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Notre-Dame bomb plot: sentencing of female terror cell expected this week

French trial reveals how four women were convinced to inflict more carnage on Paris

A court sketch made on September 23, 2019 shows, from left, Ines Madani, Ornella Gilligmann and Sarah Hervouet at their trial. AFP
A court sketch made on September 23, 2019 shows, from left, Ines Madani, Ornella Gilligmann and Sarah Hervouet at their trial. AFP

An unprecedented trial of six women accused after a failed car bombing close to Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris sheds new light on the recruitment, manipulation and deployment of females by terrorists.

The Paris court is also judging a major ISIS figure alleged to have inspired this and other attacks in France from Iraq or Syria.

But Rachid Kassim, a former youth worker and failed rapper from provincial France, is not in the dock.

He is believed to have been killed by a US strike in Mosul in 2017 but is being tried in his absence because his death remains unconfirmed.

As the case nears its end, prosecutors have asked the court to pass a life sentence on Kassim and terms of up to 30 years’ imprisonment for the women and another man tried with them.

The intended bombing of one of the Paris Left Bank’s oldest streets, Rue de la Bucherie, in September 2016 was described by one of the accused as an attempt to create a “great fireworks display” to avenge deaths in anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria.

Prosecutors say carnage was averted by “pure chance”. The main plotters, Ines Madani, now 22, and a mother-of-three, Ornella Gilligmann, 32, used the wrong fuel to ignite six gas cylinders loaded into a Peugeot 607 parked near busy restaurants.

Nine months earlier, ISIS had murdered 130 people in the Paris attacks of November 2015. The planned atrocity 300 metres from Notre-Dame – which was devastated by fire in April this year – came just seven weeks after 86 people were killed when a rented lorry was used to mow down seafront crowds in Nice following a Bastille Day fireworks display.

The use of women in terrorism is not new. There have been repeated attempts, often successful, to encourage females to carry out suicide bombings, marry fighters or recruit others for such groups as ISIS in Middle Eastern and African conflict zones.

But never in six decades of terrorist attacks on its soil has France seen such a level of female involvement as in the Notre-Dame plot.

Long sentences have been demanded by the prosecutors for four women: 30 years for Madani, 25 for Gilligmann, 20 each for Sarah Hervouet and Amel Sakaou.

A 10-year sentence was sought for a fifth woman, Samia Chalel, accused accused of helping Madani after the failed attack and of acting as an intermediary between her and Kassim, and a four-year suspended term for Selima Aboudi. Aboudi, 38, seen as the least culpable of the accused, was tried for non-denunciation of a planned act of terrorism as was the only man in the dock, Mohamed Aberouz, for whom a five-year term was sought. One prosecutor said: “Jihad is his life.”

The court can impose longer or shorter sentences when delivering its judgment, expected on Monday night.

Kassim, who was in constant online contact with some of the women, left his home town of Roanne, 90 kilometres north-west of the eastern city of Lyon, with his wife and child in 2015.

He was active with ISIS in Syria and Iraq before being reportedly killed in one of two targeted US attacks, in February or July 2017.

Kassim, aged about 30 at that time, appeared in an ISIS propaganda video acclaiming the Nice massacre. He was also filmed beheading a hostage.

He is suspected of directing from afar the murder of an elderly Catholic priest as he celebrated mass in a church in Normandy, western France, in July 2016 and the double killing of a police officer and his partner at Magnanville, 55km west of Paris, six weeks earlier.

Hervouet, 26, a convert to Islam, says he urged her to assassinate the far-right mayor of her home town of Cogolin, neat Saint-Tropez.

She made a reconnaissance of the town hall. “I wanted to kidnap the mayor using a fake pistol and then get myself shot dead by police, dying as a martyr,” she told the Paris judges. “But I didn’t feel well, went home and was sick.”

Hervouet also claims that in their earliest contacts, she made it clear to Kassim – whose solitary rap album included a song entitled I Am a Terrorist with the line “I plead guilty to decapitation” – that “slitting throats and cutting off heads is not my thing”.

Undeterred by her failure to attack the mayor, Kassim set up a meeting where Hervouet would encounter – for the first time – some of the women who stood trial with her.

After the car parked near Notre-Dame failed to explode, the women were arrested at the flat where they were staying at Boussy-Saint-Antoine outside Paris. As they attempted to escape, Hervouet confronted a police officer outside and stabbed and wounded him in the shoulder.

In court, she claimed to be repentant. It was revealed that she had become engaged online to Larossi Abballa, the Magnanville double murderer, then Adel Kermiche, one of two men who killed the priest at the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, and then Aberouz, the man on trial for non-denunciation. The first two were killed by police responding to their attacks.

While in custody, she has married another man who was jailed for terrorism but claims to be deradicalised.

The trial has heard of the troubled backgrounds of the women and a range of problems from eating disorders and family rejection to sexual abuse.

The proceedings have also highlighted a disturbing social gulf.

Most French citizens, Muslims among them, reject terrorism. A minority, including some of the accused – and Mickael Harpon, a police IT worker who stabbed to death four colleagues at the Paris police headquarters on October 3 – have expressed support for such acts as the murder of 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015. One expert called as a witness said the women were united in their “rejection of France”.

Hervouet, the daughter of a non-practising Catholic and a Muslim father who eventually cut all ties with the family, told the court conversion to Islam initially did her good. “I needed to find myself,” she said. After stabbing the policeman, she fell to the ground in tears, crying: “I’ve wrecked my life.”

Of the other accused, Madani, has already been jailed for eight years for inciting men and women to fight with ISIS in Syria or commit terrorist attacks in France.

Gilligmann claimed she was lured into the plot by Madani, who purported in multiple text messages to be a male ISIS fighter intent on marrying her.

Sakaou, 42, has refused to leave her cell to attend court. While in custody she has been sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment for threatening prison officers.

Chalel, 26, presented herself as a naive woman drawn unwittingly into the group and says videos, messages and contacts suggesting approval of ISIS were merely to help her understand the group and its methods.

The trial is seen as the first in Europe involving an all-female terrorist “commando”. Rachid Kassim appears to have specialised in encouraging gullible teenagers and young women to embrace terrorism.

His disciples in Paris faithfully followed his instructions on how to inflict more bloodshed so soon after the murderous attacks of 2015. Only their own incompetence prevented significant loss of life.

Any successful explosion causing casualties would have suited Kassim. He once told a researcher from the George Washington university in the US capital: “A small attack in a non-Muslim part of the world is worth far more to us than a huge attack in Syria.”

Updated: October 12, 2019 04:24 PM

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