PARIS – One said he couldn't afford the bullets to load his gun in Syria, while another compared carrying a Kalashnikov to wearing a superhero costume. Most of the six men on trial in Paris for their alleged roles in a recruiting network for European Islamic extremist fighters portray themselves as amateur holy warriors grappling with a conflict way over their heads.
The central figure in the week-long trial that closes on Monday is 35-year-old Salim Benghalem, a suspected Islamic State group commander wanted by the U.S. and France. He is believed to be in Syria and is being judged in absentia.
Benghalem's wife, who left Syria with their children, has told investigators he would return to France only to carry out attacks not stand trial — aiming for "a series of killings." The trial was being held in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people, stunned France and sent Europe into a state of high alert.
The six French nationals present in court, all of whom could face up to 10 years in prison for their activities in 2013, sought to present themselves as far less committed to jihad than Benghalem. Four described themselves in testimony last week as naive about the situation in Syria.
The group played soccer together as children in the town of Thiais, just south of Paris, hung out as adolescents in school, or simply met on the journey to radicalization. After mostly brief stays in Syria, they all testified that they wanted to go home. The men minimized their roles with extremist groups, with some claiming that they went to Syria to do humanitarian work and had no role in fighting. Five of the six went to the northern city of Aleppo, dominated by rebels.
Abdelmalek Tanem, 26, an alleged recruiter, spent a full 18 months in Syria, from the end of 2012 until the spring of 2014, saying he helped French jihadis get to the Turkish border with Syria. He pledged allegiance first to the Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaida, then to the rival Islamic State group, and said he left Syria because of the infighting among the groups.
He was arrested in Spain in April 2014 as he tried to make his way to Algeria.
Investigators, using phone taps, established a clear working relationship between Tanem and Benghalem. In court, however, Tanem distanced himself from the prime suspect who had celebrated the January attacks against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store in Paris that killed 17 people, plus the three attackers.
Tanem said he didn't "understand how Benghalem could radicalize in such a way," adding that he "condemns all attacks in France."
The defendants portrayed themselves as being unaware of the full gravity of their actions, or the difficulties they would encounter. Tanem, for instance, claimed he was simply looking for meaning in life.
"I went to Syria at first for humanitarian reasons," Tanem told the court. "Then I said to myself, 'Why not take part in combat?'" He said he never followed the temptation to fight, and dismissed his military training as minimal.
Another defendant, Karim Hadjidi, a 37-year-old who is married with four children, said he was among the recruited, but he couldn't afford to fight. He stayed in Syria for three weeks instead of the two months initially planned, because he didn't have enough money to stay.
"They gave me a Kalashnikov, but I didn't fire it because I didn't have bullets," he said. "Each bullet cost two euros ($2.18)."
Paul M'Barga, a 23-year-old Cameroonian who converted to Islam, said he stayed only five days in Syria "before being confronted with the reality." But before leaving, M'Barga had a photo taken of himself, all smiles, Kalashnikov in hand.
"It's a disguise," he insisted in court, about carrying the Kalashnikov. "It's like when you're little and you put on a Spiderman costume."