At first glance, the case resembles those multiple files of “sectors” that have peppered the year 2015: radicalized men and women who take the direction of Iraq and Syria to join the ranks of Daesh. With the difference, this time, that the one who is accused of having incited them to leave for jihad is a former prisoner of Guantanamo prison, now 53 years old. Saber Lahmar, an Algerian who spent eight years in American prison before being released for lack of evidence, is on trial from Tuesday, and for three days, by the Paris Criminal Court for terrorist criminal association, facts which he disputes.
Back in the summer of 2015. Several inhabitants of the city of Grand Parc, in Bordeaux, reach the Iraqi-Syrian zone. There is, for example, the Machou couple, Sandrine and Salim, and their four children, aged 5 to 16. The father, in his 40s, fought in the Islamic State before being taken prisoner by the Syrian Democratic Forces. He is one of seven French people who were sentenced to death in 2019 by Iraqi justice. Otham Yekhlef, another Bordelais, is also on the trip. Although it is difficult to be certain, he is said to have been killed a few months after his arrival.
Former imam in a mosque near Bordeaux
Without news from the Machou family, who only told relatives to go on vacation to Greece, Sandrine’s sister reported her disappearance to the police in August 2015. Very quickly, investigators from the judicial police and the DGSI suspected Saber Lahmar of having “encouraged and prepared” the departure of the Machous and Otham Yekhlef. The man, who officiated as imam of the mosque of Saint-André de Cubzac in Gironde, passes to some for a “scholar” in matters of Islam, even a “religious guide”, notes the order of reference dated of February 17, signed by two anti-terrorism judges.
It must be said that his CV impresses. After a degree in Islamic sciences, the one the prosecution presents as a former member of the GIA (armed Islamic group) leaves for Saudi Arabia to complete his studies. There, he graduated from the Islamic University of Medina and specialized in “temporal interpretation of Sharia”. In 1996, he left for Bosnia and Herzegovina and worked in the library of the Saudi cultural center, in a large mosque in Sarajevo. His fate changed in 2001, the day after the September 11 attacks. He is arrested by the American soldiers who suspect him of preparing an attack against the United States embassy in Sarajevo.
Tortured at Guantanamo
He was then transferred to Guantanamo prison, located on an American naval base in Cuba, where he claims to have been tortured. But the evidence of a planned attack is lacking and eight years later, the federal court for the District of Columbia can only order his release. For a reason that remains murky, President Nicolas Sarkozy agrees to welcome him to France. Saber Lahmar then rebuilt his life near Bordeaux where he did not cut ties with radical Islam. The investigations revealed in particular his links with figures of jihadism in France, like Lionel Dumont, Islamist robber of the Roubaix gang or Mohamed Achamlane, leader of the Islamist group Forzane Alizza.
Justice is also questioning its relations with the Sanabil association – now dissolved – but suspected of having once been at the heart of the jihadist nebula. The organization paid 35,000 euros to Saber Lahmar. If the latter affirms it was only a simple loan (in cash) in order to buy a car, the authorities are wondering about a possible remuneration to encourage French people to swell the ranks of the EI.
A phone call to the “Sheikh”
Did Saber Lahmar incite Salim Machou and Otham Yekhlef to go to jihad in Iraq and Syria? He, in any case, denies the facts with which he is accused. Investigations have nevertheless shown that his sermons are imbued with radicalism. According to the investigating judges, the man calls in particular to attack “the Jews, calling to kill the apostates and to martyrdom”. Salim Machou and Otham Yekhlef met him at the prayer hall in the Grand Parc. What about this phone call made by Machou, barely arrived in the area, to the one he calls “Sheikh”, a mark of distinction with regard to his religious knowledge of Islam. Contacted by 20 minutesSaber Lahmar’s lawyer, Me Christian Blazy, did not respond to our requests.