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Paris trial grills ‘repentant’ jihadist who mentored Charlie Hebdo killers

Farid Benyettou, the former "emir" of the Buttes-Chaumont jihadist cell, arrives at the courthouse in Paris on October 3, 2020.
Farid Benyettou, the former "emir" of the Buttes-Chaumont jihadist cell, arrives at the courthouse in Paris on October 3, 2020. © Christophe Archambault, AFP

After weeks of harrowing accounts of the shootings and the enduring trauma for survivors, the trial of the January 2015 Paris attacks took a step back at the weekend to hear testimony from Farid Benyettou, a self-taught preacher whose quest to dispatch young jihadists to Iraq would come back to haunt France a decade later.

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On March 18, 2003, just two days before the US launched its invasion of Iraq, listeners tuning in to French radio RTL would have heard the exalted voice of a young Parisian urging his “mates from the 19th [arrondissement of the French capital]” to join him in Baghdad.

“I’m ready to blow myself up, to lay bombs, and then, boum! boum!” the teenager ranted in a news report from a training camp near the Iraqi capital. “We’re mujahideens, we want death, we want paradise!”

Boubaker El Hakim, then 19, was the first member of a little known jihadist outfit from northeastern Paris to travel to the Middle East. Like others from the so-called “Buttes-Chaumont cell”, named after the sprawling park in the 19th arrondissement of Paris where members went jogging as part of their training, El Hakim would go a long way on the jihadist trail after a stint in jail — dispatching French fighters to Iraq, taking part in the murder of prominent Tunisian politicians, and later becoming one of the highest-ranking Frenchmen in the Islamic State (IS) group, until his death in a US drone strike on Raqqa in 2016.

Though the Buttes-Chaumont cell was dismantled by French investigators in 2005, its legacy would come back to haunt France a decade later when two of its members, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, stormed into Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices, killing 12 people, including some of France’s most prominent cartoonists.

The assault ushered three days of bloodshed that ended when Amedy Coulibaly, a friend of the Kouachi brothers, was gunned down in a shootout with police after he killed four people and took dozens hostage at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris.

‘I encouraged [them] on the path of jihad’

The wayward path of delinquency and radicalisation that led these youngsters from northeastern Paris to carry out some of the worst terrorist attacks in French history was the subject of Saturday’s hearing at the trial of 14 alleged accomplices of the January 2015 attacks, a landmark trial that is expected to last until November 10.

The hearing focused on testimony from the repentant ringleader of the cell, Farid Benyettou, a janitor turned self-taught preacher who lectured at the notorious Addawa mosque in the 19th arrondissement — and later at his home when the mosque chased him out for being too radical.

A drop-out from France’s secular school system, Benyettou was in his early twenties when he befriended veterans of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), which waged a bloody civil war in Algeria in the 1990s. He shared their hatred of the West and became enthralled with al Qaeda’s struggle after the 9/11 attacks.

Farid Benyettou pictured in 2004 next to a sign reading "I do what I like with my hair", during a protest against a law banning hijabs and other religious signs from French schools.
Farid Benyettou pictured in 2004 next to a sign reading "I do what I like with my hair", during a protest against a law banning hijabs and other religious signs from French schools. © Jack Guez, AFP

But the lean and placid Benyettou was no man to wage jihad in person. His job was to recruit hot-headed youths like El Hakim and channel them towards the war in Iraq. Benyettou was a spiritual guide to the likes of Chérif, the youngest and most radicalised of the Kouachi brothers, even as the fiery El Hakim became their role model.

“I have never concealed my share of responsibility regarding the Kouachi brothers,” Benyettou told the Paris court on Saturday, after opening his testimony with words of condolence and contrition.

“I would like to address my first words to the victims, to tell them I am sorry,” he said in a calm and soft voice. “I encouraged Chérif Kouachi to follow the path of jihad. I was the one who approved of his plan to travel to Iraq. I was his religious guide. I’m obviously tied to his [jihadist career], even though I did not take part in what he later did.” 

