The Clear Banner: French Foreign Fighters in Iraq 2003-2008

The Clear Banner sub-blog on is primarily focused on Sunni foreign fighting. It does not have to just be related to the phenomenon in Syria. It can also cover any location that contains Sunni foreign fighters. If you are interested in writing on this subject please email me at azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

French Foreign Fighters in Iraq 2003 – 2008
By Timothy Holman

Initial assessments by French and US intelligence from 2005, cited in press in 2008, evaluated that there was a significant risk of attacks by eventual returnees from the Iraq theatre. These assessments were drawn-up amongst early reports of hundreds of foreign fighters from Europe.i By 2008, the numbers of European foreign fighters had not reached the initially anticipated volumes and attacks had not materialized.ii In fact, French foreign fighters were now seeking to enter Afghanistan, having abandoned the idea of foreign fighting in Iraq as either too dangerous or as no longer being a ‘pristine jihad’.iii

The attention of French and other Western authorities turned to al-Qaeda core (AQC) members in the Af/Pak zone who remained active in planning and supporting attacks against the West, and later towards Yemen, where a rejuvenated al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), demonstrated deadly intent and resourcefulness in targeting the United States.iv The Iraq-era networks and their apparently diminishing threat slowly receded into the background as these AQ-affiliated entities focused their attention on attacking the West. The beginning of the conflict in Syria and the flood of European foreign fighters meant the Iraq-era networks were for the most part not a subject of study or analysis.v

The Paris and Toulouse attacks in France were perpetrated by foreign fighters with associations to jihadist networks that first came to the attention of the French authorities in the wake of the United States invasion of Iraq and a renewed surge in interest in foreign fighting. The French and Belgian authorities disrupted these networks in early 2005 (Buttes-Chaumont, Paris) and early 2007 (Artigat, Toulouse region and Brussels, Belgium). Despite the action and activities (arrests, trials and imprisonment) by the French authorities, members of the networks continued to associate, radicalize, and form new relationships, in the context of these evolving networks. In the cases of some, their intent moved from foreign fighting abroad, to attacking inside France.

The French Iraq-era Networks and Clusters

In September 2004, the French authorities opened a judicial investigation into what they termed the ‘filières irakiennes’ (Iraq networks). Six cases were brought to trial; the 19th network/ Buttes-Chaumont group, the Montpellier cluster, the Nice cluster, the Ansar al-Fath group, the Tours cluster, and the Artigat The 19th network sent the most individuals into Iraq. The Montpellier cluster sent two persons to Syria; one travelled to Iraq, the second desisted and returned to France where he was arrested. The Nice cluster network was an investigation into connections to individuals in the Kari network in Belgium, which also resulted in a trial and convictions. The Ansar al-Fath group was formed around a former Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) member and individuals he had met in prison. The group initially had the intention of engaging in foreign fighter activity but was redirected into domestic plotting through the instructions of a Syria-based Tunisian facilitator. The group then concentrated its energy into this activity; overseas travel was to Lebanon for training in explosives. The French authorities disrupted the group and the individuals imprisoned.vii In October 2006, three residents of Tours, France traveled to Damascus, Syria with the intention of crossing into Iraq to fight against United States (US) military forces. The three men were rapidly arrested by Syrian security forces as they sought to locate a smuggler to take them across border. They were eventually deported to France and tried.viii This cluster mostly closely resembles the types of individuals that would later participate in the Syria mobilization from France.ix

The Artigat network was a Toulouse-based entity, whose members congregated around a Syrian Afghanistan-veteran in the small town of Artigat. Others traveled to Cairo, Damascus, and in the case of one to Medina, in Saudi Arabia. The travel was for a combination of Arab-language training and to be able to live in countries perceived as better adapted to their faith.x Over-time some members became interested in foreign fighting. Attempts were made to enter Iraq using a Saudi Arabia-based facilitator, who had come into contact with the student based in Medina. The existence and activities of the group became well known to the general public following the 2012 attacks in southwest France by Mohamed Merah. Merah was friends with a core member of the group, and Merah’s brother and sister were also actively engaged in the network. The network continued to exist in some form even after the Toulouse attacks, and members associated with the network have traveled to Syria, including Merah’s sister.xi Since the network formed, participants have been involved in a combination of ‘hijra’, foreign fighting, and domestic terrorist activity.

