- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

PARIS — The two teenage friends hardly seemed like Islamic radicals. They smoked marijuana, drank beer, listened to rap and wore jeans.

Yet the pair of French Muslims died as rebels in Iraq — one as a suicide car bomber, said relatives who traced the young men’s path from the slums of Paris through a religious school in Syria to the fight against the U.S.-led coalition next door.

Like many young Muslims here, Abdelhalim Badjoudj and Redouane el-Hakim didn’t have jobs, and relatives and friends say they grew more alienated in recent years, surrounded by secular Western culture and by what many Muslims see as a subtle bigotry among the French against Arabs.

Badjoudj, who would have turned 19 on Dec. 16, is thought to have blown himself up on Oct. 20 while driving a car filled with explosives near a U.S. patrol on Baghdad’s airport road, wounding two American soldiers and two Iraqi police officers. He is thought to be the second French citizen to have carried out a suicide attack in Iraq.

The body of el-Hakim, 19, reportedly was found July 17, after U.S. troops bombed a suspected insurgent hide-out in Fallujah, the city west of Baghdad that was overrun this month by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

French officials also confirmed the death of a third French insurgent, identified as Tarek W. In his 20s, he reportedly was killed Sept. 17 after operating for several months in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, where most foreign fighters are based. No other details were available.

Although the number of French-born fighters in Iraq appears small — perhaps a dozen or more — anti-terrorism officials worry that some of the young men of mostly Tunisian and Algerian descent will return home with combat skills to wage jihad in France.

“They become like stars,” said Gilles Leclair, director of France’s Anti-Terrorism Coordination Unit. Mr. Leclair confirmed the deaths of el-Hakim, Badjoudj and Tarek W. and suggested that there were more like them in Iraq.

“We have intelligence information that some people are still present in Iraq,” Mr. Leclair said. But he said, “It’s too early to say we have 10, 15, 40.”

El-Hakim and Badjoudj lived in the same northern Paris neighborhood. Both were unemployed and came from broken families.

“If he had work, this wouldn’t have happened,” Badjoudj’s uncle, Hicham, said. “He saw no future for himself.”

The uncle, who insisted that he be quoted only by his first name, said Badjoudj never knew his father, an Algerian who left his Tunisian mother when he was 3 and his brother Sabri was about 1.

Badjoudj’s mother — Hicham’s sister — had five more children with her second husband, an Egyptian, and might be living in Syria or Egypt, he said.

Hicham said Sabri, 17, followed Badjoudj to Iraq a couple of months ago and might have recently moved to the northern city of Mosul after the U.S. offensive in Fallujah.

The uncle is at a loss to explain why Badjoudj was willing to sacrifice his life in Iraq, when he could hardly speak Arabic or identify with that country’s culture.

“Abdelhalim drank beer, he smoked hashish a lot,” said Hicham, describing his nephew as extremely shy but “super kind” and “super polite.”

Hicham noted many Muslims in France and other Western countries have trouble relating to secular culture and often find it hard to make a living. Nearly a tenth of France’s 60 million people are Muslims, many of whom live in high-rise public-housing slums that breed violence and crime.

“There’s no work here. There’s no caring father. Life is tough,” said Hicham, 36.

America’s presence in Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land are seen as behind much of the anger among Muslim youth, including in Europe.

Their anger and frustration are fanned by daily TV images of Palestinians being fatally shot by Israeli forces or Iraqi towns coming under U.S. bombardment. Extremist and radical leaders use this anger and despair to recruit fighters for the war in Iraq.

El-Hakim, a Tunisian, was one of five children, raised by his mother, Habiba, according to the newspaper Le Parisien. He reportedly dropped out of an apprenticeship at a neighborhood bakery and later started a sandwich shop that failed.

The Associated Press was unable to contact el-Hakim’s family. But according to Le Parisien’s report, friends and relatives described him as easygoing until he came under the influence of an older brother, Boubakr, who is said to be a more religious man who wore traditional Muslim clothing. Boubakr is now in a Syrian jail, apparently for trying to cross into Iraq this year.

The el-Hakim brothers reportedly frequented the Iqra Mosque in the western Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret. Authorities closed the mosque in June and briefly arrested its members, including an Algerian cleric who is thought to have preached radical views and encouraged worshippers to pursue jihad, or holy war.

El-Hakim’s radicalization was recent, his family said.

“He was smoking [marijuana] until six months ago,” his sister, Khadija, told Le Parisien.

Hicham said Badjoudj and five or six other French Muslim friends — all unemployed — had gone to Syria last year and enrolled in a theology school in the capital, Damascus. All of them ended up in Iraq, he said.

Six months after leaving for Syria, Badjoudj returned to Paris for a visit, his uncle said. He married an 18-year-old sweetheart of Moroccan background, but less than a month later, he went back to Syria.

“He said, ‘Inshallah [God willing], I will be going to Iraq,’” Hicham recalled. “He wanted to help the brothers, the Arabs. He wanted to be with them.”

Hicham said he could not change his nephew’s mind.

“I told him not to go, that I would try to find him a job here. But I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t know he would become a kamikaze,” Hicham said, speaking in Arabic.

Hicham said he was certain that Badjoudj and his friends were indoctrinated and recruited by Islamic radicals while in Syria, not France. But he also said money was sent to them from France for their accommodation, food and clothing, although he said he didn’t know who sent it.

Mr. Leclair said there is no organized network in France recruiting young Muslims to join the insurgency in Iraq. He said Islamic radicals look for recruits at places where young Muslims congregate, such as fast-food restaurants, cell-phone shops and cybercafes.

“They go to the mosque, discuss, they receive radical prayers, they hear a lot of things and most of the time they are unemployed … and it’s a kind of adventure. They go because it’s an honor to go,” he said.

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