PARIS (AP) — A French court on Wednesday convicted seven young men who returned from weeks among the ranks of Islamic State extremists in Syria, including the brother of one of the suicide attackers who targeted Paris in November.
The defendants, aged 24 to 27, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to nine years for taking part in a group recruiting French jihadis to join a "terrorist group" in Syria in 2013-14 — namely the Islamic State group — and for participating in military training and other activities.
Karim Mohamed-Aggad, the older brother of one of the extremists who attacked Paris' Bataclan concert hall on Nov. 13, received a 9-year term, the harshest penalty among the seven, since the prosecutor said he was one of the ringleaders.
Mohamed-Aggad claimed he went to Syria only for humanitarian purposes and accused the French government of putting him on trial instead of his brother Foued, who returned to France with a Kalashnikov and suicide explosives strapped to his body in an operation that killed dozens in Paris.
Foued also went to Syria with the group.
In its ruling, the Paris court said while some of the defendants left Syria of their own free will, Karim Mohamed-Aggad was "in no hurry to return" to France and "showed a persistence in his active interest for jihadism."
After the verdict, Mohamed-Aggad's lawyer, Francoise Cotta, told reporters the ruling was "a decision of fear, returned in a France of fear, by a judge who is here to respond to the fear."
"He certainly suffered from his name," Cotta said.
Mohamed-Aggad learned about the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that left 130 victims dead from a prison cell. From the beginning of the trial, he insisted that it should center on what he did in Syria, not what his younger sibling did in France.
"You choose your friends, not your family. My brother did what he did — and it concerns only him," Mohamed-Aggad said.
The group of 10 from the Alsacian city of Strasbourg, all from families with origins in North Africa, left for Syria in December 2013. Two of them died at a checkpoint soon after arriving. Foued, the youngest, stayed behind after everyone else bailed out, and returned later to France for the Nov. 13 attacks. The assault on the Bataclan, where he ultimately died, was the deadliest in a series of attacks that night.
All seven men on trial said it was a humanitarian desire, not religion, that spurred their departure for Syria. They insisted they had never used their guns, despite photos showing some of them sitting in a restaurant with Kalashnikovs on their laps.
Soon after arriving, the men testified, they realized they had made a mistake. They were collected by the Islamic State group, taking daily lessons in Shariah law and later weaponry. One said he was jailed and tortured by the extremists. Another said he realized that there was nothing humanitarian about what the extremists were doing in Syria.
"We found ourselves stuck there like idiots," said defendant Radouane Taher.
The seven made their way back to France singly or in pairs in March and April 2014. They were arrested in raids in May of that year.
During their trial, the seven men were separated into two docks in the courtroom. Mohamad-Aggad and three others, thickly bearded, smiled frequently and sometimes laughed aloud to the irritation of the judge. On the other side were the men who returned first, who wore neither smiles nor beards.
The judge and the prosecutor questioned all sharply on their motives for returning, especially Mohamad-Aggad, who at one point told his brother back in Syria: "You will reach Allah ahead of me, but I'll join you soon." Mohamad-Aggad said at the time he believed his sibling was going to carry out a suicide operation in the war zone.
"We risk our lives to come back from Syria. We're treated like apostates there. We come back, we're treated as terrorists," Aggad said on the first day of the trial.