Dispatch

The Strange Case of the White Jihadist of Timbuktu

Was Abdul Jalil al-Fransi an al Qaeda fighter -- or a French spy?

Gilles Le Guen seemed like France's worst nightmare. He was a white Frenchman who could move around the country at will and had pledged his loyalty to al Qaeda's branch in North Africa. He had even fought alongside the jihadists during their occupation of northern Mali. But the story may not be so simple: Al Qaeda began to suspect that he was, in fact, a spy sent by France to infiltrate its ranks, and it launched an investigation to determine his true loyalties.

We know all this from a handwritten 10-page document in Arabic left behind by the extremists in the legendary northern Malian town of Timbuktu as they fled an impending French attack in January.

The document shows that Europeans did join al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but that the organization's leadership treated these "white al Qaeda" with the utmost suspicion. Particularly following a Danish convert's deadly betrayal of al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the terrorist group has good reason to be suspicious of white jihadists. The same applies in Syria, where hundreds of fighters with European passports -- Arabs and converts -- are joining extremist opposition groups.

Almost all jihadi fighters who conquered Timbuktu in March 2012 were Arabs from Algeria, Morocco, Mali, or Mauritania. They were turban-wearing, battled-hardened men belonging to AQIM who waged their jihad in one of the most unforgiving places on Earth -- the Sahara, the world's largest desert.

Among this hardened group of fighters, Le Guen stood out. He was a convert to Islam, a former ship captain, an ex-employee of Doctors Without Borders, and he carried a French passport. He and his Moroccan wife arrived in Timbuktu shortly before the town was captured by AQIM and its local Malian partner, Ansar Dine. As the extremists approached Timbuktu, many black, non-Arab Malians and Western tourists fled in panic. But Le Guen and his wife chose to stay.

The Frenchman immediately joined al Qaeda's desert force. Le Guen's comrades even gave him an Arabic nom de guerre: Abdul Jalil al-Fransi, or "Abdul Jalil the Frenchman." In Timbuktu, he received military training from AQIM and recorded a video message in French in support of the group's holy war. The video of Le Guen sitting next to a Kalashnikov appeared on YouTube on Oct. 9, and he looked every bit the confident Islamic warrior.

One month later, however, Le Guen was in trouble -- serious trouble. His new friends had heard from an al Qaeda fighter that Le Guen received a telephone call from the French Embassy in Mali's capital, Bamako. This, of course, raised suspicion among AQIM ranks: Was Abdul Jalil al-Fransi a true jihadist, or was he a French spy?

On Nov. 10, Le Guen was arrested and interrogated by al Qaeda forces in Timbuktu. His Moroccan wife was also questioned. One day later, the group opened an investigation into his case and appointed its notorious commander, Abdul Hamid Abu Zaid, as the lead investigator. (Clearly such work wasn't Abu Zaid's calling, as Gilles Le Guen's name was misspelled in Arabic throughout the entire document as "Gilles Leon.")

Opened on Nov. 11, the investigation began with the testimony of an al Qaeda fighter from Mauritania who went by the nom de guerre Abu al-Dardaa al-Shanqiti. The fighter said he met the Frenchmen at the militants' Abu Haretha camp, where Le Guen "entered a training session on heavy weapons and showed patience while practicing."

The "Abu Haretha camp" is the former headquarters of Mali's military police and was used by the militants after the security forces fled town. AQIM transformed the building there into one of its headquarters and used the site as a military training camp. During the French invasion, it was one of the first targets of French airstrikes and is now fully destroyed.

The Mauritanian fighter said that Le Guen had told him that the French Embassy had been in touch with him. He added that he considered Le Guen a good man but someone who was "not well versed in the concept of allegiance [to Islam]."

Le Guen also had money. "He told me his mother sends him money," Shanqiti added. "And two months before he told me he likes to buy a car, because he received 1,000 euros from his mother."

In addition to having contact with the French Embassy and a ready supply of funds, Le Guen was asking questions about a sensitive topic for the jihadists. "He always asked about the situation of the [Western] hostages and what we will do after the attack of the enemies," the Mauritanian fighter told the investigators,

The investigators then ask the Mauritanian witness about Nawal, Le Guen's Moroccan wife. "Yes, his wife asks a lot of questions, like: 'What will the brothers do if the war starts? Where will they go to?' Yesterday when I met her after she was accused and after her husband was arrested, she was still talking about the same topics."

After this, Le Guen himself was questioned. Abu Zaid, the top AQIM commander, stepped in to interrogate him personally.

Le Guen was asked to introduce himself. The Frenchman mentioned he had converted to Islam in 1982 or 1983 in Tunisia, while working on a ship.

The investigators asked for more details. "I was the captain of the ship," the Frenchman said. "In that year I quit my work. I returned to France. My wife became a Muslim when I married her. She used to work in factories, and then she moved to agriculture. In 1999, I divorced this woman after she gave birth to two sons: 16-year old Abdul Karim, and the first son is called Sinbad and he is 18. They are now in France."

The investigators weren't satisfied. They reported that they had decided to repeat the investigation. In the page where they wrote down the basic information about his name and occupation, they included a question: Did Le Guen ever serve in the French Army?

"I served in it when I was 18, and my military rank was: deuxième classe," Le Guen claimed, giving a low rank. The investigators write in brackets the word "soldier" next to his answer.

Le Guen claimed that he had forgotten the names of the weapons with which he trained in the French Army. When the jihadists pressed him, he ventured that he had shot an M7 machine gun.

The repeated investigation led to many pages of notes on Le Guen's personal life. They reveal details about his life as a ship captain, his troubled family life, and his broken relations with his siblings. During the course of the investigation, Le Guen also revealed that at one point he went back to France to work for the international NGO Doctors Without Borders and was stationed in Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa for six months. "They took me because I know languages like French, English, and Spanish," he said.

Doctors Without Borders' operations advisor, Fabrice Weissman, confirmed to us that Le Guen had worked with the organization in 1985 as a logistician. Weissman added that Doctors Without Borders had no contact with him after that and had no idea Le Guen was living in Timbuktu. "We discovered the presence of a French jihadist with a past history with MSF after the release of his video on YouTube," he said, using the organization's French acronym.

The AQIM investigators' main interest was, of course, the apparent telephone contact between Le Guen and the French Embassy. During the interrogation, the Frenchman admitted he was indeed contacted by his embassy, but he maintained the discussion was harmless. He asserted that a neighbor in Timbuktu had fled the city and subsequently gave the embassy his number. "They called me, and I told the embassy I am facing no problems in Timbuktu," he explained.

The French Embassy in Bamako confirmed it had called French nationals in Timbuktu after al Qaeda overran northern Mali and asked them to leave the area. However, embassy press officer Didier Nourrisson claimed the embassy did not contact Le Guen. "We don't know anything about him," he said. "We have no idea about his motives. We don't know where this man currently is."

And that's where the 10-page investigation into Le Guen ends. The document does not report a verdict, so it remains unclear whether AQIM considers the Frenchman to be a spy or a real jihadist.

But there is a third possibility. During the investigation, the Mauritanian witness suggested that Le Guen might have been mentally ill. "I noticed that maybe sometimes he passes through psychological conditions and maybe he is psychologically disturbed," he said.

Spy, jihadist, or madman? Whatever the truth, ever since Gilles Le Guen was taken into custody by AQIM, nothing has been heard of him or his wife.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

With Friends Like These…

Even the Chinese are finally starting to think their allies in Pyongyang are a little bit crazy.

BEIJING — On Friday, April 5, North Korea warned some foreign embassies in Pyongyang that it couldn't guarantee the safety of their diplomats. On Monday, it suspended operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a business park jointly run by the two halves of the Korean peninsula. But for a sign of just how isolated North Korea has become, look at the Chinese Internet. The Kim family "has driven itself into a corner surrounded by enemies," Ma Dingsheng, a well-known military commentator with more than 375,000 followers, wrote in a Sina Weibo post on Monday. "Over here, China is doing all it can, trying to erect a stage for a six-party talk; over there, Pyongyang is bombing the stage with a nuclear weapon. Even Xi Jinping has come to the end of his patience and berated North Korea for 'throwing a region and the world into chaos for selfish gain,'" Ma wrote, referencing a rare scolding remark from the Chinese president on Sunday.

