Alleged jihadists surrender in France after Turkey trip

Alleged jihadists surrender in France after Turkey trip

Arzu Çakır Morin PARIS
Alleged jihadists surrender in France after Turkey trip

French police walk outside the police station in Lodeve as three alleged Islamic jihadist militants are readied to be escorted to the city of Montpellier on Sept. 24. AFP Photo

Three men suspected of joining Islamist militants in Syria handed themselves in to French authorities after a day of high confusion that exposed security shortcomings in France, including poor collaboration with NATO ally Turkey.

Abdelvahed Baghdadi, 29, Imad Djebali, 27, and Gael Maurize, 24, were all detained in Turkey last month.

According to the French media, Baghdadi is the brother-in-law of Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old who was shot dead in March 2012 following a series of killings in southern France. Djebali is reportedly Merah’s childhood friend, while Maurize is merely described as a Muslim convert.

French officials wrongly claimed on Sept. 23 that the three French nationals were arrested in France and charged with being linked to a terrorist organization. The lawyer for Gael Maurize then announced that the suspects had actually handed themselves in at a village police station after driving some 170 km (105 miles) northwest of Marseille airport where they had landed. Authorities had been waiting for them in Paris, letting them freely travel in France for some 24 hours.

The incident underlined the lack of an efficient mechanism between French and Turkish authorities in anti-terrorism cooperation.

In line with the rules of extradition for persons with a travel ban, Turkish authorities put the three men on a plane bound for Marseille on Sept. 23 after the pilot of an earlier flight to Paris had refused to let them board because they lacked necessary documents. Ankara stresses that the French authorities were notified about the extradition procedure electronically through the passport control system.

In a twist of fate, electronic system of the French police in Marseilles airport was out of order on Sept. 23, which allowed the three suspects to pass without checks. They could be still at large somewhere in France if they had not given themselves in to the gendarmerie.

Christian Etelin, a lawyer advising Baghdadi’s wife, told Reuters on Sept. 23 the men had originally gone to Syria “to live in a religious society.” However, they had escaped the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to hand themselves over to Turkish officials because they had been terrified by the “fanaticism” there, Etelin added.

Diplomats and officials in Turkey say intelligence is not being sufficiently utilised to prevent foreign nationals travelling to join militants in Syria and Iraq.
Security experts said French police officers based in Turkey should have been coordinating the handover of the men.

“It’s impossible to understand how we could have missed three jihadis when there is a major terrorism threat,” said Eric Denece, Director of French Center for Research on Intelligence.

Both Turkey and France are NATO members.

French politicians from the far-right National Front to the Green Party decried what they called the government’s incompetence.

“The non-arrest of the three suspected jihadis from Turkey illustrates the extraordinary amateurism of the government,” the National Front said in a statement.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said he had ordered an investigation of the case and said he would also travel shortly to Turkey to ensure the errors were not repeated.