The singular tale of a young French-Malian who spent three years in the world's jihad hot spots in an attempt to join al-Qaeda fighters. No one would take him.
PARIS — Behind the armored glass in the court where he was tried for “conspiracy to commit terrorist acts,” Ibrahim O. seemed perfectly calm, insolent, cool.
“I only came to please my lawyer,” the 26-year-old French-Malian man said, grinning under his thin mustache. “Give me 10 years. I’ll take them with a big smile. Prison means holidays for me.”
In February, during his 10-day trial, Ibrahim O. confessed to everything, all the while smiling. If he could have, he would have said even more. Yes, he lives by “Allah’s laws, not the Republic’s.” Yes, he is the “jihad globetrotter” described by prosecutors, always prepared to leave for the Islamic land and, if necessary, to fight against France, this “land of blasphemy.” Yes, for a long time, he tried to recruit other “brothers” to fight the infidels.
Now imprisoned, Ibrahim O. is continuing his own jihad. “Last month, he received four additional months in prison because he tried to stir up a riot” where he was imprisoned just outside Paris, says a counterterrorism police officer closely following him revealed. “We were forced to move so he wouldn’t mess with everyone’s minds.”
He failed in soccer, so he turned to the Koran
Ibrahim O. was born in Aubervilliers, a town on the northern outskirts of Paris, from a Malian mother and an unknown father. When he was two-and-a-half, he was placed in public care because his mother beat him. He always lived in such places: one shelter after the other, always with their austere bedrooms and noisy dining halls. He was dealt a dysfunctional family — a mother convicted for violence acts, and four brothers and sisters, all born from different fathers.
As a young boy, he dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player. His sister lived in Italy, where he tried out for professional clubs. “But it didn’t work,” he told authorities. “I was very disappointed.” He failed in soccer, and he was not terribly interested in his professional qualification of locksmithing, so he turned to the Koran.
At 16 years old, the young man converted. “I needed to find a meaning to my life. It was Islam. A Muslim gave me the Koran. I read it. I liked it,” he told prosecutors.
Ibrahim became a fixture at the Omar mosque in Paris, which was a haven for fundamentalists. The imam of that time (who has since been expelled) was a deeply anti-Semitic Tunisian who advocated that adulterous women should be whipped to death.
From Cairo to Yemen, via Sudan
Ibrahim dropped his studies and got married religiously to a devout Muslim woman. In the spring of 2007, when he was 19, it was time for the hijra, or the return to Islamic land. His aim at the time was solely to improve his Arabic and learn more about his adopted religion. First, he left for Cairo, then he traveled to Khartoum, in Sudan, before being directed to Yemen.
There, he was told about a Koranic school where it was possible to be fed and to study for free. The place is called Da'wah Salafyyah, and it is an Islamic center for French-speaking people located in the north of Yemen. “One of the main training centers for French Jihadists,” says a French intelligence services officer. “Several of them have already died in inter-ethnic clashes.”
Ibrahim was not yet a fighter at heart. When he returned to Paris after six months of traveling, he went back to live with his mother, forced himself to work odd jobs and tried to resume soccer. He wandered around religious libraries, where, disappointed, he only found “books on ablution and marriage.”
“The miscreants” who opened his eyes
But Ibrahim was not a contemplative man. He was itching to take action. In late 2008, he traveled to Birmingham, England, where an important community of British Salafists is located. “The brothers just paid the hotel for me for three days, and then they asked me to leave,” he recalls.
But this did not discourage him. Less than six months later, right after the birth of his first child, Ibrahim flew to Yemen. Two “brothers” of the Omar mosque, men with beards that frightened the Yemenite authorities, went with him.
As soon as they landed in Sanaa, the three young men were arrested and sent back to France. “This expulsion hurt me a lot,” he admits. “I couldn’t understand why a Muslim country rejected me.” So Ibrahim sank deeper into radicalism. At home, he started forbidding his wife from watching television and going out without his permission. He developed a very personal idea of society.
