7 Convicted Of Jihad Recruiting In Paris

An unidentified defendant is led by a police officer to a Paris courtroom Friday, March 28, 2008 as seven men go on trial for their suspected roles in an al Qaeda-linked recruiting network for the Iraqi insurgency.
AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere
Seven men were convicted on terror charges Wednesday in Paris for helping funnel fighters to Iraq - a case that exposed how the war has sucked in radical youths from Europe.

The judge handed down sentences of up to seven years in prison. The suspects - five Frenchmen, a Moroccan and an Algerian - were convicted of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise," a blanket charge used in many French terrorist cases that carries a maximum 10-year prison term.

Most acknowledged going to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 or planning to go, but all denied accusations that they were involved in a cell recruiting French fighters for Iraq's insurgency.

The men went on trial in March after years of investigation by French authorities. The case struck a nerve as it showed how young devout Muslim Frenchmen were abandoning what they saw as bleak prospects in secular France for Iraqi battlefields. It also raised fears that French fighters could use those battlefield skills in terror attacks back in France.

France strongly opposed the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, but has long struggled against homegrown terrorism and is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim population, about 5 million people.

Investigators said the alleged network funneled about a dozen French fighters to camps linked to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They say the network sought to send more recruits before al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2006. At least seven French insurgents have died in Iraq, some in suicide bombings, police say.

The man accused of being the cell's ringleader, 27-year-old Farid Benyettou, was sentenced to six years in prison.

Judge Jacqueline Rebeyrotte's ruling called Benyettou "the ideologue and one of the organizers of a group whose objective was to send young people from the 19th arrondissement of Paris to fight in Iraq."

The men were accused of links to the "19th arrondissement network," named for the Paris district where it was based. The district is a multi-national, working-class neighborhood including many Muslim families with roots in one-time French colonies in North Africa.

The judge said Benyettou recruited young men from the neighborhood to jihad, or holy war, through his religious teachings and by arranging weapons training and travel through Syria to get to Iraq.

Boubakeur el-Hakim, whose brother was killed in Iraq and who urged his Paris neighbors to come to Iraq in a French radio interview from Baghdad in 2003, was given a seven-year sentence, as was Moroccan Said Abdellah.

The judge sentenced Algerian Nacer Mettai, accused of forging documents for the potential fighters, to four years in prison.

The three others - Mohammed el-Ayouni, Thamer Bouchnak and Cherif Kouachi - were given three-year sentences, 18 months of which were suspended. El-Ayouni lost an arm and an eye in Iraq's battlefields, while Bouchnak and Kouachi were arrested days before they planned to travel to Syria in January 2005, allegedly to train for Iraq.

The sentences fell slightly short of the prosecution's requests.

One of the defense lawyers, Martin Pradel, called the sentences "extremely severe."

It was not immediately clear if there would be any appeals.