The US State department has listed him as one of ten most wanted “foreign terrorist fighters” for his acts which allegedly include execution-style killings, but friends and family of Frenchman Salim Benghalem have expressed surprise at the accusation, telling press “he is not an executioner”, the Local has reported. Instead, they paint a picture of a fun-loving pot-smoking under-achiever.
Benghalem, 34, grew up in France near Paris, the fourth of seven children. He failed to complete a vocational training course and drifted from low wage job to low wage job. A friend has told media agency AFP “He liked to crack jokes and was fun-loving. And he wasn’t particularly brave. When there was an altercation, he was not on the front line,” adding that, in his spare time “he went out at night, with everything that entails: girls, some alcohol, but particularly weed.”
Yet last week the US Department of State designated ten people and two groups as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, a label which imposes sanctions and prohibits any interaction with American citizens or bodies. On the list was Salim Benghalem, described as “a Syria-based French extremist and ISIL member, who carries out executions on behalf of the group. In 2007, Salim was convicted and sentenced to prison in France for a 2001 murder. Today, Benghalem is the subject of a European arrest warrant because of his activities on behalf of ISIL.”
Benghalem, who is of Algerian descent, first left France in 2001 for Algeria amid accusations of murder and attempted murder during a fight between rival gangs. In 2002 he returned to France, was detained and held in custody for five years until in 2007 he was sentenced to 11 years jail time for the crimes. However, he was released partially, and then fully ahead of schedule thanks to “good behaviour” and “repentence”, his then lawyer, Leon Lef Forster has told AFP, adding “He was a non-practicing Muslim, he only observed Ramadan, without any religious excess.
“The person we’re talking about now does not tally with the young man I knew,” he concluded.
In 2012 he again left France, this time for Syria where he soon joined Islamic State. In doing so he left a wife and two young children behind to pursue a new life as an Islamic militant, contacting his family via Skype only every two weeks or so. A close contact who wishes to remain anonymous told the media “He didn’t belong in France. He found himself over there.” The contact alleges that Benghalem works for the IS as an enforcer of Sharia law, handing out fines “for illegal possession of cigarettes, or things like that,” insisting “But he’s not an executioner.”
His story is in keeping with the general pattern of those travelling to Syria to fight. A study undertaken by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution recently found that the majority of Germans heading abroad to join IS were “young male failures”. Just 12 percent held jobs at the time of their departure, whilst 30 percent had a criminal record.
Other sources have noted that a lack of strong religious belief is also not a bar to those seeking to join the jihad. An MI5 report leaked to the Guardian in 2008 found that “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes. MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”
Indeed, two British jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who left for Syria last May were found to have ordered Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon before their departure.
Meanwhile, the French authorities dealing with Benghalem’s case have commented that he is thought to have “actively participated in fighting”, and “is thought to have volunteered around a year ago for a suicide operation”. Another source played down the emphasis placed upon Benghalem by the US Department, warning “He is definitely a radicalised boy who could be dangerous and is known by authorities. But there are others like him.”
His friend, talking to AFP, remarked forlornly “When I saw him again after his release from prison, I felt he had matured. I don’t think anyone can explain what happened.”