Sept. 19, 2012, was the morning after Rosh Hashanah and the fridge was empty. Joël Benguigui, 57, and his wife, Joëlle, were heading home after a stop at the kosher hypermarket in the city of Sarcelles, near Paris, when Joëlle realized she’d forgotten to buy chicken. The couple did a U-turn, but instead of driving all the way back to the kosher hypermarket they decided to stop at its rival, the Naouri store, into which two fragmentation grenades were about to be thrown.
Joël remembers that as his wife walked into the store, he waited for her near the smoked-glass doors in front of the checkout where his phone worked better so they could exchange text messages. “All of a sudden I heard a great ‘boom!’ I saw some smoke. I thought of a firecracker,” he remembered. “Then the glass door just caved in. It simply fell on itself.”
The smoked-glass windows meant that the outside of the store wasn’t visible from where Joël stood. Yet between the explosion and the collapse of the doors he’d had the time to discern two silhouettes running. When the door fell, he jumped outside by reflex, in search, he would later rationalize, of what he thought to be two foolish kids. “I think I thought of running after them. But they had already vanished,” he remembered.
On the sidewalk, a small crowd attracted by the commotion had started to gather. Some people approached Joël and told him he was hurt. “No, I’m not,” he replied. “It’s a firecracker. But as I said that,” he continued, “I felt my arm was beginning to tickle and I looked and saw some blood. The back of my leg right behind the knee was bleeding as well. I said it probably was some piece of glass. Then I went back in to look for my wife and she was safe. But then that’s when I realized what had actually happened.” One of the two M75 fragmentation grenades had in fact landed right at Joëlle’s feet as she was approaching the checkout. Although the spoon had detached itself from the weapon, the grenade had miraculously misfired.
The second grenade had worked fine. M75 grenades are antipersonnel weapons of Yugoslavian fabrication. Their core contains some 3,000 steel balls with a 3-mm diameter and an effective killing radius of 30 to 50 meters. Yet miraculously, Joëlle received only two of those balls and no—one else was hurt—though Joëlle was later diagnosed as having permanently lost 20 percent of her hearing capacity because of the noise.
Joël and Joëlle Benguigui are Sephardic Jews from the Maghreb who define themselves as “a little bit more than just traditional Jews.” They attribute their good fortune in avoiding more serious injuries to “a miracle, a divine will.” One can also assume that the assailants threw the grenades blindly and that one landed near the door, which served as a shield. These details emerged progressively after Joël called 911 and a skeptical police arrived on the scene.
In 2011, 67.4 percent of the under-18 population of Sarcelles was of immigrant descent, compared with 19.7 percent for the French population at large. One third of the town’s population was Jewish, which is how Sarcelles acquired the nickname in France of the “small Jerusalem.” The town’s mayor from 1995 on had been Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who had conquered the town with the help of his wife, the journalist star Anne Sinclair, and the then all-powerful Socialist Party. His politics of harmonious cohabitation between the city’s various communities had been less charitably labeled vote-catching by some of his critics. In any case, in 2012, when the attack occurred, DSK’s political career—smashed by the accusations of sexual assaults against hotel maid Nafisatou Diallo in New York and the journalist Tristane Banon in Paris—was already in shambles, and so was the Socialist Party. In Sarcelles, there were concerns that, deprived of its leader, the town’s harmonious multiculturalism would go south. (Anti-Jewish riots would, in fact, explode two years later, during the summer of 2014.)
Does this local context partly account for the police reluctance to label the Naouri attack an anti-Semitic act? “When I said to the police officer who was interviewing me that I was the victim of an anti-Semitic aggression,” recalled Joël Benguigui, “he simply refused to write the word down. He said that at this point, no evidence could point out in that direction. Which I found especially amazing since he was recording my own statement, not discussing the result of an investigation.”
Violent anti-Semitic acts were on the rise in France since the early 2000s but the murder of three Jewish children by Mohamed Merah in Toulouse the previous March had marked some sort of a turning point in public awareness. Anti-Semitism was becoming a burning subject that was better left untouched. Besides, nobody had been killed in the Naouri store. For a while, the local police as well as the media buried the story.
