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France's 'chief Islamic State group recruiter' goes on trial

HO/Al Hayat Media Center/AFP | A file image grab taken from a video uploaded in February 2015 allegedly shows French jihadist Salim Benghalem speaking in a TV report from Aleppo

The trial of France's alleged top recruiter for the Islamic State (IS) group started Tuesday in Paris. Salim Benghalem will be tried in absentia, as he is believed to be in Syria.

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Six others accused of being part of Benghalem’s terror network will also stand trial in Paris. The trial is expected to last until December 7.

French authorities said Benghalem, 35, was the leader of the so-called Buttes-Chaumont terrorist network that included Said and Cherif Kouachi, the brothers responsible for the deadly Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January. He has also been linked to Mehdi Nemmouche, the gunman suspected of opening fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, killing four people in May 2014.

Benghalem’s wife, who left Syria with their children, has told investigators that he would return to France only to carry out an attack. She has said he believed bombs were not enough, and that "a series of killings is recommended".

The US State Department said in 2014 that he was an executioner for the IS group and listed him as a "foreign terrorist fighter".

'He liked to crack jokes'

Benghalem’s descent into extremism has shocked his friends and family. As a young man, Benghalem reportedly went out most nights with friends to meet girls, drink alcohol and smoke cannabis.

One of his childhood friends said: "He liked to crack jokes and was fun-loving.”

"And he wasn't particularly brave. When there was an altercation, he was not on the front line."

Benghalem spent his formative years drifting from one job to another: supermarket cashier, electrician and supervisor in a dining hall.

His family acknowledged back in 2014 that he had travelled to Syria to pursue "an ideal of justice", but said that he was “definitely not an executioner”.

"He didn't belong in France. He found himself over there," a person close to him, who wished to remain anonymous, said last year, adding that Benghalem's role in Syria was to hand out fines on behalf of the IS group "for illegal possession of cigarettes, or things like that".

Jailed after gang killing

Benghalem's life seems to have taken a turn back in 2001, when he fled France for Algeria, from where his family originates, after being accused of murder and attempted murder in connection with a gangland fight.

He remained in contact with his family before finally returning to France in 2002, when he was arrested.

After five years in custody, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison 2007. But Benghalem was preliminarily released and then officially freed in 2010 thanks to his "good behaviour" and "repentance", said his then lawyer Leon Lef Forster. Forster told AFP that he was "stunned" by what Benghalem had become.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

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