“Democracy is contrary to Islam,” he has declared. “On a religious level, I cannot live in France. The Muslims who stay here live in sin.”
One day, he left for the French Riviera, “on an impulse, like when I was a kid and I ran away,” he told the court. For some time, he worked in a kebab shop in Cannes, got married a second time, religiously, to a young woman of Comorian origin, and met other Islamists before shifting to radicalism once and for all. He was 22. “Over there, in the south, is where I discovered the necessity of jihad.” Armed jihad, that is. For that, he needed money.
In early 2010, he found a job as a mediator for the Paris city hall earning 675 euros per month. Living in a youth emergency shelter, he saved up to buy a one-way ticket to Pakistan. Destination: Peshawar, the entrance to Waziristan, al-Qaeda’s sanctuary.
“You can’t stay here, because you’re black”
The jihad novice had no connections over there. Like in England, Ibrahim was rebuffed in Yemen as soon as he set foot in the first mosque he saw. “The brothers became angry when they saw me. I tried telling them that Allah had shown me the way to get to them, but they were really suspicious. They thought I was a spy.”
Eventually, in one of the town’s madrasas, he met a Belgian jihadist who mentioned the prospect of a training camp in Waziristan. Ibrahim was elated.
“If you die a martyr, the blood that runs on the side smells of musk,” he said. “With the first drop of blood that falls, all sins are cleared.”
In fact, his new jihadist friend was mostly trying to get rid of this disturbing Frenchman of Malian origin. “He told me, ‘You can’t stay here, because you’re black.’ It’s true that everyone kept looking at me in a strange way in Peshawar.” Ibrahim ended up getting caught making a phone call to France, which was forbidden, and was summoned to leave.
It was another failure in his holy war. According to the counterterrorism prosecutor, the young man was a “jihad enthusiast when it suited him. His only aim is to fight on a battlefield, wherever it is.” Which was not entirely true. Fairly shaken by his misfortune in Pakistan, the jihad globetrotter became very selective. “I was done with zones with no black people,” he says. “For me, then, it was either Somalia or Yemen.”
Arrested in Cairo, imprisoned in France
The DCRI, the French intelligence agency, now had its eye on this holy war vagabond. It did not stop him from giving the French police the slip and flying back to Egypt in September 2010. On the demand of French authorities, he was arrested in Cairo and imprisoned when he landed back in the Parisian Roissy airport.
“The decision was made to arrest him because, on wiretaps, he talked about assassinating Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris Mosque,” a member of the French intelligence explains.
In reality, the project was vague, but it earned him a long prison sentence. Conditionally released in July 2012, Ibrahim O. appeared to have calmed down. But three months later, when he heard French President François Hollande’s speech in Dakar, his jihadist heart swelled.
“Hollande justified his intervention in Mali,” he told authorities. “I was outraged. I’m for the law of Allah, so I’ll always be on my brothers’ side, with them. What was going on in Mali was no business of the French.”
With a fake passport, he boarded a flight to Bamako, via Lisbon. On Nov. 6, Ibrahim O. was arrested by the Malian police in Sévaré while he was attempting to join the ranks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb n Timbuktu.
“Brothers in Allah”
At his trial back in Paris, the prosecutor called for a seven-year prison sentence. Ibrahim O. did not even attempt to defend himself, objecting to his lawyer before the defense speeches. He was mostly interested in the courtroom, where his “brothers in Allah” were sitting.
There was Bilel, who was recently convicted for assaulting a 60-year-old man taking photographs of veiled women. There was also Nicolas, the convert, who “never shakes the hands of women” and seemed embarrassed to admit to the judges that he “got scared” to leave for jihad.
Today, Ibrahim O. poses no threat. He is in solitary confinement at the Nanterre prison. But he will soon be able to preach Allah’s way once again because there is no lack of “brothers” in prison.
Meanwhile, he is calm. The failed fighter who has been turned away so many times has finally found his place. “I don’t want to get out of prison,” he told his prosecuting magistrate in 2011. “I feel good here. I’m learning about my religion. If I got out today, I’d be lost.”