France has experienced a series of vicious attacks in 2015 provoked by the apocalyptic views of radical Islamist terror groups. The world knows of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the recent Friday the 13th attacks in Paris. The world knows very little of Sid Ahmed Ghlam (aka Djillali), who by and large has had only a smattering of press coverage outside of France. Yet his story is very much connected to the others and shows how much of jihadist activity has nothing to do with “lone wolves” but is part of a continuum of teaching and influence that spans generations—a bitter root that defiles many.
Murder in Villejuif
Sunday morning April 19, emergency services received a call from a young man who claimed he had been attacked and shot in the leg. The young man was Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a computer science student from Algeria at the University of Reims. Suspicious of his story, emergency services in turn alerted the police that they were treating a young man with a bullet wound. When they showed up to investigate, the trail of blood led back to a car with loaded weapons, a bullet-proof vest, and plans to attack at least one church in Villejuif outside Paris. At his apartment, police discovered more weapons and jihadist propaganda from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other groups.
The same morning police were also alerted to a burning car billowing smoke in in Villejuif. Inside they found the body of a young woman, Aurélie Châtelain, shot three times. Châtelain was from the north of France and had been in the area solely for a week-long training event. The seemingly unrelated events were quickly connected by DNA and video surveillance evidence. It is surmised that the encounter was a botched car-jacking, which Châtelain resisted and in the ensuing melee was shot three times while Ghlam accidentally shot himself.
Le Monde, quoting an anonymous police official, quickly reported that Ghlam had a “director” from abroad who told him to specifically to target a church and gave him the location of a car parked in a Paris suburb with weapons in its trunk. Le Monde first named Fabien Clain in reports on August 3rd as the probable “director.”, but this fact does not make it into the English-language press until after the Friday the 13th attacks when reports begin naming Clain as the voice of the Islamic State taking credit for those attacks.
Strongly supporting this identification is the fact that the director who gave him the location of the parked car with the weapons also told him in another message to pick up a BMW 318 from “Vega” and “Thomas.” French news reports predominantly name “Vega” as Macreme A. and “Thomas” as Thomas M. In a few cases, a paper actually gave full names for the two: Macreme Abrougui and and Thomas Mayet (aka “Rouge”). Abrougui is listed on the internet as the owner of a couple auto-related businesses: Auto Services Plus and Taurus Accessoire. Many of these same reports link Abrougui and Mayet, both fiche “S” subjects, as two of Clain’s recruits who spent time in Syria in early 2015. It is unclear from news reports if they have returned.
There are a number of other subjects and troubling associates with Ghlam, which while not necessarily taking part in this plot contribute to an atmosphere supportive of such activity. DNA taken from a hairbrush in Ghlam’s apartment links him to Pascal K., the brother of Franck K. Franck K. is a French army deserter who allegedly was spiritually mentored by Farid Benyettou, the man who has been accused of radicalizing Charlie Hebdo attacker Cherif Kouachi.
Authorities discovered that his workplace at a small, unnamed crêperie in Yvelines had so many fiche “S” subjects working for it that investigators began referring to it as “La crêperie conspirative.” Directly related to the plot was one of the store’s “regulars”, Rabah B. (aka “El Kabyle”). Rabah had been known by French authorities for years due to his involvement in 2005 with the Ouassini Cherifi group, a gang of “Islamic robbers” who intended to fund the jihad in Iraq through their activities. The gang was centered on telephony and internet shops, one of which was a cybercafé in Aubervilliers in which Rabah had invested €20,000. Members of the group were arrested and ultimately convicted in 2011, but Rabah managed to escape prosecution. Rabah was allegedly responsible for obtaining the weapons that were to be stored in the Renault Mégane that Ghlam’s “director” had told him would be by the sandwich shop L’Atmosphère in Aulnay-sous-Bois. Rabah tried to procure these things from a worker at the crêperie, Abdelkader J. (since named as Abdelkader Jalal). Jalal’s DNA was discovered in the Mégane, but he claims to have brought only the bulletproof vests to the car. Farid B., another employee at the crêperie and associate of Rabah was also involved.
As if all this were not surprising enough, the unnamed boss revealed to reporters that he himself had served three years in prison beginning in 2008 for his membership in Ansar al-Fath, a group with the aim of funneling fighters to Iraq who would then use their experience after coming home to form terrorist cells in France. It was formed and led by Safé Bourada, who had already served 5 years for his involvement in recruiting members of the network responsible for the 1995 Paris metro bombings. Reviewing news reports of the court case shows that the unnamed boss must be one of two men, either Stephane Hadoux (aka Abderrahmane de Montargis) or Emmanuel Nieto. Hadoux, a Catholic convert from his time in prison, allowed his farmhouse in Loiret to be used as a site to experiment with explosives. He is an ex-boyfriend of the sister of Amedy Coulibaly’s wife, Hayat Boumedienne, and is said to have married the sister of one of the leaders of the 1995 Paris attacks, sentenced to life imprisonment. The unnamed boss went on to claim that another of his employees had spent two years in Guantanamo and was released in 2004.
