'Jihadists' surrender after Turkey sends them to ‘wrong French airport’
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French security services were left red-faced Wednesday after three alleged French jihadists, arrested in Turkey, failed to arrive at Paris’s Orly airport where they were due to be taken in for questioning.
The men are suspected of having joined militants across the Turkish border in Syria. They were detained last month after they crossed back into Turkey.
They were due to be flown to Paris on Tuesday, but a mix-up in Turkey meant the men were instead put on a flight to the southern French city of Marseille where they landed, sailed through passport control and went off the radar.
The group includes Abdelhoued Bagadhali, the 29-year-old brother-in-law of Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah who in March 2012 murdered seven people in the name of jihad, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
They have since given themselves up to police at Le Caylar, near the southern French city of Montpellier, where they are being questioned, police said. The men can be held for up to 72 hours before being charged.
France says Turkish move was ‘misguided’
The episode has been a severe embarrassment for the French security services who have tried to shift the blame to Ankara.
On Tuesday afternoon the French interior ministry announced that the men had been arrested at Orly. They quickly backtracked when it became clear that this was not in fact the case.
The ministry later issued a statement explaining that the pilot of the Paris-bound plane had refused to let the men aboard because they lacked the necessary documents, and that the Turkish authorities had simply put them on the next flight to France.
Even the men’s lawyers were flabbergasted that France and Turkey could have bungled the repatriation of the men, who were arrested in Turkey for alleged jihadist activity in Syria. They had given themselves up, apparently in fear of their lives.
“As incredible as it may seem, it’s true,” said Pierre Dunac, who represents Imad Djebali, one of the three men. "I don't know what the Interior Ministry is saying, but legally if they had been extradited they would have been accompanied from Turkey to France.
"They came back to France of their own free will. The other reality is that they went through customs in France with their passports without being bothered in any way."
Trio ‘were imprisoned by Islamic State group’
Lawyer Christian Etelin, who once represented Mohamed Merah, told Reuters on Wednesday that he had been in contact with Bagadhali while he was being held in Turkey.
"It's a classic story of young French or Westerners who dream of Islamic State, a society based on religion, but when they get there they are terrified by the fanaticism, the crimes and torture that is being carried out," he said.
He said that after expressing a desire to leave Syria, the three men were imprisoned by the Islamic State group (IS) as suspected French spies.
"They were sure they would be condemned to death and it's for this reason they did everything they could to escape and handed themselves over to the Turkish police to ask for their help and protection."
French citizens waging jihad abroad
French authorities are wary of nationals who have travelled to Syria and Iraq – where the IS group occupies large areas – and fear they may return to their home country to stage attacks.
After Mohamed Merah's death it emerged that he had visited Pakistan and Afghanistan prior to his attacks and had been on the radar of French intelligence, who had gravely underestimated the threat he posed.
His sister Souad left Toulouse in May for Barcelona, from where she took a flight to Istanbul and then another plane for the Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border.
According to a source close to the case, she has left Syria and is currently in Algeria.
The French interior ministry says around 930 French citizens or residents, including at least 60 women, are either actively engaged in jihad in Iraq and Syria or are planning to go there.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)