French jihadi network chief sentenced to 9 years in prison

The chief of a dismantled French radical network was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison for recruiting for jihad, plotting attacks against Jewish targets and praising terrorism. The relatively severe verdict comes as France is trying to prevent extremist violence by angry, marginalized Muslims.

A Paris court convicted Mohamed Achamlane, self-proclaimed “emir” of the Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride) group, of terrorism charges. The French citizen was accused of plotting attacks, including targeting kosher markets and other Jewish businesses in Paris, abducting and torturing a Jewish judge in Lyon and threatening France, according to court documents.

Thirteen others, who like Achamlane were convicted of criminal association with a terrorist enterprise, were sentenced to up to six years in prison — except for the lone female defendant who got a suspended 12-month sentence.

The verdict came six months after attacks on a kosher supermarket and satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which left 20 people dead including the three radical Muslim gunmen. It also came two weeks after the beheading of a businessman in eastern France that authorities have blamed on a former delivery driver, Yassin Salhi, who allegedly had links to Forsane Alizza.

During the trial, Achamlane, 37, said he created Forsane Alizza in 2010 to counter growing anti-Muslim feelings in France and claimed a desire to “channel the energy” of young Muslims and lead them away from violence.

Achamlane, 37, testified that he favored an “uninhibited” Islam but denied any violent intent or “terrorist inspiration.”

“I am the emir of a group that is considered Islamist and I do not hide anything,” Achamlane said.

The group was dissolved in 2012 and its suspected members were arrested because authorities feared they were ready to carry out violent acts.

Judge Dominique Piot  said the court found Achamlane had intended to “perpetrate an act of a terrorist nature.”

She noted a number of Internet chats, including one in which Achamlane praised Mohamed Merah, who killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school  in Toulouse as well as three French paratroopers before being killed by police. According to court documents, he had called the attack “a blessing of Allah.”

The court cited another chat in which he said: “We are going to inflict scars to France… We’re going to slash up France.” In another, he compared himself with Osama bin Laden, according to court documents.

Investigators pointed to a “declaration of war” against France in video and text posted on Forsane Alizza’s Web site. It issued an ultimatum to France to withdraw its troops from Muslim territories and scrap a law banning face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women.

On the group’s computer hard drives and memory sticks, investigators found a copy of “The Terrorist’s Handbook” and a file labeled “targets” in which a dozen Jewish businesses were listed. Achamlane had also stored personal information on policemen, lawmakers and magistrates.