President Macron's U-turn over repatriation of French jihadists


Speaking during a recent debate with local councillors President Emmanuel Macron insisted: “No programme for a return of jihadists has today been drawn up.” Yet, as Mediapart can reveal, officials at the ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs, Interior and Justice have in fact been working since the autumn of 2018 on plans for the return of French jihadists held by Kurds in Syria. Matthieu Suc reports on the French government's change of heart.

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Just last Tuesday, February 26th, President Emmanuel Macron was adamant when he spoke at the Élysée to councillors from the east of France who had come for a meeting; there were not and had not been any plans to repatriate French jihadists from Syria and Iraq.

“France has always had the same doctrine which is that those who, in the context of war, in a theatre of war, have been incarcerated – in this case by the SDF [editor's note, the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up mainly of units from the Kurdish People's Defence Forces or HPG who have been fighting Islamic State in the north of Syria] in Syria and/or by the Iraqi authorities – are first and foremost subject to the judicial authorities in those countries where one recognizes the justice system, when there are actions for which they are responsible and accused of in those countries,” said the French head of state. That much is true.

“Contrary to what I've read and heard, there is no programme for the return of the jihadists that has been drawn up today, we are sticking with the same doctrine,” the president then added. That, however, is not true.

U-turn on repatriation: President Emmanuel Macron on February 27th 2019. © Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes U-turn on repatriation: President Emmanuel Macron on February 27th 2019. © Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
On Tuesday January 29th 2019 BFM TV news channel stated that 130 jihadists – the figure was later challenged by the authorities – held in Kurdish camps in Syria were going to be repatriated in France in the coming weeks. Later, questioned by BFM TV and RMC radio interviewer Jean-Jacques Bourdin, interior minister Christophe Castener pointed out that “they are French before they are jihadists” and he stated: “All those who return to France will go through the judicial system and be handed over to judges.” Following on from the BFM TV report, Le Monde wrote about a “coordinated international repatriation operation”, citing several different French sources. But according to the French president now, none of those plans ever existed.

Today Mediapart can reveal that, contrary to what the head of state has just said, officials at the ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs Interior and Justice have indeed been working since the autumn of 2018 on the return of French jihadists held by Kurds in Syria. This was even before the abrupt announcement by President Donald Trump in mid-December of the withdrawal of American troops from the region. “They're all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” declared the United States president, arguing that the Islamic State had been defeated.

During a meeting of the Defence and National Security Council held at the Élysée on November 14th 2018, the need to anticipate the possible repatriation of of French citizens held in prisoners in the north of Syria was already clear. At the time only the principle of repatriating minors had been decided upon. Trump's announcement caught Paris and other European capitals off guard and forced the French authorities to accelerate the moves, fearing that the Turks would take advantage of the American withdrawal to attack Kurdish positions and that the jihadists who were being held would just be let go.

The General Secretariat for Defence and National Security (SGDSN) - Secrétariat Général de la Défense et de la Sécurité Nationale (SGDSN) – then worked on plans for the “repatriation of detained French citizens” and coordinated inter-ministerial work on this. Among its duties, the SGDSN has to prepare for each defence council meeting a dossier that goes to the president and which sets out the various options which exist to tackle the current issue of the day. On this occasion the situation was urgent and the schedule was hurried up.

According to Mediapart's information, following President Trump's remarks the SGDSN sent the Élysée a report in late December which set out the different options of various government departments. It involved finding the best solutions faced with a twin threat: on the one hand, to avoid repatriating known dangerous terrorists among the group French prisoners and also those against whom evidence might might prove insufficient and who might then have to be set free once they returned. On the other hand the challenge was to stop those same men from reaching safe havens in the Middle East where they could prepare attacks on French soil.

In particular the French intelligence services have been worried about French citizens being in the hands of the regime in Damascus, which could use them for media propaganda purposes or, more insidiously, encourage them to return to France and carry out attacks. The agencies have not forgotten the murky role played by Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad in the emergence of Islamic State. In 2011 the Syrian dictator emptied the country's prisons of jihadist prisoners, gambling that they would then join the rebellion and that this would allow him to be able to tell the world that the rebellion had been taken over by terrorists and that he, the Butcher of Damascus, was the lesser of two evils.

To avoid such a scenario, and in agreement with the ministries involved, the SGDSN came up with three options.

The first, the most simple and the most appealing option was a repatriation carried out “from start to finish” by the Americans who would gather up the French citizens in Syria and deliver them in handcuffs and leg irons onto French soil.

The second option was a repatriation managed by France itself. This method has the advantage of not making France dependent on a third country, even a friendly one, but has the disadvantage, according to France's Ministry of Justice, of creating a risk in relation to the subsequent criminal proceedings against those repatriated. Judges fear that the presence of French officials during the questioning in Syria of the jihadists held in camps or in escorting them during their expulsion would extend the delays in handing them over to the French justice system - and that this could this lead to appeals to have the cases quashed. At the end of a legal battle the jihadists could thus find themselves free in France.

The third option was the more complex one. It involved having thirteen men whom it has been established committed abuses in Iraq being tried in that country. The other jihadists would be sent to Iraq – a state recognised by France – from where they would be expelled to France. This operation is the most complicated because at both stages, the transit and the expulsion, it involves French intervention and thus once again leaves open the possibility of challenges to criminal proceedings because of the delay in handing over the suspects.

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