Wary hope for French families awaiting returns from Syria

Jacques Le Brun, above, is hoping his son is among the 130 French nationals expected to return home soon. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2019

Wary hope for French families awaiting returns from Syria

  • More than 100 French nationals who joined Daesh may soon return to France
  • Reports estimate that around 300 French extremists died during the years fighting Daesh

Labastide-Rouairoux, FRANCE: After years of waiting for his son to come home from Syria, Jacques Le Brun is cautiously hoping that day may be nearing — along with the chance to meet three grandchildren who have never seen France.
“He’ll certainly go to prison, and he knows that. He probably even deserves it a little,” Le Brun says at the family home in Labastide-Rouairoux, a village tucked in a forested valley of southern France.
The important thing, he says, is that Quentin makes it home alive after taking his wife and infant daughter in 2014 to join the Daesh group in Syria — where he later appeared in a chilling Deash propaganda video burning his passport.
About six weeks ago Le Brun learned that his son, now 30, was stranded near the Euphrates river in the last pocket of Daesh-held territory, besieged by Kurdish forces and targeted by coalition airstrikes.
Then last month reporters from the magazine Paris Match found Quentin and his family as they were surrendering, raising the possibility they could be among the roughly 130 French nationals who may soon be repatriated to France from Kurd-controlled prison camps in northern Syria.
The government is weighing the move after President Donald Trump announced in December that he would withdraw US troops from the war-torn country.
That prompted fears of a security vacuum in the north of Syria, in particular if Kurdish forces abandoned their surveillance of the captured fighters to defend against a potential assault by Turkey, which considers the Kurds a terrorist threat.
For Quentin’s family, along with dozens of others across France, it’s a chance to be reunited after years of anxiety over his fate.
“Our life has changed,” said his sister, asking not to be identified by name. “Before we woke up each morning wondering if they were alive. It was hell.”
French government sources say 70 to 80 children are among the citizens being held by Kurdish forces, and around 15 women — half of whom are considered “dangerous.”
An additional 250 men, as well as accompanying wives and children, are thought to be elsewhere in Syria. An estimated 300 French extremists are thought to have been killed during the years-long coalition fight to eradicate Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
France had long insisted that captured French fighters must be tried locally, either in Syria or Iraq, a hard-line stance which nodded to fears that returned fighters could stage attacks on French soil upon their release from prison.
“We, their families, just want them to be able to return to France and be judged fairly, sentenced only for what each of them has done — and not have to pay for all the Daesh crimes,” said the mother of a 30-year-old woman now in Syria with her four children, aged 10 months to nine years old.
While calling their potential return “a glimmer in the night,” she worries they could be killed before any decision is made to bring them back.
“We’ve heard of at least four French women killed in the past few months, along with their husbands and 18 children in total” during the coalition bombings, the woman said.
Like several family members who spoke with AFP, she asked that her name be withheld, fearing harassment or ostracization in a country deeply scarred by the wave of deadly extremist attacks since the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres of 2015.
Despite reports that repatriations could begin in the coming days, Jacques Le Brun says he has had “no information, no official contact” from French authorities.
The 58-year-old retired truck driver says he is still trying to understand how his son, who later took the name Abou Osama Al-Faransi, became caught up in extremist ideology.
Quentin began attending a local mosque before falling in with the “Artigat” network, named for a village near the southwestern city of Toulouse.
The village was the home Olivier Corel, a Syrian-born Salafist imam suspected of mentoring several extremists including Mohamed Merah, who was shot dead by police after he murdered seven people, among them a rabbi and three Jewish children, in Toulouse in a 2012 killing spree.
Albert Chennouf-Meyer, father of one of Merah’s seven victims, has called on President Emmanuel Macron to keep the extremists out.
“Mr President, you will in the coming weeks (...) bring back 130 French extremists, some of whom have the blood of our children on their hands,” he said in an open letter seen by AFP on Saturday.
“I intend to use all my strength against this criminal decision,” he added.
Le Brun wants to believe his son wasn’t involved in any violence or killings, but the release of the Daesh propaganda video has been a heavy burden on his family.
Quentin’s mother finds it hard to hold down a job, and his youngest brother has been hounded by high school classmates.
Many in the village make no secret of their hostility to Quentin’s return.
“It’s not necessarily a good idea to bring back these extremists, they might start again,” said Laurent Montagon, a 53-year-old pizzeria owner in Labastide-Rouairoux.
“They’ll scare people if they come back here.”
Jacques Le Brun knows the suspicions will be hard to bear, but he is determined to recover his grandchildren and “get them away from all that.”

