Lunel: The tiny French town that became the symbol of jihad

Lunel, a town of 26,000 people outside the coastal Mediterranean city of Montpellier, became a symbol of the jihadist fervour sweeping parts of France. Five of its residents went on trial on Thursday.

Lunel: The tiny French town that became the symbol of jihad
Photo: AFP

Five men from a small French town that supplied around 20 jihadists to the war in Syria, most of whom never returned, went on trial Thursday accused of a terrorist conspiracy.

Lunel, a town of 26,000 people outside the coastal Mediterranean city of Montpellier, became a symbol of the jihadist fervour sweeping parts of France when a group of friends slipped out of the country to Syria in 2013 and 2014.

At least eight members of the group are believed to have been killed in Syria, with another seven missing in the war-torn country.

The outsize number of recruits from the town in the Camargues region, a mostly rural area where unemployment runs high, had one boasting in a wire-tapped conversation in 2014 that “Lunel is the French town that is best represented in the ranks of Islamic State”.

Some media reports compared what they dubbed “jihad town” to the Brussels' suburb of Molenbeek, home of several of the gunmen and suicide bombers behind the November 2015 Paris attacks and the March 2016 attacks on Belgium's transport system.

Most of the jihadists, some of them converts to Islam, were childhood friends who attended the same backroom mosques, watched propaganda videos and hung out at the same fast-food joint.

On arriving in Syria, they joined a group linked to the Qaeda-backed Nusra Front before joining the Islamic State when it seized part of Syria in 2014.

Only five suspected members of the group remain in France, where they are being tried with involvement in a terrorist conspiracy

Opening the proceedings in Paris on Thursday, the presiding judge said the court “cannot necessarily claim to understand what happened.”

“The idea is to understand if there was fertile ground” for the jihadist outflow,” she added.

'Talking of nothing else'

Adil Barki, 39, and Ali Abdoumi, 47, are accused of having travelled to Syria for jihad and then returned home.

Barki said he stayed only a few weeks, during which he was given only menial tasks by his recruiters because he was prone to panic attacks.

Abdoumi denies the charges.

Three others, Hamza Mosli, and two others identified only as Jawad S. and Saad B. are accused of playing the role of facilitators.

Mosli, two of whose brothers were killed in Syria and who was recorded boasting about Lunel's importance to IS, is accused of having acted as go-between for would-be jihadists and their contacts in Syria.

At the time Lunel was gripped by a sort of one-upmanship between would-be jihadists “talking of nothing else”, Jawad S., who is accused of having
incited others to travel to Syria, told investigators.

Saad B., whose brother Abdelkarim died in Syria, is accused of having driven his sister-in-law to the airport when she travelled to the war zone,
and of giving her money towards her trip.

Both he and Mosli are charged with financing terrorism.

The case is set to run until April 11.


French families sue government over children of jihadists stuck in Syria

The families of several children and wives of French jihadist fighters in Syria have filed lawsuits against France's top diplomat over his refusal to let them come to France.

French families sue government over children of jihadists stuck in Syria
Two detained French women who fled the Islamic State group's last pocket in Syria sit with their children . AFP

The suits, filed in July and September, accuse Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of “failing to provide aid” to people in “danger” at camps operated by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria.

The complaints were filed with the Court of Justice of the Republic (CJR), which hears cases over alleged misconduct by former or serving ministers.

It is the latest legal challenge to France's longstanding opposition to allowing the children and wives of suspected jihadists in Syria or Iraq to return home.

The government, which says it considers requests on a case-by-case basis only, has brought back just 17 children since March, many of them orphans.

Critics say the policy exposes innocent victims of the war, many of whom have suffered serious trauma during the fighting and coalition bombardments, to long-term psychological risks.

“The policy of 'case by case' keeps more than 200 children and their mothers exposed to inhumane and degrading treatment, and at risk of death,” the lawyers said

They note that Kurdish officials are also pressing European governments to repatriate citizens who went to fight for the Islamic State group in Syria, as well as their family members.

“It's a political choice not to save these children and mothers being held arbitrarily,” one of the lawyers, Marie Dose, told AFP.

Asked about the lawsuit, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said in a statement that France remained “fully mobilised so that each situation is handled with the children's interests in mind.”

“Our priority is to ensure the return of the most vulnerable orphan or isolated children,” she added.

A similar lawsuit was filed against France last May at the European Court of Human Rights, by the grandparents of two children stranded with their French jihadist mother in Syria.

The boy and girl, who were born in Syria, are among an estimated 500 children of French citizens who joined the Islamic State's so-called “caliphate” before the jihadists' last Syrian redoubt was overrun in March.