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.