French jihadist killed in Syria had 'direct' links to Paris attacks suspect
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French jihadist Charaffe el Mouadan, who the United States said Tuesday was killed in Syria, was close to at least one of the gunmen who carried out the November 13 Paris attacks, according to investigators.
According to the Pentagon, Mouadan had "direct" links to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian jihadist who was suspected of planning the Paris attacks and was killed by police five days later.
But a French intelligence source quoted by AFP was cautious as to whether Mouadan, known in Syria as Abou Souleymane, played any operational role in those attacks.
"As things stand now, there is nothing to prove [Mouadan's] involvement" in the Paris attacks, the source said.
However, the source added that Mouadan was close to Samy Amimour – a former Paris bus driver who went to Syria to fight and returned home to wreak havoc at the Bataclan music venue, where 90 out of the 130 people there that night lost their lives.
So close were the links that the Mouadan family home in Drancy, a grimy suburb north of Paris, was searched by police four days after the Paris attacks.
The Pentagon said Mouadan had been planning attacks against the West, although a spokesman gave no further details. He was killed in a US-led coalition air strike on December 24.
Mouadan 'a natural leader'
Long before he made it to Syria, Mouadan had harboured ambitions of fighting with Islamic extremists, according to investigators.
He and Amimour were arrested in 2012 along with a third Drancy resident, Samir Bouabout, as they were preparing to travel together to fight in Yemen or Afghanistan, they say.
The French intelligence source said Mouadan was clearly “a natural leader” of the trio.
One of eight children, he was born in the Paris suburb of Bondy to Moroccan parents. His father was a mechanic. Charaffe El Mouadan obtained French nationality in 1992.
According to French daily Libération on Wednesday, Mouadan even applied in 2009 to join the Gendarmerie, a police force that is part of the French military, with the intention of “serving the French Republic”. His application was unsuccessful.
His path to radicalisation appears to have been through the Internet, just as investigators believe was the case for Amimour and Bouabout.
A friend told anti-terrorist investigators that, despite growing up in a Muslim family, Mouadan "was not really into religion at the start".
In March 2012, Mouadan, Amimour and Bouabout enrolled in a shooting club. In the same year, Mouadan took out a 20,000-euro ($21,900) loan to finance their aborted trip.
According to a French intelligence report seen by Libération, their plan to travel to Yemen and Afghanistan foundered “because of their inexperience, lack of operational contacts and their poor grasp of Arabic”.
Jihad in Syria
The three men were then arrested in France but freed. Like hundreds of other Westerners, a year later they had found their way to Syria and the chaos of the civil war, with Mouadan the first to make his way there.
Within days, on September 6, 2013, Bouabout and Amimour were spotted in Turkey, the main crossing point for Western jihadists seeking to get into Syria.
Also with them was Omar Ismail Mostefai, who would join forces with Amimour in the trio of suicide vest-wearing attackers at the Bataclan.
Mouadan claimed he had gone to Syria for "humanitarian" reasons, yet he sent photographs to at least one friend showing him smiling and heavily armed, a source said.
According to FRANCE 24’s terrorism expert Wassim Nasr, Mouadan was extremely active on social networks, particularly Twitter, “until just two weeks ago”.
French investigators believe Mouadan, Mostefai and Amimour operated in the same area while they were in Syria.
They initially thought the fourth member of their group, Bouabout, had slipped back into Europe through Greece in September, hiding among refugees but they are now sure he was in Syria at the time of the Paris attacks.
It remains unclear whether Mouadan had a direct role in the attacks. One witness at the Bataclan said one of the killers spoke about phoning "Souleymane" during the shootings, a possible reference to Mouadan’s Syrian nom de guerre.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)