x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Attack on Jewish museum highlights threat of Syria militants

Fears of such activity have driven western policy during the civil war, a clear distinction being drawn between moderate opposition forces and groups linked to Al Qaeda.

A picture released on June 1, 2014 shows the 29-year-old  suspected gunman Mehdi Nemmouche. AFP
A picture released on June 1, 2014 shows the 29-year-old suspected gunman Mehdi Nemmouche. AFP

Marseille, France // A French man believed by intelligence services to have fought with Islamists in Syria has been detained on suspicion of being the gunman who opened fire at a Jewish museum in Belgium nine days ago, killing four people.

If prosecutors establish that Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, was the Brussels killer, it would be the first known case of a self-styled jihadist from the Syrian conflict carrying out an atrocity on European soil.

Fears of such activity have driven western policy during the civil war, a clear distinction being drawn between moderate opposition forces and groups linked to Al Qaeda.

Mr Nemmouche was held on Friday on suspicion of murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise, according to a judicial source quoted by the Agence France-Press news agency. He can be kept in custody under French law until Tuesday before having to be placed under formal investigation or released, or until Thursday if investigators invoke an imminent terrorist threat.

The Paris public prosecutor, Francois Molins, said items found among Mr Nemmouche’s belongings included a recording on a memory stick in which his image does not appear but a voice resembling his admits responsibility for the Brussels killings.

Mr Molins said the suspect had spent more than a year training in Syria and was carrying insignia in Arabic from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Islamist group active in Syria as well as Iraq.

The French president, François Hollande, congratulated French customs and police officers on the arrest of Mr Nemmouche, a French citizen with family roots in the North African Maghreb.

On a visit to Normandy for the first of a series of commemorations of this week’s 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings leading to the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, the president said: “We have the will to follow these jihadists and stop them causing harm on return from a conflict that is not theirs or ours.”

He added, “we will fight them”, and repeated the phrase twice for emphasis.

Mr Nemmouche was arrested in the southern port of Marseille, France’s second city with a large immigrant population having origins in former French colonies of the Maghreb.

He had travelled by coach on a service that started from Amsterdam but had a scheduled stop in Brussels. Some reports suggested his arrest was no more than a fortunate consequence of the French authorities’ regular checks on passengers for possible trafficking of drugs or contraband.

According to a coach station employee interviewed on French television, Mr Nemmouche offered no resistance as he was handcuffed and led away.

He was allegedly found in possession of a Kalashnikov rifle of the type used in the Belgian attack, a revolver, ammunition and a miniature GoPro video camera. His luggage also contained a baseball cap similar to the one the killer was shown wearing in security videotape footage released by Belgian police.

The discovery of the portable video camera among his belongings prompted speculation that if he did carry out the museum killings, he may have intended to film himself doing so.

This would have been a copycat act imitating Mohamed Merah, the young French-Algerian shot dead by police after committing a series of murders, including of three Jewish children at their school, in 2012. But the memory stick recording seized from Mr Nemmouche was said to explain that the camera did not function during the Brussels shooting. Merah was also reported to have used such a device to film his attacks.

Merah claimed when contacting the France 24 television network before his own death that he was part of a French group linked to Al Qaeda and that his killings were the first of many planned attacks.

His sister, Souad, who has declared herself proud of her brother’s actions, was reported last month to have left France with her four children and travelled via Spain to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, about 100 kilometres north of Aleppo, a key location of the Syrian civil war.

Her mother and lawyer said she was on holiday in Tunisia, but the French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve claimed “strong” indications that she had joined her partner, already in Syria.

Also like Merah and many other men recruited by Islamists, Mr Nemmouche has a criminal past, therefore taking what is regarded in France as a “classic” route to extremist involvement.

He served a jail sentence after a conviction concerning an armed robbery at a jeweller’s shop in his home city of Roubaix, close to the Belgian border in northern France. Yesterday, a search was under way at the home of a close relative.

Subsequently, according to official sources quoted by Agence France-Presse, his movements were closely monitored by the DGSI, France’s interior security service. Agents believe he joined Islamists fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad, but also violently hostile to the West, last year.

An Israeli couple on holiday in Europe and a French voluntary worker at the Jewish museum were killed at the scene of the Brussels attack. A Belgian museum employee died later is hospital.

Belgian footage showed the suspect entering the museum carrying two black bags. From one of these, he pulled out a Kalashnikov automatic rifle and opened fire.

Belgian authorities have not officially characterised the murders as linked to anti-Semitism, though Mr Hollande said the “anti-Semitic character” of the shootings was not in doubt.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae