PARIS—Accused of running a network to recruit French extremists to fight in Syria, designated a terrorist by the United States and a fugitive by his homeland, Salim Benghalem promised to only return to France to carry out an attack “with a maximum of damage.”
Benghalem went on trial in absentia Tuesday along with six men in France. The 35-year-old Benghalem, who is believed to be in Syria, has been linked with Cherif Kouachi, who along with his brother attacked the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January.
Less than three weeks after the Nov. 13 attacks killed 130 people in Paris, tensions remained high Tuesday at the city’s main courthouse. Benghalem, who has featured repeatedly in Islamic State propaganda, is accused of running a network that is considered a major French source of European fighters.
Benghalem’s wife, who left Syria with their children, has told investigators that he would return to France only to carry out an attack. She has said he believed bombs were not enough, that “a series of killings is recommended.”
Abdelmalek Tanem, one of the other six men on trial, acknowledged that he had made contact with Benghalem by phone. He said although Benghalem arrived in Syria “after him,” he hadn’t helped him get over the border.
The U.S. State Department has called Benghalem an executioner for the Islamic State group and in 2014 listed him as a foreign terrorist fighter.
A lawyer for one of the men on trial with Benghalem said he feared the others, many of whom spent only a short time in Syria before returning, can no longer get a fair trial in France.
“There is a context with the events of the past days that will no doubt influence this long hearing and maybe will have an impact on the serenity required for a ruling,” said Xavier Nogueras, a lawyer for Karim Hadjidj.
He said Hadjidj spent 10 days in Syria in 2013 at a time when France itself had been calling unsuccessfully for military intervention against Syrian President Bashar Assad.