A new mentor

Chérif Kouachi never made it to Iraq. He and others in the Buttes-Chaumont cell, including Benyettou, were arrested in 2005 and later sentenced to jail. While imprisonment hardened Kouachi’s beliefs, and those of many other French jihadists, Benyettou claims his “deradicalisation” began behind bars and continued following his release in 2009.

“The Mohamed Merah case was the turning point,” Benyettou told the court, referring to the March 2012 attacks on French soldiers and a Jewish school in the Toulouse area in which seven people were killed, including three children. “After that, I wanted to end [jihadist] links. I was done with all this.”

Still, Benyettou maintained contact with former cell members for several years. He continued to exchange with Chérif Kouachi right up until November 2014, just two months before the Charlie Hebdo shootings.  

“It was difficult to stop seeing Chérif because he would come straight to my door,” Benyettou explained, adding that the younger Kouachi was a changed man after his time in jail. “He had hardened, even other jihadists felt he went too far. In his mind, only violence could resolve things. We were no longer in agreement.”

Benyettou said Chérif Kouachi had found a new mentor in veteran jihadist Djamel Beghal, a former GIA member he befriended at the Fleury-Mérogis prison outside Paris. That’s where Chérif Kouachi also met Coulibaly, the future kosher store gunman, who had been in and out of jail for trafficking and robbery since the age of 17. 

Following their release, the trio met in remote Cantal, where Beghal served the remainder of his term under house arrest. But Coulibaly and Beghal were soon back in jail for their role in a botched plot to free veteran GIA member Smaïn Ali Belkacem, who was serving a life sentence for a 1995 subway bombing in Paris — while Chérif Kouachi was cleared of charges.

“Chérif frequented the person who told him what he wanted to hear,” Benyettou told the court, referring to Beghal, whose impeccable jihadist credentials included stints in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “He [Kouachi] read his own books, downloaded his own videos. He no longer needed me.”

‘I am Charlie’

Immediately after the January 2015 attacks, Benyettou, who was then studying to become a nurse, contacted the French intelligence services of his own initiative, offering to help in the investigation. 

He went on to work with Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist who created an association to help prevent Islamist radicalisation and, in 2017, published a book titled, "My jihad: the journey of a reformed character”.

In subsequent media appearances, Benyettou expressed remorse for having “preached hatred”, though also emphasising that he had already “paid [his] debt to society” in prison. Critics questioned whether his repentance was genuine and accused him of opportunism. He sparked outrage in 2017 when he appeared on French TV sporting a “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) badge.

On Saturday the former “emir” of the Buttes-Chaumont cell stuck to the same line at his court hearing, claiming he had sought to temper Chérif Kouachi’s radical beliefs.

“Jihad was to be waged abroad. In my view, France was not a land of jihad,” said the former preacher, who at one point recalled dissuading Chérif Kouachi from stoning a kosher store in Paris, back in 2004.

Benyettou remained evasive when grilled by lawyers, who marvelled at his claims that he — the former mentor — was unaware of Chérif Kouachi’s 2011 trip to Yemen, where he is believed to have met senior al Qaeda officials, including another legacy of the Buttes-Chaumont cell, French jihadist Peter Chérif. 

Later, Benyettou duly obliged when asked to repeat his recent statements in support of Charlie Hebdo and its right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

“Do you understand people’s reluctance to believe you?” asked lawyer Marie Dosé, representing one of the trial’s 14 defendants. “The ideology [behind the terror attacks], that was your doing. There is no such ideology in the box,” she added, pointing at the defendants seated behind plexiglass barriers, all of whom say they were unaware of plans to attack Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket.

To which Benyettou responded: “I never benefited from any impunity. I have been sentenced already, I have a criminal record.”

There was a measure of frustration in court as the witness walked out after his lengthy testimony, a sense that Benyettou had been let off the hook. The frustration boiled over a few minutes later when he was mobbed by journalists outside the courtroom, prompting one lawyer for the civil plaintiffs to chase them away.

“Stop giving him attention, stop treating him like a star,” the lawyer shouted at reporters, echoing past complaints over media coverage of the former jihadist preacher's highly publicised repentance.

Moments earlier, Benyettou had broken into tears before the cameras, lamenting a “refusal, by many people, to accept the possibility that one can be liberated from jihadist ideology."

 

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