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Ageing French ‘jihadist’ faces trial in Paris

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Gilles Le Guen, a 60-year-old man captured by a French commando unit in Mali in 2013, went on trial in Paris on Monday. Labelled a “loser” by French officials, Le Guen is the first person tried under an anti-terrorism law passed in 2012.

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The two-day trial of Le Guen, aka Abden Jelil, will offer insight into the unusual life of a French expat and into leaders’ pressing concern over the radicalisation of French nationals.

Le Guen faces charges of criminal association in relation with a terrorist group, and could spend 10 years behind bars if found guilty.

While accused of collaborating with Al Qaeda’s north-African branch, some observers say he led a largely reclusive and innocuous life in northern Mali before the desert region was overrun by a motley crew of Islamist and separatist rebels in 2012.

A French commando captured Le Guen in a night-time operation near Timbuktu on April 28, 2013, four months into France’s military intervention to retake the control of the West African country. He was transferred to Paris two weeks later, where he has been awaiting trial ever since.

‘Lost in life’

France has been gripped with the fear of young, sometimes bright Frenchmen travelling to the Middle East to join the Islamic State group and other jihadist movements. But Le Guen’s case does not fit neatly into the troubling trend.

Defense Minister Jean-Yves le Drian and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have on separate occasions referred to him as “paumé” a derisive term to describe someone who is a loser and lost in life.

Born in 1955 in the western city of Nantes, Le Guen worked with France’s merchant marines in his 20s. Eventually he converted to Islam, although his adoption of radical views reportedly came later.

He eventually settled in Morocco, then Mauritania and then Mali in the late 2000s, where he lived with his Moroccan wife and five children at the time of his capture by French special forces.

French officials say he first showed on foreign intelligence radars in September 2012, appearing in a photo taken at a meeting of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI). At the time, extremist militias had claimed control of around half of Mali and were advancing on the capital of Bamako.

Le Guen had his first big moment in the spotlight when he appeared in a video published on the Mauritanian news website Sahara Media in October 2012. Dressed in a khaki-coloured tunic and black turban – the black AQMI banner serving as the backdrop, a Kalashnikov as a prop – he warned Western powers from meddling in Mali.

He would be plucked out of the Malian desert five months later.

Test case

Some French media have reported that Le Guen escapes easy categorisation. He is said to have been imprisoned in Timbuktu in November 2012 by AQMI leaders who suspected him of being a spy. Other sources say he was temporarily detained because he defended a group of women who were being mistreated by militants.

“He was not at all in combat mode when French forces intercepted him,” FRANCE 24 journalist Serge Daniel reported shortly after his capture by French soldiers in 2013. “He was not a jihadist on the frontline, he was just a man who was tired. More like a fugitive.”

Le Guen’s court case, which will end on Tuesday, is the first to test a law approved in 2012 that allows French prosecutors to go after citizens who are suspected of participating in terrorist acts on foreign soil, or who have left the country to receive terrorist training.

Since then, and in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks in January, France has passed a slew of laws aimed at combating Jihadism at home and abroad, with MPs set to approve a bill giving French spies sweeping surveillance powers on Tuesday.

In March, French authorities estimated that around 3,000 nationals had left the country to wage jihad abroad.

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