• France's news in English

Pot-smoking Frenchman is Isis 'executioner'

AFP · 1 Oct 2014, 14:12

Published: 01 Oct 2014 14:12 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

As a teen, Salim Benghalem smoked weed and went out clubbing. Now, the Frenchman is an Islamic State jihadist wanted by Washington which accuses him of carrying out execution-style killings for the extremist group.

The US State Department last week singled him out as one of 10 wanted "foreign terrorist fighters", describing him as "a Syria-based French extremist and ISIL member" - using an alternative name for IS - as well as an executioner.

But this description has left friends and relatives of the 34-year-old, who grew up in Cachan near Paris, baffled.

On condition of anonymity, they acknowledge he is a Muslim who travelled to Syria to pursue "an ideal of justice", but "definitely not an executioner."

Described as a happy, "slightly puny" man, Benghalem is the fourth of seven children. He got on with his family but suddenly, unexpectedly left his hometown in 2012, leaving behind a wife and two young kids.

He waited four days before contacting his relatives, telling them he was in Syria and had joined the Islamic State group, which controls large parts of the war-torn country as well as swathes of Iraq.

He gives regular news via Skype or Viber, calling every 10 to 15 days from Internet cafes near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. His relatives say they sometimes see armed fighters in the background.

"He didn't belong in France. He found himself over there," a person close to him said, wishing to remain anonymous, adding that his task in Syria is to hand out fines on behalf of IS "for illegal possession of cigarettes, or things like that."

"But he is not an executioner," he insisted.

Benghalem last contacted his family in August, from Aleppo, as bombings raged. He had grown a small beard.

'A non-practicing Muslim'

This is not the first time he has left France. In 2001, he fled to Algeria where his family originates from after being accused of murder and attempted murder as part of a fight between rival gangs.

He remained in contact with his family for a year, finally returning in 2002, when he was detained.

After five years in custody, he was sentenced in 2007 to 11 years in jail, but was partially released from prison and then fully freed in 2010 thanks to his "good behaviour" and "repentance", said his then lawyer Leon Lef Forster, who is "stunned" by what Benghalem has become.

"He was a non-practicing Muslim, he only observed Ramadan, without any religious excess," he told AFP.

"The person we're talking about now does not tally with the young man I knew."

One of his childhood friends, who also wished to remain anonymous, said Benghalem was "very funny, always teasing."

"He liked to crack jokes and was fun-loving," he said.

"And he wasn't particularly brave. When there was an altercation, he was not on the front line."

Benghalem never finished a vocational training qualification he had started, and went from one job to another: supermarket cashier, electrician, supervisor in a dining hall...

In his spare time, "he went out at night, with everything that entails: girls, some alcohol, but particularly weed," his friend said.

Story continues below…

"When I saw him again after his release from prison, I felt he had matured," he said, but stressed that nothing pointed to any form of radicalisation.

"I don't think anyone can explain what happened."

His name had appeared as part of a French probe that led to the dismantling in November 2013 of a jihadist network in the Val-de-Marne region where Cachan is located, according to a source close to the case.

But by then Benghalem was already in Syria.

The source said he is believed to have "actively participated in fighting" in the country and "is thought to have volunteered around a year ago for a suicide operation."

But another source, who also wished to remain anonymous, questioned the emphasis placed on Benghalem by Washington

"He is definitely a radicalised boy who could be dangerous and is known by authorities. But there are others like him."

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

UK border must move back, says 'next French president'
Photo: AFP

If favourite Alain Juppé is elected, Britain and France are in for some difficult negotiations.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available