The trial of the “Torcy-Cannes gang” as it came to be labeled by police started at the Paris Criminal Court last April and ended on June 21. It involved 17 people, 10 of whom were born Muslim and 7 who are converts of all origins including two Buddhists from Laos. The trial has given France for the first time an idea of the magnitude of the network at play behind the failed attack against the Naouri store.
The story starts in the spring of the year 2012. In October of the same year, three weeks after the Sarcelles attack, the gang’s leader, Jeremie-Louis Sidney, died in a shootout with the police. If one connects the dots, it provides an important missing link between the Merah murder spree and what followed.
The terrorist cell regrouped two different gangs, one situated in Cannes and the other in Torcy, a suburb of Paris. The gang coalesced around the somewhat charismatic figure of Sidney, aka James, aka “the emir.” Aged 33 when he died, Sidney was a former delinquent born in the French West Indies. He was also an occasional rap singer, whose only known video-clip denounces the Sept. 11 attacks as a fabrication. He probably converted to Islam in prison in 2008 and is described by everyone in the gang as an anti-Semitic authoritarian sociopath and polygamist—he’s reported to have had at least three wives. He was also paranoid enough to always carry a Magnum .357 on his person even while he slept. The general feeling among his intimates was that you simply did not wish to disobey Sidney. (“Women were a temptation that stopped him from getting closer to the after-life and this pissed him off really, really very much,” said Jérémy Bailly, his right-hand man. “He said, ‘I can’t stand it no more, I’m gonna put a bullet in my head.’ ”)
The Torcy group coalesced in the spring 2012 around Sidney, who sold “cosmetic Muslim body products” and used his interactions with customers as a bait for religious discussions and preaching. When Merah committed his murders at the Jewish school of Toulouse, Sidney openly praised them. Whether this was done without the Torcy mosque’s approval appears to be debatable at best: Adbelali Bouchnik, the mosque’s imam, interviewed as witness during the trial, has confirmed that when hearing Sidney’s radical speeches, he did not find it necessary to contradict them and simply asked him to be quiet. Confronted with the radical religious books found in his mosque by police, he simply claimed that he had no control over what could be found on the shelves of the religious establishment he preached in. Although the Merah’s killing in Toulouse created a national commotion for several days that spring, the imam claimed in front of the judge that since he “does not watch TV,” he did not remember the event too clearly. (Bouchnik, who also was a defender of the Muslim veil, has been suspended, and last April the Torcy mosque was shut down.)
In the summer 2012, six members of the Torcy group went down to Cannes, where they met the 10 members of the group that had formed around Sidney. As one member told the judge: “To go to Cannes for a Muslim … we forbid ourselves to look through the windows because women down there, you know, especially during the summer.” Maybe for that reason the two groups gathered in the deserted nearby countryside, near a river, where they played football, set up barbecues and exchanged ideas about religion, jihad, Mohamed Merah, and the nefarious Jews.
But the trial shows that this trip was more than just a “spiritual seminar” of sorts. The group also undertook several research trips to near-by military bases. As Mohamed Merah the previous spring had killed French soldiers before to attack a Jewish school, the Torcy-Cannes gang was clearly in the process of contemplating or planning something similar. Real and fake guns were exhibited to the members of the groups, some of whom were put in charge of buying ammunition and sulfate, which is used in bomb-making.
It was at the end of this “summer camp” that Sidney and his right-hand man, Jérémy Bailly, launched the two grenades inside of the Sarcelles Naouri store. They escaped in an Alpha Romeo car stolen in Cannes by Bailly and burned later the same day. The driver was a young Frenchman of Laotian Buddhist origin named Kevin Phan.
