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France launches investigation into 'jihadists' back from Syria

AFP/Sylvain Thomas. A police vehicle takes one of the accused jihadists to the city of Montpellier, September 24.

Three suspected jihadists returning from Syria were placed under formal investigation Saturday for allegedly “planning terrorist acts”. The three made headlines this week when they initially walked free after arriving at the wrong French airport.

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The Paris prosecutor's office said Abdelouahab El Baghdadi, Imad Djebali and Gael Maurize were being investigated for criminal association involving a terrorist group.

The three men are suspected of "criminal association with the aim of planning terrorist acts", said Pierre Dunac, one of the men's lawyers.

Dunac said the suspects strongly denied the allegations against them.

Baghdadi, 29, is the brother-in-law of Toulouse shooter Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people – two French servicemen as well as a rabbi, a teacher and three children in an attack on a Jewish school – in a 2012 shooting spree. He was shot dead in a subsequent shootout with French police.

Another suspect is Imad Jjebali, Merah's childhood friend, who was convicted in 2009 for having ties to a jihadist network in Iraq.

Dunac said the men admit travelling to Syria but deny having fought there or plotting terrorist attacks in France.

"They realised over there that it wasn't what they thought it would be, and they fled home," said Dunac, who is representing Jjebali.

Dunac added that his client "does not present a danger to France".

All three men were already under investigation in a case from September 2013 that has led to convictions for two others.

That investigation focused on the so-called Artigat network of jihadists, named for the village in southern France where they were reportedly based.

Bungle by security services

The three men were initially arrested in Turkey, reportedly on suspicion of being part of a network that recruited jihadists to fight in Syria.

Their case has been in the media spotlight due to a series of glaring mishaps that saw the three suspected terrorists walk free after arriving back in France. They were due to arrive in 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.

Passport control at Marseille failed to flag the men as suspicious, as a security databank was out of order at the time.

They surrendered to police at Le Caylar on Wednesday and were flown to Paris, where they appeared before an anti-terrorism judge.

The episode has been a severe embarrassment for the French security services, who have tried to shift the blame to Ankara.

The French interior ministry issued a statement saying that the pilot of the Paris-bound plane had refused to let the men on board because they lacked the necessary documents, and that the Turkish authorities had simply put them on the next flight to France.

French and European authorities are wary about nationals who have travelled to Syria and Iraq – where the radical Islamic State militant group controls large areas – and fear they may return to stage attacks on home soil.

After 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 underestimated the threat he posed.

France announced Thursday that it would increase security on transport and in public spaces amid growing concerns over the threat of terrorism.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

 

 

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