PARIS (Reuters) - The trial began in Paris on Tuesday of seven suspected Islamists, including an alleged Islamic State ‘executioner’ in Syria — the first such case to go to court since the group killed 130 people in the French capital last month.
Six of the men were in court for the opening of their trial on terrorism charges, accused of being part of a network that recruited people to travel to join Islamic State in Syria in 2013.
The seventh man, 35-year-old Salim Benghalem, is wanted on an international arrest warrant issued in May 2014. He is suspected of being one of Islamic State’s executioners and leading a group of French-speaking jihadis in the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
“He is the great manipulator of all the French recruits of Daesh,” said Roland Jacquard, a Paris-based expert on Islamic militancy, using an Arabic name for the group.
According to Jacquard, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, was probably under orders from Benghalem.
The U.S. Department of State in September 2014 placed Benghalem, who first joined al Qaeda’s Syrian unit the Nusra Front in 2013, on its foreign fighters list and depicted him as a “Syria-based French extremist and ISIL (Islamic State) member who carries out executions on behalf of the group.”
A judicial source said Benghalem had already been sentenced five times between 2001 and 2010, including for attempted murder. He was known to security services for links to a radical Islamist cell in northeast Paris.
Cherif Kouachi, one of the perpetrators of the attack against the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris last January, had also been close to that cell.
Benghalem’s wife told investigators last year that her husband had traveled to Yemen in 2011, where he learned how to use weapons, and had been ordered to launch attacks in France against American interests, according to the judicial source.
The wife also told police he would only return to France to die as a martyr, the source said.
The six other defendants, aged 23 to 37, will be asked to explain their role in the transfer of people from France to Syria. Five of them are believed to have traveled to Syria. The trial ends on Dec. 7.
Writing by Matthias Blamont; editing by John Irish and Mark Trevelyan