Interestingly enough, the day of the attack, Sept. 19, 2012, was also the day that the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published a new set of caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed. On the grounds that “One is allowed to mock the Muslim religion but to joke about the Holocaust is forbidden,” Charlie Hebdo was proclaimed by the conservative side of French Muslim opinion to be a “Zionist-controlled media organ.” At the trial, one of the accused, Florian Lesieur, 30, complained about “the general lack of respect nowadays” and mentioned Charlie Hebdo as an example. (A convert, Lesieur was raised by secular, loving parents in a caring family, had training in computer maintenance, and smoked marijuana since he was 16.) It is after Sydney’s fingerprints were found on the remaining grenade that the police tracked him down to Strasbourg, Alsace, where he lived with his last known wife. On Oct. 6, at dawn, authorities entered Lesieur’s apartment only to be welcome by the bullets of Sidney’s .357 Magnum. The police returned fire and killed him.
Six other members of the Torcy cell were apprehended that same month. Material for fabricating bombs was found in Jérémy Bailly’s room. The bombs, the trial showed, were part of a project to blow up a McDonald’s restaurant—for the perpetrators, a symbol of the American-Zionist grip on the world. The project failed because the driver, Kevin Phan, overslept.
The Cannes cell, at least two of whose members left for Syria, was apprehended months later in June 2013 when Magali Tessier filed a complaint against her partner, Meher Oujani, for domestic violence. The complaint added that not only had Oujani spent his days watching videos of bin Laden and Mohamed Merah, but he had showed her a weapon and boasted about killing soldiers. Among the items found by police in Cannes were several assault rifles, a GoPro camera, and a Scooter T-Max, materials similar to the those used by Merah.
The Torcy-Cannes gang story exemplifies the frustrating ambiguities attached to France’s current fight against terrorism. A grenade that misfires; another whose explosion is too weak to hurt anyone seriously; dreams of attacks that disappear into thin air; poor organization; a group, centered around a sociopath, that dissolves after its leader’s death: At times, the trial gave the feeling of passing judgment on the void. A human void. Described as Sidney’s right hand and a dedicated Islamist, Jeremy Bailly appeared both as a kleptomaniac (he stole bullets for the .22 LR the group carried with him that summer and two cars, including the Alpha Romeo used for the Sarcelles attack) and as a calming presence for Sidney (“you had to do everything for him. He was unable to steal a car or do anything else”). He appeared at the trial half like a repenting young adult ready to reflect about his past faults, and half like someone who had never done anything wrong. His father, a cab driver by trade, was a shy little man in his mid-40s who sat silently on the bench during the hearings and thought the whole trial was the result of a tragic mistake. Approaching the glass cage behind which his son was sitting along with his 16 comrades, he would send Bailly a few signs at the end of each session. Kevin Phan looked like a scared teenager. On June 21, Jérémy Bailly was crying as he made a statement to the judge before the verdict came: “I’d like to know what you think of someone you leave no chance to redeem himself. One does not de-radicalize alone. If you condemn me, you’ll make a dissident, a hateful person, a revolutionary.” Although the prosecutor had asked for life, Bailly was sentenced to 28 years. Kevin Phan, the car driver during the Sarcelles kosher-store attack, was given 13 years.
Other characters in this deadly play were even stranger. Victor Guevara, born in 1989 to a wealthy family of the 16th arrondissement, was said to be highly intelligent by most of his teachers but left school to live in Cannes, where he was hired as a part-time warehouseman, turned to delinquency, and then to Islam. Erwin Bokamba Yangouma, the tall, heavy son of a devoutly Christian prominent Congolese politician, met Sidney selling Muslim body products as well; he pretended during the trial that he had nothing to do with the other accused and was there by mistake. He maintained he joined the group on their trip to Cannes because he was asked to, but had slept during the whole trip and had no idea where he was when they arrived. With his assertiveness, his narcissism, the sarcastic verbosity with which he answered the prosecutor, the mix of well-humored sociopathy and social arrogance—one began to feel the subterranean texture of this volatile group. There was, it seemed, nothing to connect them with each other except hatred, as they sat together inside the glass cage. He’s in jail for five years.
Read more of Marc Weitzmann’s reporting on from France here.