The story of the 19th network is now well known following the Paris attacks.xii It has origins in Farid Benyettou’s contacts with individuals engaged in militant activity and el-Hakim’s travel to Syria and Iraq and relationships formed while living there. A group of comprised of friends and family members grew around Benyettou in their neighborhood in Paris. Incensed by the war in Iraq and images of Abu Ghraib, the network mobilized to send themselves to fight in Iraq. The group was eventually disrupted from 2004 onwards by a combination of arrests by the US, Syrians and French. A 2008 trial saw members sentenced with some released due to time-served while others returned to prison to see out the remainder of their sentences. In 2010, a small cluster of members through contacts made in prison sought to organize to free an imprisoned GIA bomb maker responsible for the 1995 metro bombings.xiii The planning was organized by a former Afghanistan networks facilitator, Djamel Behgal, who had been assigned to residence following the end of his prison term, while awaiting the result of court proceedings to expel him from France to Algeria. Some members of this group were tried and sentenced in 2013, while others were released due to lack of evidence. A third and final cluster formed between the remnants of the 19th network, and the Beghal cluster. This small cluster would go on to plan and execute the most lethal attacks in France since 1961.xiv

What happened to the French foreign fighters?

Thomas Hegghammer estimates that about 100 European foreign fighters travelled to Iraq.xv My preliminary research has found traces of approximately 54 names of foreign fighters from Europe, who traveled or tried to travel to Iraq from 2003 onwards. They originate from ten countries, nine in Western Europe and one in the Western Balkans. It is probable that there were more fighters, but to-date searches in press reports, judicial documents, martyrs lists, captured terrorist documentation and estimates of captured foreign fighters by the US military give a figure of 54 foreign fighters originating from Europe. This figure is a long way from the estimated 3000 Western Europeans who have traveled to Syria and more recently again to Iraq.xvi

A Preliminary Estimate of European Foreign Fighters in Iraq (2003-2008) and Syria (2011 onwards)

The Iraq numbers are calculated from known travelers to Iraq. The list includes some who were arrested in Syria while attempting to enter Iraq and others who reached Syria but returned home unable to find a facilitator. The Syria numbers come from press reporting or statements by governments compiled in late 2014. See blog post, “Black Math: Getting more from the Foreign Fighter Numbers”, October 10, 2014, The French numbers exclude those wanting to travel and those in transit.

Despite the low absolute numbers, but similar to Syria, French foreign fighters formed the largest proportion – 39% – of the European contingent. According to my research there were 21 persons who traveled at least as far as Syria. Marc Trévidic estimates that there were 30 French foreign fighters but publicly available information currently exists for 21.xvii The French foreign fighters came in their majority from the Buttes-Chaumont network. The numbers used in the analysis that follows draw on the figure of 21, as there is some data on what happened to these fighters. The small sample size means that the observations from the analysis are tentative and subject to revision as more information becomes available.xviii

What Happened to the French Foreign Fighters in Iraq




Arrested in Syria


Two from the Artigat network and three from Tours cluster.


Four from 19th, and one from Montpellier
Imprisoned in Iraq


One from 19th (excludes second 19th member who escaped prison and returned to France, counted as a returnee)


Three from 19th and one from Montpellier


Individual who traveled possibly from Marseilles with Italy-based Tunisians, individual mentioned in Sinjar documents.
Unknown presumed dead


One from 19th, one from Nice cluster and one from Artigat network.


Associate of 19th who traveled later to Syria circa. 2007


The majority of the French foreign fighters traveled in two waves to try and enter Iraq, 41% (9 fighters) in 2004 and 30% (6 fighters) in 2006. The largest number of successful entries was in 2004, when all of the foreign fighters were able to enter Iraq compared to 2006, when only one of the six travelers is reported to have successfully crossed from Syria into Iraq.

The data indicates that there were four returnees. The Montpellier grouping provided the first returnee, although, this individual’s status as returnee could be questioned, as he appears to have traveled as far as Syria and then renounced traveling further when he understood he could be tasked to carry-out a suicide bombing. The other three returnees came from the 19th network.

Three of the four returnees engaged in some form of domestic activity. The case against the Montpellier returnee depends on interpreting the reasons why he had purchased precursor chemicals. He alleged that he had been allowed to return on the condition that he carry out an attack in France. His purchase of the precursor chemicals was to demonstrate the veracity of his story to these persons in Syria or Iraq. The French authorities countered that the volume of chemicals purchased was too large to be coherent with the explanation provided by the individual.xix He was tried and imprisoned.

