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Fabien Clain and the Origins of Islamist Terror in France

Six Years of Syrian Civil War: A French citizen who disappeared into the wreckage of Assad’s state now sends operatives home to fight a brutal war with the West

Marc Weitzmann
February 13, 2017
(Illustration: Erik Carter)Six Years of Syrian Civil War:
(Illustration: Erik Carter)(Illustration: Erik Carter)Six Years of Syrian Civil War:
(Illustration: Erik Carter)Six Years of Syrian Civil War:
(Illustration: Erik Carter)(Illustration: Erik Carter)Six Years of Syrian Civil War:

On Sept. 20, 2016, French police announced the arrest of Anne-Diana Clain, 41, her husband, Mohamed Moujid Amri, and their eldest child, aged 16, at the Paris Roissy Airport, where they had been repatriated by Turkish police after being detained at the Turkish-Syrian border. A few days later, the three adults were charged with terrorist conspiracy and jailed. The family’s three younger children were handed over to social services. They were the last known free members of the Clain clan, led by Fabien Clain, who disappeared into Syria along with his wife, children, brother, and sisters in March 2015.

Fabien Clain is considered by French authorities to be one of the main foreign recruiters for the Islamic State. Even though his role hasn’t been clarified entirely, his name appears in several of the major terror cases that have hit France, from Mohamed Merah’s anti-Semitic murder spree in Toulouse in 2012 to Sid Abdel Ghlam’s failed attempt to blow up a church in the Villejuif suburb in 2015, to the Nov. 13 massacre of the same year: Clain’s voice has been identified on the ISIS video claiming credit for the November 2015 attack in Paris. The video was recorded in Syria. Clain’s email address was also found in the smartphone of Larossi Abdalla, who stabbed to death a couple of police officers last summer.

As their name indicates, the Clains are converts. They started out as deeply devout Christians in La Réunion Island, a remnant of the French Empire situated in the Indian Ocean, 585 miles east of Madagascar, and discovered Islam in its Salafist, violent form only after they came to France. Although no direct, personal testimony is available, the fragmentary information at our disposal on Clain and his clan provide some suggestive indications about some of the conditions and context that might encourage an entire family to turn to terrorism in France.

The journey, it seems, started at the very end of the 1990s with the marriage of Fabien’s elder sister Anne-Diana Clain to Mohamed Moujid Amri, her second husband. According to a common practice in Islam, Amri asked Anne Clain to convert as a condition of the marriage, which she did. At the time, Fabien Clain, 21, a young, tall man—he’s 6 feet tall and is now said to weigh some 220 pounds—was married to a girlfriend from high school called Mylène Fouk in the city of Alençon, where he’d grown up before the whole family moved to Toulouse. Dissatisfied with Catholicism, both siblings appear to have been on a spiritual quest when Fabien’s sister converted to Islam.

Sources close to the investigation describe Amri as a Tunisian by birth and an Islamist by conviction who nonetheless, prior to his arrest last September, never was involved in terrorist activity. According to the Algerian journalist Mohamed Sifaoui, who investigated Clain long before he became notorious: “People like Amri put an interesting problem to us. At the time, he simply activated something in the Clains, he showed a way, a possibility, if you will. What do you do with people like this, whom you can’t really qualify, who are neither militants nor activists or ideologues, who haven’t done anything and are untouchable by law?”

Fabien was the first Clain to convert, at the end of 1999, around the time of his sister’s wedding, and everything indicates that he was ecstatic at his choice. He read extensively and learned Arabic, a language he now speaks fluently. His influence and enthusiasm were such that in a few weeks, he was able to persuade his wife, his brother Jean-Michel, sister-in-law Dorothé, and their younger sister to convert. By the beginning of the year 2000, everyone in the Clain family was no longer Catholic but Muslim—or rather, to be exact, Salafist. In Toulouse, they became known as “the Belphegor family” because of the niqab the spouses wore at all time.

I asked the former Salafist preacher Farid Benyettou to describe the influence of Salafism in France before Sept. 11, when the doctrines that give rise to anti-Western terror and violence were still obscure to most police and citizens in France. Barely 21 but looking 15, Farid Benyettou was in the early 2000s a Wahabi-influenced teacher at the Adda’wa Mosque in the northeast of Paris, where he became both the mentor of the Kouachi brothers—the future Charlie-Hebdo slaughterers—and the inspiration for what remains known in France as the Butte-Chaumont Gang, an amateurish network of would-be jihadists in Iraq who 10 years later would spawn some of the most dangerous sociopaths of the terror wave. Photos in the press at the time show Benyettou, a red-and-white keffiyeh tied up on his head; long hair falling on his shoulders; sunglasses on his soft, feminine, face; and an Afghan kami covering his body—a holy man, savage and weak, weird, somewhat impressive in spite, or because, of his obvious frailty. Benyettou says he “deradicalized” himself in jail; his internship at La Salpetrière Hospital, which was part of a “reintegration” program, was cut short the day the Charlie-Hebdo/Hypercacher slaughter occurred, as the victims hit by his ex-disciples were brought into the very hospital unit he was working in. To my knowledge he hasn’t worked since.

