The jihadist network on the French island of La Réunion

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For a long time French overseas territories have been spared armed jihadism and the phenomenon of young people heading off for the war zones of Syria and Iraq. But the recent trial in Paris of a young man from La Réunion in the Indian Ocean for a conspiracy to carry out a terrorist act has changed that. The conviction of Naïl Varatchia also challenges the widely-perceived idea that the Muslim community on the island is an example of tolerance. Julien Sartre reports.

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A young man called Naïl Varatchia was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for “criminal conspiracy to commit a terrorist act”. The court ruled he had to serve two thirds of his sentence and he was remanded in custody pending the start of his formal jail term. It was a routine day for the 16th chamber of the criminal court in Paris, which specialises in both small and large terrorism-related cases.

However, the profile of the convicted man from the French overseas territory of La Réunion was far from routine, even for this court. It was the first it had heard a case involving a network of jihadist recruitment based in a French overseas territory. The court was told that Naïl Varatchia was the “religious teacher” of a group of young people – mostly from the main town of Saint-Denis – with whom he exchanged content via the internet that was very explicit and violent in nature. Six of these “pupils” later joined Al Qaeda and then Islamic State in the Syrian-Iraqi war zone. One of the group, a young man of around 20, died there. Two year later, none of the others have returned either.

In early 2013, the time of the events over which he was accused, Naïl Varatchia was also in contact via Facebook with Omar Diaby, better known as Omar Omsen, a recruiter for several active jihadist organisations. During the court hearing in late June, as well as during the investigation itself, Varatchia had denied the accusations against him. The young man with a shock of dark hair and an intense gaze repeated that he had “never wanted [the young men] to go!”

His defence lawyers Normane Omarjee and Gabriel Odier pointed put that he was the only one of his religious group to have stayed in La Réunion, the only one not to have gone to a war zone. “He is being singled out because he is knowledgeable, erudite,” Omarjee told the court. However, it was the very reason that he did not himself go to a war zone that was one of the factors behind his heavy sentence: for the authorities saw Naïl Varatchia as a dangerous individual, a mastermind.

The young man, who has had a security file on him since 2013, refined his knowledge of radical Islam through visits to India, Britain and Egypt. It was his stay in this last country that earned him the nickname “the Egyptian” on the island. The Islamic institute he attended for several months in Cairo was also visited by jihadists who had links with the attacks in Paris on November 13th, 2015.

But though Naïl Varatchia made a number of trips abroad to explore Islam it was not there that he discovered his faith. Indeed, one of the reasons his case has caused a media stir on La Réunion is that he comes from a lower middle class family who are well-integrated and part of the mainstream Muslim community on the island. Mainstream, that is, in the context of La Réunion, where Islam is practised differently from metropolitan France and North Africa.

It's not Islam in La Réunion that's been on trial here,” said the defendant's lawyer Normane Omarjee. “But it has to be recognised that the local context has played a role and been a source of incomprehension for the judges of the 16th chamber. In the hearing it led to moments of confusion and as far as I'm concerned you can't judge a [person from Brittany] as you would [a person from La Réunion] in this kind of case. That harms the personalised nature of the sentence and as a lawyer, the consequences of this justice of exception seem dangerous to me.”

The first example of this “incomprehension” came when one of the judges sought to know more about Naïl Varatchia's first trip, to India. The judge was trying to assess his level of radicalisation. But the young man did not go to India alone, but on a trip organised entirely by a movement called Tablighi.

Tablighi Jamaat, which is well-established on La Réunion, is a transnational Muslim organisation that originated in India and which seeks to re-Islamify Indian Muslims who were perceived as being under threat from Hinduism. “The Tablighi movement is very well organised on La Réunion where it has been present since 1956. Its action is centred on the re-Islamification of La Réunion people immersed in Western culture. Some see it as a stepping stone for radicalisation,” says Marie-France Mourrégot, a doctor in social and historical anthropology and author of the standard work on the subject 'L'Islam à l'île de la Réunion' ('Islam on the Island of La Réunion'). “The great majority of Tablighi supporters don't get radicalised but they spread a strict doctrine, which advocates a literal application of the Koran and of the hadiths with no room for reflection. Even if this movement has no political aim, it is very proselytizing and very active. Some young people, looking for action, can later move on to clear radicalisation, mainly via the internet.”

Overall, Islam on La Réunion is marked by its links with India, as the community that practices it came from the Indo-Pakistan region. “Islam is visible in the public arena on La Réunion,” says Marie-France Mourrégot. “Mosques, Koranic schools and Muslim cemeteries are part of the cultural heritage. The open signs of religious affiliation sometimes cause irritation but do not bother people.... This overseas French département [akin to a county] has very well-organised Muslim organisations whose management and operation are in the hands of the Indo-Muslims.”

These institutions often hold up La Réunion's practice of Islam as an example, pointing also to the inter-religious dialogue on the island. Indeed, in 2010 the question was posed at the National Assembly in Paris as to whether Islam on La Réunion could serve as an “example for the Republic”.

Today the imam at the mosque in the island's second town, Saint-Pierre, has no hesitation in answering this question in the affirmative. Housman Omarjee accepts that his community is not immune from terrorism “because it's a global phenomenon” but staunchly defends the local model which is about “self-reliance, with no intervention by a foreign country” and is “respectful of public order”.

Even if it did not create it, however, the Muslim community on La Réunion was not able to foresee the creation of what the state prosecutor at the trial in Paris called “the La Réunion jihadist network”. The prosecutor then called for Naïl Varatchia to be jailed for eight years, saying he did not believe in the defendant's remorse.

After the prosecution's closing speech Naïl Varatchia appeared overcome. He insisted he felt “overwhelmed” by what had happened to him and told the court that he recognised his “mistakes” and that he had completely renounced violence and radical Islam.

After the trial, which finished on June 28th, Naïl Varatchia was returned to the prison in Bordeaux where he has been on remand for the past two years. He regularly asks to be transferred back to his island and hopes to return there once he is freed “because over there you can practice Islam as it's intended, women can wear veils without it causing a problem, you can also rent a room for the end of Ramadan and it's seen as normal”. As things stand, however, he will not be eligible for release before 2019.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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