The other three returnees came from the 19th group and were all arrested at one point or another by either the Syrians or the US. All three appeared to have fought in Iraq, and at least two of them fought in Fallujah in late 2004. Two were expelled to France by the Syrian authorities and the third, escaped from Badush prison, eventually making his way back to Damascus, where the French facilitated his return to France to stand trial.xx The trial eventually took place in 2011, and the individual was sentenced to a prison term. He was not present at the judgment and an arrest warrant was issued.xxi

The remaining two returnees either attempted to engage in or engaged in further acts of violence. Mohamed el-Ayouni was arrested in 2010 in connection to the Beghal prison break plot. His attempt to engage in domestic activity was unsuccessful. This involvement followed having served the prison sentence for the activities linked to his time in Iraq. It is unclear if was brought to trial in case resulting from the 2010 investigation. Boubakeur el-Hakim served the longest prison sentence and upon release traveled to Tunisia, where he was reported to have been involved in the assassination of two Tunisian politicians. He later affirmed his involvement in these attacks in a video filmed in Syria. El-Hakim would now appear to be a foreign fighter with ISIS.xxii

In the case of the Iraq returnees to France three out of four, have been documented as re-engaging in violence. This figure represents a higher level of re-engagement than Hegghammer’s calculation, of one in nine returnees becoming involved domestic activities. The figure for the French foreign fighters linked to Iraq should be treated with caution given the very small size of the cases involved.xxiii

The disruption rate for foreign fighters traveling as far as Syria and trying to enter Iraq was about 30% and most of the arrests occurred in 2006. If, the arrests of the two 19th associates prior to travel from France are added to the figure then it rises to a rate of 36%. Hegghammer has observed that ‘obstruction’ is a mechanism associated with changes in the preference from foreign fighting to domestic attacks.xxiv Some fighters unable to travel, adjust their preferences, and may engage in domestic plotting.

In the case of the obstructed fighters five out of the eight continued their engagement in jihadist movement; two returning to a conflict zone as foreign fighters and three trying to plan and execute attacks in France, one of them successfully. Three individuals, from the Tours travel cluster, are not reported to have engaged in any further activity. Two persons from the Artigat network tried again to participate in foreign fighting, this time successfully in the Syria conflict. Both of them had been arrested in 2006 and expelled together from Syria in early 2007.

Three individuals engaged in domestic planning and plot preparation. Two individuals were arrested prior to carrying out the activities (attack against the French domestic intelligence headquarters and the organization of a prison break). One engaged twice in domestic activities, being thwarted once in 2010 before successfully executing the Paris attacks. All three individuals were associated in some form or another with the 19th grouping from Buttes-Chaumont.

In total, eight out of 15 persons associated with the networks and who demonstrated intention to engage in foreign fighting or actually participated in combat have been documented as engaging in some form of political violence – either as a foreign fighter in another conflict or in attempting to plan and execute terrorist activity outside of the theatre of combat. The figure of 15, includes 13 individuals who traveled, at least as far as Syria, and two who were arrested on the day they planned to travel to Syria.

Of equal interest, but less well documented, are the pathways that some of the members seem to have taken to disengage from their involvement in these networks. The individual widely reported to have been the leader of the 19th, served his prison sentence and while doing so took high school exams, enabling him to go on to further study. He has denounced the attacks in Paris and distanced publicly himself from the use of violence.xxv An individual arrested in the context of the Artigat network, seems also to have made efforts to distance himself from the network according to research by Roman Caillet.xxvi However, neither of these individuals actually left France to attempt to enter Iraq. It is unclear, based on the available data, if travel suggests a higher level of commitment, and is associated with potential longer-term engagement.

Of note is the significant time lag between activities. The turn to domestic violence might have been delayed by initial arrests, trials, and prison time. The reasons for the lull between the return to foreign fighting are not clear as both individuals had left prison by the time the Syria conflict was underway and foreign fighters were entering the country. The pause in their return to foreign fighting could be linked to the enormous pressure and surveillance on the Artigat grouping following the activities of Mohamed Merah in Toulouse. The delay could also have been due to the ‘fitna’ at the end of 2013 and a debate inside their network about which group should be supported.

