Frenchman returning from Syria warned of attack at rock concert

In the summer of 2015, in an interrogation room in the offices of the French intelligence services, a young computer technician from Paris was recounting his meeting with a notorious Belgian jihadist in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

The young Frenchman – identified as Reda H. – had just returned from Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, where he met a Belgian national who was already well known to French counterterrorism officials.

“He asked me if I was interested in going abroad,” Reda told his interrogators. “He said, for example, ‘Imagine a rock concert in a European country. If you were armed, would you be ready to shoot into the crowd?’”

The Parisian-born and -raised computer technician demurred. Or at least that’s what Reda told his interrogators at the DGSE (Directorate-General for External Security) offices. “I told him I wanted to fight the soldiers of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad.”

The Belgian who met Reda in Raqqa was none other than Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who would grab international headlines months later for organising the November 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

A lengthy account of that confession – made on August 13, 2015, and published Wednesday in the French daily Le Monde – provides disturbing details of IS group recruitment channels, as well as an insight into the surfeit of intelligence being gathered by European security services.

‘Is it legitimate to cut off a thief’s hand?’

A 30-year-old IT expert who worked at a subsidiary of French aerospace giant Airbus, Reda was living in Paris’s upscale 15th arrondissement (district) before he left for Syria in June 2015, shortly after losing his job.

Incensed by Assad’s brutal crackdown on the opposition, Reda told his interrogators he wanted to fight a leader who “slaughtered his own people”, although he also admitted that he was “initially attracted to the IS group’s efficiency”.

Details of the lengthy questioning provided to Le Monde offer insights into how security officials attempt to differentiate between the levels of radicalisation seen among some of the young Frenchmen who have returned from the IS group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

“Do you consider it legitimate to cut off a thief’s hand, given that you were arrested in 2007 for a series of thefts?” the interrogator asks Reda at one point, citing a literalist interpretation of sharia law’s proposed punishment for stealing.

“I agree with the principle of cutting off the hand of a thief,” Reda replied. “But I think this should apply only to repeat offenders.”

When asked about the IS group’s gruesome beheading videos, his distrust of the West is startlingly evident.

“I’ve seen some stuff that sickened me, like children holding the severed heads of Syrian soldiers,” Reda replied. “But something inside me told me that it was only the [Western] media saying this…What made me doubt it though was that these videos were broadcast by the Islamic State itself. I was torn.”

Training exercise gone wrong

There’s little doubt, however, that Reda’s Belgian associate Abaaoud was looking to pull off a terror attack in Paris – particularly after a failed church attack that ended with the assailant accidentally shooting himself in the foot.

This time, Abaaoud was taking no chances. As Reda informed his questioners, the Belgian personally took charge of his training, including a mock attack that required Reda to throw a grenade into a house and wait for it to explode before entering and shooting at targets within.

The exercise went awry shortly after Reda threw the grenade. He heard a small explosion and thought the grenade had gone off, rushing into the house and firing at three targets before the grenade actually exploded. The Frenchman was injured and had to be rushed to a Raqqa hospital.

But his trainer was not to be deterred. Redaa was summoned once again to meet Abaaoud. “He told me I had to leave [Syria] because my [French] passport was about to expire,” Redaa told the authorities.

The young man who arrived in Syria to fight Assad’s forces was now being sent home to launch an attack on French soil.

Redaa was given €2,000 in cash and a circuitous return route through the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Belgium. He was also given a USB stick with an encryption key to be downloaded onto his computer and was advised to await further instructions.

In his testimony Reda said he had no intention of following through with an attack, although his lengthy confession came only after investigators discovered inconsistencies in the initial account he provided the authorities upon his return home.

‘It’s a real factory out there’

Le Monde’s report underscored that Abaaoud had long been a figure familiar to French intelligence circles. A grisly 2014 videotape featured the Belgian giggling as he drove a pickup dragging mutilated corpses behind it. In the IS group’s online magazine, Dabiq, Abaaoud once boasted about repeatedly crossing into Europe from Syria. He also had links to Mehdi Nemmouche, the French national who attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014, killing four people in what was consideredEurope’s first case of IS blowback.

Reda’s testimony, however, provided the clearest indication of Abaaoud’s plans to attack a rock concert – and it came months ahead of the attack on the Bataclan, where 89 people were killed.

“All I can tell you is that this will happen very soon,” the young man told his interlocutors. “It’s a real factory out there, and they’re really trying to hit France or Europe.”

The intelligence reached the desk of France’s former chief anti-terrorism judge, Marc Trévidic, who told The New York Times in December 2015 that he placed an urgent call to the French domestic intelligence agency, the DGSI, and asked them to track Abaaoud’s emails.

But as specific as Reda’s testimony was, it was still impossible to pinpoint the exact target of the terror plot. His confession came just two weeks before the highly-popular Rock en Seine music festival, which alarmed the security services.

In the end, the annual Rock en Seine festival was spared. But it would be only a few months before Abaaoud did succeed in conducting his dream attack on French soil. The question that remains is how a known jihadist – whose aims were well known to French counter-terror officials – managed to slip through the net and go on to plot one of France’s deadliest terrorist attacks.