Report — From the January 2016 issue

The Ultimate Terrorist Factory

Are French prisons incubating extremism?

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In 1995, Kamel Daoudi, a twenty-one-year-old engineering student from the suburbs of Paris, moved out of his parents’ apartment. He had fought with his father, an Algerian immigrant obsessed with the possibility of his son’s success in France, his “acceptance by the system,” in Daoudi’s words. He resented his father and, determined to find a different path, took up the ideals of jihad.

At a small prayer hall in his parents’ neighborhood, he met a group of like-minded men, older Algerians who felt adrift in their adopted country. France seemed to them a place of libertine excess, Daoudi said, and they shared a sense of “having betrayed one’s origins a bit, one’s values, and of being obliged, in order to return to the status quo ante, to go twice as far.” Daoudi was particularly drawn to Djamel Beghal, an avuncular and charismatic man about ten years his senior, whose intellect and worldly curiosity were, like Daoudi’s, paired with an attraction to the stark aesthetic of uncompromising devotion.

Djamel Beghal, a collage by Anonymous

Djamel Beghal, a collage by Anonymous

Beghal was handsome, with full lips, green eyes that squinted when he smiled, and a heavy jaw that lent him the imposing air of an athlete. Like a spy, he possessed a gift for sensing the psychological contours of the people he met. He exerted a pleasant force of attraction on almost everyone he encountered, and was often liked even by those who found his ideology repugnant.

With his wife and children, Beghal left France for Afghanistan in late 2000. Daoudi followed five months later. He went “out of curiosity,” he now says, to judge with his own eyes the merits of a society governed by Islamic law. On arrival he was told that the Taliban had dynamited the Buddha statues in the cliffs at Bamiyan, soaring sixth-century monuments that had been deemed impermissible idols. This seemed to Daoudi an extravagant act. “I said to myself, ‘All right, have you chosen the right moment to come here?’ ”

He settled in Jalalabad, in the east, not far from the Pakistani border, and joined a small but influential Islamist faction led, in part, by Beghal. The group maintained friendly relations with Al Qaeda, but its aims were somewhat different, and it remained independent. “They were very critical of the Al Qaeda method, they were very critical of big attacks,” Daoudi said. “And they had a vision that was much more — less violent, let’s say, and more strategic.” Beghal’s group ran a grade school that was open to both boys and girls. It also operated a paramilitary camp where members learned to handle assault rifles and handguns, but this, according to Daoudi, was “just to be able to, if necessary, defend yourself, defend your children, your wife. It was really derisory.” For most of the four months he spent in Afghanistan, he slept at the camp.

Daoudi was charmed by the warmth of the Afghans he encountered, but he found the country to be in many ways a disappointment. The Taliban whipped beggars in the street. Almost everyone was illiterate; he once spoke with a man who maintained that the earth was flat. A few months after his arrival, the Taliban ordered Beghal’s camp closed, and Daoudi worried he might be forced to join a Taliban offensive. In August 2001, he returned to France.

When the attacks of September 11 came, Daoudi immediately recognized them for what they were; in Afghanistan, there had been talk of a major operation of some kind. Fearing arrest in the panic that followed, he fled to the United Kingdom. Five days later, he awoke with perhaps a dozen guns pointed at him. A man assigned to check him for traces of explosives was so afraid, his hands shook. “I felt bad,” Daoudi said. “I said to him, ‘Relax, sir. I’m going to be very cooperative, and I’m going to do exactly what you ask. Don’t worry.’ ”

Daoudi was charged with participating in an alleged Al Qaeda plot to bomb the American Embassy in Paris. The ringleader of the operation, according to the French authorities, was Beghal, who had been arrested in July. Daoudi denies involvement in or knowledge of any such plot; several years of investigation produced no material evidence that one existed. He and Beghal were convicted nonetheless, under a broad and controversial antiterror statute known as association de malfaiteurs terroriste, or, loosely, “terrorist criminal association.” For the majority of Daoudi’s seven years in prison, he was held in solitary confinement; during transfers to court or among prisons, he was escorted by a team of masked police commandos.

