamist and jihadist prisoners, which coincided with the growth of Salafist groups operating in Tunisia.
The Franco-Tunisian’s activities in Tunisia hit the spotlight shortly after Belaid’s February assassination, when Interior Minister Ben Jeddou named Hakim as the key suspect in the case, calling him "among the most dangerous terrorists, who is being hunted internationally."
According to Ben Jeddou, Hakim’s alleged involvement in the Belaid case came to light during the interrogation of a suspect in May.
Tunisian authorities allege that Hakim has ties to jihadists operating in Mount Chaambi, a remote mountainous region near the Algerian border where Tunisian troops have been fighting Islamist militants since December 2012.
On Monday night, Tunisian state TV reported eight soldiers killed in a “firefight with terrorists” in the Mount Chaambi area.
The announcement came as Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh called a general election for December 17 after an emergency meeting aimed at easing political tensions.
Public anger against the ruling Ennahda party has been mounting since Brahmi’s killing, with many Tunisians blaming the Islamist party for Brahmi’s murder.
The Tunisian government’s naming of the prime suspect in the Brahmi case barely 24 hours after his killing is bound to spark suspicions among many Tunisians as the country – dubbed “the birthplace of the Arab Spring” – now confronts a deep divide between liberal secularists and Islamist supporters.
Meanwhile, the government’s prime suspect in the latest high-profile assassination case remains at large.