The single most deadly attack, which killed 12 persons, was carried out by an obstructed fighter with his brother – it is unclear what kind of training they received abroad. Merah who carried out the series of attacks in Toulouse and Montauban may also have received training abroad but the length and type of training remains unclear. The attacks in Tunisia were the work of a returnee although the absolute numbers were less the attack targeted high-profile politicians in Tunisia and the impact of the attacks was considerable. In total, the 19th network and the Artigat network, through small clusters, in the case of the 19th and the solo attacks for Artigat, have killed 24 people in France and two persons in Tunisia, making these the deadliest jihadist networks in France since the 1995 metro bombings.xxvii

The attacks in France suggest that arresting and imprisoning foreign fighters will not, in all cases, be sufficient to ensure disengagement or mitigate against the risk of engagement in domestic attack planning. The removal of foreign fighters from the initial social network within which they engaged in foreign fighting while effective in the short term will not necessarily guarantee complete withdrawal from political violence. Especially, if in prison individuals are able to join and participate in new social networks with the same or similar goals. Further, the relatively ‘disorganized’ nature of the some of the foreign fighter movement to Syria, and the absence of highly structured networks similar to the Afghanistan-period, and to more limited extent Iraq post-2003, means that monitoring and prioritizing foreign fighters and their fluid intent will be both resource intensive and complex.xxviii The impact of the mixing of generations of foreign fighters, will provide long-term challenges to authorities as these entities network and engage in violence.xxix The implications given the size of the Syria foreign fighter mobilization suggest that risks associated with this new generation of foreign fighters could take at least a decade to fully manifest themselves, perhaps longer, given that a small number of individuals choose to engage in foreign fighter or jihadists activity through-out their lifetime.

Timothy Holman is a first year Ph.D. candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He holds a BA (Hons from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and an MLitt the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is a former law enforcement analyst.