Daoudi is now forty-one. He lives in Carmaux, an unremarkable town in France’s rural southwest, with his wife and three young children. He did not choose the location. After he completed his prison term, in 2008, a French court ordered his deportation to Algeria; the European Court of Human Rights blocked the order on the grounds that, as an Islamist terror suspect, he was likely to be tortured in his native country. Eight years later, he remains under a form of house arrest, and is required to keep within the Carmaux city limits. Three times a day, he pedals a mountain bike to sign in at the local gendarmerie — he is not permitted to drive a car.

Daoudi speaks a rapid, meticulously formal French that suggests a slightly nervous mistrust. As a prisoner he was considered volatile, a tall and powerful attacker of prison guards. He served several additional months of prison time for disruptive behavior. He is pudgy now, and a bit gawky in his movements, but he carries about him a hint of anger delicately contained. He has a disconcerting air of detachment, as if he were feigning inattention in anticipation of pouncing; it is easy to detect in him what seems to be the confirmation of all one’s doubts or fears. It is also easy to like him. Daoudi laughs and smiles readily and is popular in Carmaux, where he jokes with shopkeepers and struggles breathily through an outdoor exercise class with a group of local men and women. He is renovating an old farmhouse with a red-tile roof. When asked about his life in the town, he cited Candide: “Let’s cultivate our garden.”

Beghal was released from prison in 2009. The French attempted to deport him; his expulsion was blocked; and he was placed under house arrest in Murat, an isolated township in the French interior. Shortly after his arrival, he began to receive visitors — young friends from prison and Islamists with heavy beards. Daoudi, who found Beghal “a bit irresponsible,” urged him to put an end to the visits. “This wasn’t helping matters for him,” Daoudi said.

Among Beghal’s callers were Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, two gruff but childlike men in their twenties. Every few weeks, they drove the 300 miles from Paris to Murat, where they hiked and joked with him for several days before returning north. In May 2010, a year after his release from prison, Beghal, his young friends, and several other men were arrested in a series of dawn raids across France. They were accused of plotting to break another Islamist from prison. In 2013, Beghal was once again found guilty of association de malfaiteurs terroriste, and he was sentenced to ten more years in prison. Coulibaly was given five years but was released in March 2014. Kouachi was never tried.

Early on January 7, 2015, in Paris, Kouachi and his brother, Saïd, stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that had been designated a target by Al Qaeda for its cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. They killed twelve people. On the following morning, Coulibaly murdered a policewoman and blew a hole through a man’s jaw; a day later, he killed four people at a kosher supermarket. In a video released after his death, he pledged allegiance to the caliph of the Islamic State. The first French air strikes against the Islamic State had begun four months earlier, in September 2014. In November 2015, after terrorists attacked the Stade de France, the Bataclan concert hall, and several cafés in Paris, Daoudi told me that those aerial bombing campaigns had made France “much more visible, and thus a preferred target.”

In the week following the Hebdo killings, Beghal’s prison cell was searched five times. Le Figaro affirmed that he kept up “a relationship of perpetual domination” over Kouachi and Coulibaly, “disciples” who were in his thrall. The Washington Post posited that Beghal might have arranged the apparent collaboration of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, a joining of rivals that “would be a worrisome development in the fight against global terrorism.” Louis Caprioli, a former senior counterterrorism official for the French government, described Beghal to Reuters as a “sorcerer”: “Anyone who came into contact with him could not have helped but become more radicalized.”

Daoudi says that he detected a shift in his friend after his imprisonment. “I had a hard time going along with Beghal afterward.” Beghal seemed, at times, to have grown vengeful. “If you look back at his story, at his path, he did almost eight and a half years for the first case. He gets out, he’s placed under house arrest for about a year. And then he goes down again for a bogus affair,” Daoudi said. “That’s the ultimate terrorist factory. How do you radicalize someone? Well, there you go.”

Still, he does not believe that Beghal had any involvement in the Hebdo killings. “Honestly, I don’t think he manipulated them, or that he used them, or that he led them to do anything.” At most, Daoudi suggested, Beghal perhaps served as a “moral guarantee,” telling Coulibaly and the Kouachis that their plans were religiously permissible. In his Afghan period, Daoudi said, “Beghal wasn’t thinking that way. I knew him well enough to be able to say that.” He allowed, though, that perhaps his friend had changed. “We’re never a hundred percent sure — we don’t even know ourselves completely. How can we claim to know someone else?”

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