As Beijing, Pyongyang's sole important ally, shows signs of shifting away from North Korea, the Chinese public also appears to be shedding its sympathy for Pyongyang. On Sina Weibo, China's popular social media platform, reactions toward Kim Jong Un's bellicosity generally range from derision to exasperation. The young dictator is a favorite target of ridicule among Chinese Weibots, who call him "Fatty Kim the Third," an "ungrateful juvenile," as well as the less subtle "crazy and unbalanced psycho."

There's a change in the air. The Chinese public's feelings toward North Korea have typically been a mixture of condescension, distrust, and compassion. While the memory of the Korean War -- in which the two countries fought together against the Americans -- is fading, some Chinese still empathize with their benighted neighbor, who they see as the underdog of the international stage. Some draw parallels between North Korea's position today and China's during the 1960s, when it conducted its first nuclear test, and express admiration for Pyongyang's defiant attitude toward the United States. "North Korea is building nuclear weapons to protect itself, just like China did before," a stay-at-home mother in her 40s, who gave her name as Wang, said in an interview on Monday in a public park in Beijing's university district. "The United States should mind its own business and stop meddling with other countries' affairs."

This view, however, seems to be in the minority, as an increasing number of Chinese are calling for a tougher stance toward North Korea. "China should exercise necessary sanctions against North Korea to deepen its awareness of the importance of external aid and the strategic meaning of the support it receives from China," read a Monday editorial in Global Times, a tabloid newspaper known for its nationalistic views. "China has been carrying out the same policies to support North Korea for so many years, but it has always followed its own script," said Qiao Wei, an editor at Beijing World Publishing Corporation. Qiao speaks fluent Korean, having spent a year of college in 2003 studying the language at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. "We've been too indulgent, and it's time to give it some pressure."

Deng Yuwen, formerly the deputy editor of the Communist Party journal Study Times, went further in a controversial op-ed in late February in The Financial Times, where he argued that "Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula." North Korea has shown that it is no longer useful as a buffer against United States influence, Deng maintained, and its fickle behavior makes it more a liability than an asset for China in the long term. (Since the article's publication, Deng has been suspended from his job.)

"I'm worried about the possibility of war," said Pency Tang, a 27-year-old civil servant working at China's Ministry of Transport in Beijing. He comes from Dandong, a city of roughly 2.5 million people sitting on the North Korean border, and his parents still live there. "The new Kim is too young and seems very impulsive. It is difficult to tell what he would do."

Since late March, when North Korea's provocations intensified, Chinese broadcasters have devoted hours of airtime each day to dissecting Kim's latest threats. CCTV News, part of China's state broadcaster, runs programs that speculate on the activities near North Korea's nuclear sites and detail the sophistication of its military weapons. The tone has grown increasingly somber. "North Korea hopes to demonstrate to the United States, Japan, and South Korea that with its military power, the stakes for both negotiation and war will be high," remarked Du Wenlong, a senior researcher with the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, in the news digest program Global Watch. "If the confrontation escalates further, neither side would have the even the smallest space for retreat. They'll both fall off the cliff."

That's not to say that North Korea is an obsession for the average Chinese. On Sina Weibo's trending topic list on Wednesday, North Korea ranked only No. 37 -- below the recent bird flu outbreak and Japan's naming of the anime character Doraemon as its special ambassador for Tokyo's 2020 Olympic bid.

One message, however, has gone viral: an eight-minute segment from The Daily Show -- in which Jon Stewart poked fun at North Korea's doctored propaganda image, backward weaponry, and Kim Jong Un's brash behavior -- has been viewed 2.9 million times. Despite some unfamiliarity with the cultural and political references in the segment, Stewart's video was a hit. (People appear to especially like the Photoshopped picture of a statue of Kim Jong Un having sex with the Statue of Liberty.) Americans have long thought of the dictators in Pyongyang as bizarre and reckless demagogues, as crazy as they are dangerous. But now, it seems that the Chinese are coming around to a similar view -- or at least one of annoyance with a former friend. One viewer commenting on the The Daily Show video nicely encapsulated the changing attitude toward North Korea: "Why is it inviting humiliation like this?"

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images