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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

France arrests cleric accused of sending fighters to Syria 

Bassam Ayachi's was charged with being part of a terrorist and criminal organisation 

Belgian special forces climb an apartment block in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek during a raid on November 16, 2015, in search suspects linked to the deadly attacks in Paris. Bassam Ayachi was imam at the suburb's Belgium Islamic Center.
Belgian special forces climb an apartment block in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek during a raid on November 16, 2015, in search suspects linked to the deadly attacks in Paris. Bassam Ayachi was imam at the suburb's Belgium Islamic Center.

A 71-year-old Islamist cleric who is believed to have helped funnel dozens of fighters to Syria and Afghanistan has been arrested in Northern France.

Bassam Ayachi, a French-Syrian citizen who moved to France in the 1960’s, had spent several years in his homeland before returning to Europe. French police arrested him last week in the latest twist in a long-running battle between the veteran figure and law enforcement.

He has been named "The Godfather of Belgian Jihad" for his time founding, Belgium Islamic Centre in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek – a heartland of extremism in western Europe. It rose to international prominence after it emerged that several of the jihadists involved in the Paris attacks of 2015 had been radicalised there. He served as the centre’s imam for two decades, during which time he is believed to have facilitated the travel of dozens of radicalised Belgian recruits to Syria and Afghanistan.

In 2013, he travelled to Syria alongside his son Abdelrahman Ayachi, who was killed in 2013 fighting with the Islamist group, Suquor Al Sham in Northern Syria’s Idlib province. In 2015, the older man, who had joined the same group, lost an arm in an airstrike.

He had been mentioned in some 40 cases in Belgium, but never charged or convicted. Following his arrest last week, French prosecutors charged him with conspiracy in a terrorist and criminal organisation for his time in Syria.

Mr Ayachi had previously been arrested in Italy in 2009 when he was caught with a young French-Muslim convert hiding illegal immigrants in a camper van. He was accused of involvement in a network facilitating international terrorism, though released three years later on appeal. It was shortly after this release he fled to Syria.

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One study described him as “Belgium’s main Al Qaeda recruiter”, and when he joined Suquor Al Sham, a number of young Belgians followed. Despite this, and his alleged connection to a number of Islamist plots in the west, his views were believed to have moderated by the time he travelled to Syria, evidenced in the fact that Suquor Al Sham spent significant time fighting against Isil.

As Thomas Pierret, a senior researcher at the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World in Aix-en-Provence says “For him and many others 2011 was a major turning point, we tend to forget that today.

“Some completely reconsidered their ideology, returned to something far more national, pragmatic, that seems to be the case with Ayachi”.

Earlier this year French officials estimated that around 690 nationals were still in Syria with varying jihadists groups, but Mr Ayachi’s case demonstrates a number of unique characteristics. The veteran cleric had joined neither ISIL or the Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham – previously known as the Al Nusra Front. The overwhelming majority of French and Belgian recruits who travelled to Syria and Iraq were affiliated to one of these two groups, instead the islamist militia he had joined, Suquor Al Sham had a distinctly nationalist ideology.

The other notable characteristic is Mr Ayachi’s membership of the Syrian diaspora. Though he was a naturalized French citizen through marriage, he was born and raised in Syria, which made for a significant distinction with the majority of those travelling to the battlefield, Mr Pierret argues.

“When we are speaking of Syrian diaspora, we are talking of an entirely different situation to these young Belgians of Moroccan or Tunisia descent.

“He is a Syrian. In a sense, he was going back home. The move was entirely different from the others. He reconnected with his old personnel networks in Syria, he was not going for something brand new. Usually foreign fighters are usually going for a new Utopia”.