Early on, French news reports revealed the existence of a girlfriend as well, referred to as Emilie L., quickly revealed in the media as Emilie Lechat-Boizumeau. Lechat-Boizumeau, a convert to Islam with two children from a previous marriage, was very conservative in practice wearing a burqa in public. Her potential involvement still has an air of mystery surrounding it, and although she vehemently denies any knowledge of the plot, a search of her home revealed encryption keys and coded communications between the two. Ghlam had a second phone dedicated to communicating only with her. One of the phones had her in the directory under the name “Jennifer.” Communicating with his Syrian director, Ghlam tells him that he will take refuge with “Jennifer” after mission.
Yet as troubling as all these associations are, it is the fact that Ghlam was able to travel not once but twice to Turkey and possibly Syria in the space of a few months after being reported on by one of his own relatives that may be even more concerning. Due to this report, Ghlam became a fiche “S” subject sometime in early 2014, although of a lower grade. He was brought in for an administrative interview with authorities on 3 October, but was allowed to depart the country for Algeria just twelve days later. This did not arouse any suspicions as he still had family there and had made prior trips to visit them. He arrived in Algiers on 15 October where he met a man known as Abu al-Mouthana, and by 29 October had traveled with him to Istanbul. His whereabouts for the next month are unclear, but al-Mouthana ultimately payed for his return trip to France and told him to stay in contact online. Al-Mouthana subsequently reached out and asked Ghlam to return to Istanbul in February. Ghlam arrived there on 3 February 2015 and stayed for ten days. He traveled by bus to Gaziantep and met in safehouse with al-Mouthana and five others. It’s possible that Ghlam met with Abrougui and Mayet who were in Syria sometime in February. None of this activity appeared to trigger any reaction by authorities.
Roots Reaching to Paris
Ghlam’s “director, Fabien Clain aka “Brother Omar”, encapsulates the continuity and interconnectedness of French-speaking jihadism. Clain grew up in a Christian family in Alençon in southern Normandy, but converted to Islam in the late ‘90s bringing with him his younger brother, Jean-Michel, Jean-Michel’s wife Dorothy, his half-sister Amélie, and his best friend, Mohammed. This fact alone reveals his talent for converting, a talent for which he became known. By the early 2000s he had radicalized and with his brother created the group of adherents, known as the “clan des Belphégor,” in the housing estates of the southern city of Toulouse. The brothers moved around in 2003 and 2004, spending time in Utrecht, Holland, passing out Islamic literature, in Belgium, and then in Cairo, supposedly studying the Koran until expelled by Egyptian security in 2006. Upon their return to France they seemed to have fallen in with another group centered on the Syrian-born Frenchman, Olivier Corel—aka the “White Emir,” in the Pyrenees village of Artigat.
Members of this Artigat Cell would ultimately be arrested and some sentenced in 2009 for recruiting jihadists to fight in Iraq. One of those interdicted fighters was Sabri Essid, half-brother of the “scooter” jihadist, Mohammed Merah. Clain was sentenced to five years in jail as an organizer of the group but was released early in 2012. Clain’s presence was banned in many localities, so he ended up returning to his home in Alençon and resuming what appeared to be a normal life for the next two years. He is thought to have moved with his family and brother’s family to Syria sometime in early 2015. Clain’s mother-in-law claimed to have seen her daughter in Alençon in February, and told reporters that her daughter’s passport had been seized. Yet they were all able to avoid scrutiny and make their way out of Europe to Syria.
Over the course of those years in various groups, in prison, and now in Syria, Clain was able to play a role in the radicalization, training, and operationalization of a number of jihadis like the Merah brothers, their half-brother Essid and the would-be train attacker Ayoub Khazzani. He is furthermore usually only one-step way from association with the full spectrum of radical groups coming out of France and Belgium. He is now identified as the “voice” of the Islamic State taking credit for the Paris attacks while his brother sings in the background.
So while on the surface a young man like Sid Ahmed Ghlam doesn’t seem to fit the profile of a jihadist, “you are the company you keep.” Ghlam kept company with bad men, who kept company with more bad men, a network that spanned modern French jihadism from the ‘90s on. The fact that the same names keep reappearing shows how badly the French and Belgians have underestimated the problem with which they are dealing and the ineffectiveness of legal and security measures taken against it. As the August 3, 2015 issue of Le Monde put it, “The old networks of the 2000s planted their seeds. Sid Ahmed Ghlam was their latest sapling.” (“Les anciens réseaux des années 2000 ont planté leurs graines. Sid Ahmed Ghlam était leur dernière jeune pousse.”)