i Early estimates of hundreds of European foreign fighters appear to have drawn on the Italian investigation into the Mullah Fouad network. These initial estimates are not reflected in my research conducted on the Iraq-era foreign fighter networks, which suggest that not more than a 100 traveled from Europe. For background on the Fouad network see Vidino, Lorenzo. 2006. Al Qaeda in Europe: the New Battleground of International Jihad. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books pp.263-288. For initial intelligence assessments see Elaine Sciolino, “The Return of Jihadists: Europe’s Fears Dim,” The New York Times, April 8, 2008.
ii Sciolino, “The Return of Jihadists: Europe’s Fears Dim.”
iii Brian Glyn Williams is quoted as stating “The Anbar Awakening really broke the hearts of a lot of al Qaeda followers who saw the jihad in Iraq in black-and-white terms. Sunni Arab al-Qaeda were pushed out by fellow Sunni Arabs. “Iraq is seen as a defeat. The image of Afghanistan is seen as a more pristine jihad.” Tom Couglin, “Foreign Fighters Pour in to Wage War on Coalition Forces.” The Times, July 21, 2008. For more on the plots that emerged from Afghanistan see Paul Cruickshank, The Militant Pipeline, Second Edition, (New America Foundation, July 6, 2011).
iv For background on Yemen and the emergence of AQAP see Gregory D Johnsen, The Last Refuge, (Oneworld Publications, 2013).
v Exceptions are the studies by Truls Hallberg Tønnessen, “Training on a Battlefield: Iraq as a Training Ground for Global Jihadis,” Terrorism and Political Violence 20, no. 4 (September 18, 2008): 543–62, doi:10.1080/09546550802257242; Mohammed M. Hafez, “Jihad After Iraq: Lessons From the Arab Afghans,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32, no. 2 (2009): 73–94, .
vi For some detail on the first three networks see Jean-Pierre Filiu, “Ansar Al-Fatah and ‘Iraqi’ Networks in France,” in The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat, ed. Bruce Hoffman and Fernando Reinares, (Columbia University Press, 2014) and Bruguière provides interesting details on the various networks active at the time in Jean-Louis Bruguière and Jean-Marie Pontaut, Ce Que Je N’ai Pas Pu Dire, (Paris : Laffont, 2009), pp.443-463.
Jean-Louis Bruguière and Jean-Marie Pontaut, Ce Que Je N’ai Pas Pu Dire, (Paris : Laffont, 2009), pp.452-455.; For more information on the Artigat network see La Depeche du Midi, “Terrorisme : 8 à 10 ans requis contre les «jihadistes»,” La Dépêche Du Midi, June 19, 2009 and Terrorism Monitor, “French Converts To Islam Convicted Of Running Iraqi Jihad Network”, Terrorism Monitor, 7 (21) : pp.2-3, July 17, 2009
vii Eric Pelletier and Jean-Marie Pontaut, “Ansar Al-Fath: Les pèlerins du djihad,” Lexpress.Fr, (Paris, October 23, 2008),
viii Régis Guyotat and Piotr Smolar, “Trois Tourangeaux Soupçonnés De Djihadisme,” Le Monde, (Paris, November 30, 2006).
ix The cluster from Tours were young, motivated to do something, and not previously connected to jihadist networks. This is similar to the descriptions of the French foreign fighters in of the Syria generation see David Thomson, Les Français jihadistes, (Paris: Les Arenes, 2014),
x For an overview of the French salafist community in Egypt see Romain Caillet, “Trajectoires de salafis francais en Egypte,” in Qu’est-Ce Que Le Salafisme?, (Paris: Paris : Presses universitaires de France, 2008), 257–71,
xi Jean-Manuel Escarnot and Patricia Tourancheau, “Souad Merah est toujours introuvable,” Libération, May 23, 2014; Jean-Manuel Escarnot and Patricia Tourancheau, “Les disparus de la nébuleuse Merah,” Libération, May 26, 2014.
xii For a brief chronology of the network and its activities see Timothy Holman, “Background on the 19th Network, Paris, France, 200-2013,” January 8, 2015,; For a detailed bibliography related to the network see Timothy Holman, “Bibliography: The 19th Network,” January 8, 2015,
xiii Damien Delseny, “Le commando raté des braqueurs et des Islamistes,” Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France, May 19, 2010.
xiv Jason Burke, “Charlie Hebdo Suspect Cherif Kouachi Linked to Network of French Militants,”, (London, January 8, 2015),; Emeline Cazi et al., “Attentat À « Charlie Hebdo » : La traque d’une fratrie de djihadistes,” Le Monde.Fr, (Paris, January 8, 2015),
xv Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice Between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” Am Polit Sci Rev, January 28, 2013, 1–15, doi:10.1017/S0003055412000615.
xvi Eric Schmitt and Michael S Schmidt, “West Struggles to Halt Flow of Citizens to War Zones,”, (New York, January 13, 2015),
xvii Marc Trévidic, Terroristes: Les 7 Piliers De La Déraison, (JC Lattès, 2013), p.148; Bruguière provides details on the various networks active at the time in Jean-Louis Bruguière and Jean-Marie Pontaut, Ce Que Je N’ai Pas Pu Dire, (Paris : Laffont, 2009), pp.443-463.
xviii Analysis of the estimated 175 France-based travelers since the early-1990s and their associated networks would provide a more robust figure and a more reliable base for comparisons. Figure from Marc Trévidic, Terroristes: Les 7 Piliers De La Déraison, (JC Lattès, 2013).
xix Jean-Louis Bruguière and Jean-Marie Pontaut, Ce Que Je N’ai Pas Pu Dire, (Paris : Laffont, 2009), pp.452-455.
xx Christophe Dubois and Francoise Labrouillere, “Itineraire d’un petit Francais saisi par le djihad,” Paris Match, March 13, 2008.
xxi Benoit Peyrucq, “Filière jihadiste de Paris: 5 ans de prison pour Peter Cherif,” Agence France Press, (Paris, March 11, 2011),
xxii Elliot Higgins, “Geolocating Tunisian Jihadists in Raqqa”, Bellingcat, December 19, 2014,
xxiii Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice Between Domestic and Foreign Fighting.”
xxiv Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice Between Domestic and Foreign Fighting.”
xxv Le Parisien, “VIDEO. Benyettou, L’ex-Émir Des Frères Kouachi, Condamne Les Attentats,” Le Parisien, (Paris, January 12, 2015),
xxvi Romain Caillet, “A French Jihādī in Crisis: ‘Role Exit’ and Repression,” The Muslim World 101, (2) (2011): 286–306,
xxvii Le, “L’attentat le plus meurtrier depuis 1961,” Le Monde.Fr, (Paris, January 7, 2015),
xxviii For discussion of the Syria generation of French foreign fighters see David Thomson, Les Français jihadistes, (Paris: Les Arenes, 2014), Reviews and discussion of the book can be found here Sarah Ben Hamadi, “‘Les Français djihadistes’, Interview de David Thomson,” Huffington Post, March 11, 2014,; Romain Caillet, “‘Les Français jihadistes’: L’envers du décor contre les clichés,” Huffington Post, March 25, 2014, For a slightly dated but nonetheless interesting analysis of the evolution in French foreign fighter numbers and socio-demographics see Mantoux, Stephane. 2014. “‘Hide These Jihadists That I Can’t See: the French Volunteers in Syria’.” Jihadology,
xxix Clint Watts, “Inspired, Networked & Directed – The Muddled Jihad Of Isis & Al Qaeda Post Hebdo,” War on the Rocks, January 12, 2015,

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