Frenchman on trial for helping girl, 14, seeking to join IS

AP News
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Posted: Mar 06, 2015 12:47 PM

PARIS (AP) — The French girl knew him as "Tony Toxiko" — an Islamic State recruiter who first used Facebook to cajole her into joining him in Syria, then brusquely called to force the issue: Come to me or risk damnation. She was 14.

The recruiter promised to marry Amelia and teach her to fight, but first she had to get to the war zone and needed an adult's help. The middleman, Riad Ben Cheikh, went on trial in Paris on Friday on charges of criminal association with the preparation of a terrorist act, and aiding a runaway.

Amelia has since become pregnant and is believed to be in Syria, the prosecutor and defense lawyers said Friday.

The trial offered a rare glimpse into the world of Islamic State recruitment of girls, a growing concern for many Western governments. Britain recently was shaken by the news of three teenage girls leaving their families with apparent intent to join a friend with extremists in Syria. In many cases, families have little warning and Europe's open borders and travel rules make the trip easy, even for adolescents.

Amelia's Internet quest to learn more about Islam ended up with her pledging her hand in marriage to an unknown jihadi twice her age. Her last name was not made public because she is a minor.

Judicial documents say Amelia used her savings to buy a one-way ticket from Lyon to Turkey, with the aim of reaching Syria. Riad Ben Cheikh is accused of booking her a hotel room the night of Feb. 24, 2014 in the Lyon area, and paying her train fare to the Lyon airport.

The girl was detained as she lined up for her flight to Istanbul. Her parents, who discovered a paper trail for her one-way ticket the day before, had flagged her to police. Ben Cheikh has said he believed he was only helping her rejoin her husband in Syria.

The prosecutor requested a sentence of three years in prison with one year suspended. Ben Cheikh's lawyer said his client "never had the intention to go to Syria, as could be seen from the phone taps and surveillance of his Facebook conversations."

"I just want to add that I'm not a terrorist and I regret this situation," Ben Cheikh said. A ruling is expected to come next Tuesday.

Amelia told investigators that Ben Cheikh bought her a full face- and body-covering veil, and told her to destroy her phone SIM card to avoid detection. In court Friday, Ben Cheikh denied that.

Ben Cheikh has been jailed for 10 months, and complained in court Friday that he spends most of his time in isolation. French authorities are concerned about proselytizing by Islamic radicals in prison, particularly after attacks in January by French radicals with criminal backgrounds against newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market that left 20 dead.

About 100 girls and young women from France are believed to be in Syria, most drawn there after making contact online with recruiters for jihadi groups.

Jean-Francois Gayraud, deputy chief of France's Counter-Terrorism Coordination Unit, said information surfacing from a hotline established for parents worried that their child may be radicalizing, or headed to a war zone, shows there is not just one profile of French youth looking to live their dreams via jihad.

"We are (seeing) nearly all social categories, all origins," Gayraud told AP at a terrorism conference on Friday.

But there are "mental archetypes" for boys and for girls, he said.

"For men it is obviously, as often, a fantasy of adventure, virility, a search for something else," he said. "For young girls it is often the fantasy of generosity, charity and helping others."

In general, the radicalization phenomenon is often the "reflection or symptom of social or family pathologies," Gayraud said. He refused further details because of the private nature of the information.

Amelia told investigators she was reluctant to leave her family at first, and told Tony she was just 14. His response: "It was her duty to marry him and he would teach her to fight," according to court documents.

Tony, also identified in court documents by his first name Brahim, told Amelia that Ben Cheikh was an old friend. Ben Cheikh denied a long acquaintance.

Amelia's journey to extremism did not end with her detention. After the Istanbul flight was thwarted, she later traveled to Belgium, married a man in a Muslim ceremony, and became pregnant, the prosecutor and defense lawyers said.

Since then, they said, she has disappeared, and is believed to be in Syria.

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Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.—