The Hunt for ISIS’ French Chief ‘Executioner’
As French authorities search for those responsible for the deadliest act of violence in the country since World War II, they are no doubt scrutinizing the possible role of Salim Benghalem, the man who trains French citizens to become ISIS killers and has links to previous attacks by the group in Europe, including the Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris earlier this year.
Benghalem, 35, grew up in the Paris suburb of Cachan. U.S. counterterrorism authorities have called him a chief “executioner” for ISIS, and French officials have linked him the group’s brutal enterprise of kidnapping, jailing, and killing Western journalists and aid workers.
But more important for France, counterterrorism officials say that Benghalem is the supervisor for French would-be jihadists who travel to Syria to live and train with the group.
U.S. as well as French and other European authorities have locked onto this so-called foreign fighter flow as a main threat to their domestic security. Some of the fighters ISIS trains, it then sends back to the West countries to conduct attacks.
The strikes in Paris Friday night were carried by a team of at least seven militants, according to a French prosecutor. At least one of the attackers had been flagged by counterterrorism authorities as having potential links to radical Islamists.
The French military tried to kill Benghalem just last month, in an airstrike near Raqqa, Syria, ISIS’ de-facto headquarters. On Oct. 8, French planes struck a main transit and training point for French ISIS recruits, authorities said at the time. Benghalem was supposed to have been there. But reports have subsequently said that he survived the attack. And the French government hasn't said publicly that he was killed.
"He is perfectly dangerous," Alain Bauer, an influential French criminologist and expert on counterterrorism, told The Daily Beast, alluding to Benghalem's efforts to inspire attacks and recruit inside of France.
Most concerning for French authorities now, Benghalem has been connected to two other European attacks by ISIS.
Earlier this year, French authorities linked him personally to Mehdi Nemmouche, a Frenchman who confessed to killing four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014. French authorities arrested Nemmouche the following month in Marseilles. A Parisian prosecutor said Nemmouche claimed responsibility for the attack and said he had lived and trained with ISIS in Syria for more than a year.
According to French officials, Nemmouche knew and worked with Benghalem while he was there. The pair were in charge of jailing ISIS prisoners, including Western journalists and aid workers, French authorities have said.
French journalist Nicolas Henin, whom ISIS captured in 2013 and later released, identified Nemmouche as one of his jailers and said he delighted in torturing prisoners and boasted of his own cruelty. Nemmouche told his captives that he had previously raped and killed a young mother, and then beheaded her baby, according to Henin’s account.
So, Benghalem was keeping company with one of ISIS’ most brutal members and a man sent back to Europe to launch an attack.
France’s internal security agency, the DGIS, has also said Benghalem personally executed some Western prisoners.
A source formerly affiliated with ISIS who claims to have known Benghalem in Aleppo, however, contradicted the U.S. and French intelligence assessment. The source told The Daily Beast that Benghalem, whose nom de guerre is Mohammed Ali, is actually the chief of ISIS's police force in al-Bab, a town north of Aleppo city and one of two main ISIS strongholds in the Syrian province.
"His work is administrative," the source said. "He has no military experience and he wasn't training French fighters." The source added that Benghalem was injured badly in a coalition airstrike on the town in late February or early March when ISIS's police headquarters was bombed. Benghalem's legs were apparently badly injured in the strike, forcing him to wear leg braces. "He’s married," the former ISIS affiliate said. "He came from France with his wife. One of his kids was born in Syria."
Benghalem first came to French authorities’ attention for another set of personal connections, to the so-called Buttes-Chaumont network in Paris, a group of militants that sent fighters to Iraq to do battle with U.S. troops. The network included the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, who stormed the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last Jaunary year, killing 12.
Cherif and Benghalem were reportedly childhood friends.
Before he took up with jihadis, Benghalem was a pot-smoking gangster who was sent to prison in 2007. Three years later, he was released and, according to news reports, may have traveled to Yemen with Kouachi, where they received weapons training with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (While al-Qaeda is a sworn enemy of ISIS, some al-Qaeda recruits have switched sides and joined ISIS, which they consider better equipped and more ambitious.)
Benghalem also appears to have fallen under Islamist influence while in prison. His cellmate was a jihadi who’d fought in Iraq and was wounded, losing an eye, according to the Irish Times.
Benghalem isn’t just Public Enemy No. 1 among French jihadists. He has crossed onto the U.S. radar, as well.
Last year, the State Department put Benghalem on a list of “specially designated global terrorists,” a kind of most-wanted sheet that raises a terrorist’s profile and allows to government to block any property or assets he might have in areas subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
Also on that list is Amru al-Absi, now in charge of ISIS’ media arm, according to the Counter Extremism Project. He had previously been ISIS’ governor in the Aleppo region and, according to the State Department, “he has been in charge of kidnappings” for the group.
Benghalem had a major role in one well-known ISIS propaganda film, featuring British hostage John Cantlie, whom the group has forced to work as a mouthpiece. In the video, which authorities say Cantlie was made to shoot, Benghalem praises the Charlie Hebdo attacks and urges his “brothers” to launch so-called lone wolf attacks, taking up arms on their own and killing non-believers.
U.S. and French authorities didn’t respond to request for information about Benghalem. But given his history of violence, he has to be on the short list of suspects in the Paris attacks.
-- with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey and Michael Weiss