How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

Updated 45 min 7 sec ago

How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

  • He split from the National Thowheed Jamaath and formed his own faction, which experts say was the ‘main player’ in the attacks
  • Using social media, he spread pro-Daesh propaganda under the banner Al-Ghuraba Media

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Until last Sunday, the only thing Zahran Hashim was known for was being a member of a local Sri Lankan group accused of defacing Buddhist statues.

Now, the obscure radical preacher is believed to be Daesh’s point person in Sri Lanka and the “mastermind” of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.

A video released by Daesh on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked men pledging allegiance to the organization, and an eighth man, whose face is visible, leading them. That man is Hashim. Security officials in Sri Lanka claim to have “credible information” that he was planning another attack targeting Muslim shrines that followed the mystical stream of Sufi Islam.

Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. The Sri Lankan government first named a local militant group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), as the main suspect behind the attacks. It is one of the few Islamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus seen as the main contender for involvement with Daesh. Hashim is known to have been a member of the group until at least 2016 when security officials say he left and formed his own faction because the core group disapproved of his increasingly hard-line views.

Hashim was driven out of his hometown Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka by townspeople and moderate clerics because of his divisive teachings. Media reports say he received his early schooling in Kattankudy and then traveled to India to start a seven-year course on Islamic theology. He dropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly traveled frequently between India and Sri Lanka.

Shunned by his hometown and the NTJ, Hashim found a small, but loyal, band of supporters online. Over the past two years, he gained thousands of followers for his impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba Media and used to spread pro-Daesh propaganda.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher whose work focuses on Daesh, Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017, when he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop is images of the burning Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Last year, Hashim appeared on intelligence officials’ radar after several of his students defaced three Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka. The subsequent investigation led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

Experts say Daesh has been recruiting for years in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. On the ground, the group seems to have received help from Hashim after he created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Islamic State (Daesh) branch in Sri Lanka,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was the “main player” in the Easter attacks and that he worked with international support, given the sophistication of the bombings and the fact that foreigners were targeted.

“Most Sri Lankans have not heard about this (National Thowheed Jamath) group before,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”


As of Thursday, Daesh had not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine if it had directly provided training or financing to the bombers. There was no evidence to suggest the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fight for Daesh, he said..

“There were many people who understandably doubt that the attacks were a purely domestic operation,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum.

“The investigation surrounding intelligence failures and the bombings should be done with significant international assistance. The Sri Lankan government cannot be trusted with this type of thing on its own,” he said.




April 11 

Sri Lanka’s police chief issues an intelligence alert, warning that suicide bombers from a group called National Thowheed Jamath plan to hit “prominent churches.”

April 21

8.45 a.m. Four bombs explode on Easter Sunday at the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels, and
St. Anthony’s church in Colombo; and St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, north of the capital.

8.50 a.m. Explosion at Colombo’s Cinnamon Grand Hotel.

9.05 a.m. Blast hits the Zion Roman Catholic church in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s
east coast.

1.45 p.m. Explosion at the New Tropical Inn, Dehiwala.

2.15 p.m. Three police officers are killed in an explosion while raiding a house in Colombo.

8 p.m. Curfew begins in the capital; police say they have made their first arrests.

April 22

4 a.m. Evening curfew is lifted amid tight security. Police find 87 detonators at Colombo’s main bus stand.

8 p.m. Another night curfew begins.

April 23

Midnight State of emergency comes into effect.

Daesh releases a video that shows eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under the terror group’s flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The man with his face uncovered is identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a preacher known for his militant views.

April 24

Bomb squads carry out controlled explosions of suspicious packages; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is “every indication” the bomb attacks were inspired by Daesh.

April 25

Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspend all public services over security fears.