Benyettou appeared to me as short man with a sickly white-gray complexion, uncombed black hair on the neck, and a puny, curly beard at the tip of his chin trying to counter the childish grace of his facial features. He says that most of the people he met at the mosque then were “youngsters, 12th graders, and they had experienced some sort of a breakup with the way religion was practiced in their families. They also had no real respect for the imam in place, whom they saw as an incompetent man, barely there to perform the prayer. Me, they saw as a Salafist, and this was just what they wanted to meet and become. Speaking with them I realized how things had changed since I myself had become interested in Salafism six years prior only. It had become in the meantime the main point of reference among these youth. And I mean activist Salafism, the political one. Preachers and imams who had missed that turn were simply out of tune.”

The Middle East peace process was collapsing, and given the way that the pro-Arab French press covered it, the French Muslim youth that Benyettou describes were undoubtedly influenced by this double context. But the Salafist revolution already in motion in French mosques had, in fact, begun 10 years earlier. So we must move south, in order to understand the forces that shaped the Clain family’s violent beliefs. More precisely, we need to go to Algeria, where most of the France’s Muslims come from.

Here, for example, is what Ali Benhadj, one of the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front—Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS—the party created in Algeria by the Islamists in the aftermath of the 1988 social riots in the capital—had to say in an interview that nicely captures the kind of teachings that were making their way to France: “Democracy is a Greek word imported from the world of infidels that hides corrupted beliefs and licentious practices. There is no democracy because the sole source of power is Allah, through the Koran, not the people. When the people vote against God’s law, it is nothing but a blasphemy and, in such a case, you must kill them all.”


In 1991, the year after Benhadj made his statements encouraging the mass killing of anyone who resisted his idea of political Islam, the FIS presented candidates in the municipal and congressional elections organized by the Algerian government. Violent incidents erupted during the campaign—unveiled women randomly attacked in the streets, secular rallies vandalized. FIS rallies were marked by statements that left no doubt about the FIS program. “Our fight is the fight of Islamic purity against democratic impurity. … Democracy is championed by the West on the pretense of defending freedoms, the freedoms of the homosexuals, which brought us communism, Marxism and capitalism, all systems that enslave man, where Islam liberates him,” said one leader of the party, Abdelkader Hachani. Another Islamist star, Mohamedi Saïd, claimed that “in order to clean up Algeria and build the Islamic state, we are ready to liquidate 2 million of its inhabitants.” Let us note in passing who Mohamedi Saïd was: Born in 1912, he was both a socialist hero of the Algerian revolution and a faithful Muslim. In 1942, he had joined the 13th Mountain Division of the Waffen SS Handschar, the Muslim Nazi legion founded in Croatia by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini.

Civil war erupted in Algeria in the first months of 1992, after the Algerian army took hold of the country and canceled elections, which it feared FIS would win. FIS went underground, and began to implement its program of mass killing. It started with the killing of it they knew no one would stand for, recalls the 60-year-old Algerian sociologist Mariemme Elie-Lucas, co-founder of the news website Secularism Is a Women’s Issue,, who lived in Algeria during the whole decade of the ’90s. “Gay poets, for instance, were among the first victims; school teachers, especially in small, backward villages, soon followed,” she said. “London-based fundamentalist newspapers announced in advance what category of the population was to be hit and destroyed. One day there were ‘the journalists,’ for instance; another day, ‘the artists’ or ‘the intellectuals.’ Then it simply was the women. Now, if your life depends on it, you can stop being a journalist—but how do you stop being a woman? So women became the main and the easiest targets.”

As the Algerian civil war intensified, special Islamist commandos composed of veterans of the Afghan war and organized by Osama bin Laden emerged out of the FIS under the name of Armed Islamist Groups—Groupes Islamistes Armés, or GIA. Under their guidance, terror reached a new scale. Buses were stopped at Islamic checkpoints and female students were pulled out of their seats and executed either by bullet or knives; others, sometimes adolescents known for good results at school, were attacked in their classrooms and had their throats slit. Indiscriminate collective massacres soon followed. Entire trains were attacked, and their passengers butchered.

At some point, the frequency as well as the magnitude of the killings in Algeria reached such a level—one killing every two days, with several dozen victims at the very least each time—that it becomes almost impossible to describe the temper of the period in any normal narrative frame. Armies of bearded men seized entire villages or suburbs and butchered as many of their inhabitants as possible. Such was the case, for instance, in Benthala, an Algiers suburb that on Sept. 22, 1997 was entered by 150 armed men. As one survivor testified to the press: “They had lists of names. And as babies, infants and women were being slaughtered in flood of blood, their neighbors waited their turn in an extreme state of hysteria and terror.” The death toll that time was 300. A death toll of 517 was reached in another massacre three months later in the town of Relisane, where the victims, half of them women and children, were slaughtered with knives and axes. The one journalist able to visit the site afterward testified that babies had been thrown alive against walls and burned in kitchen ovens.

It was during this period that FIS operators popped up on French territory with the task of setting up Islamist networks to provide weapons, money and future mujahedeen to the cause. The FIS leader Anouar Haddam came to speak at rallies in France, calling people from Algerian backgrounds to arms. Expelled from France in 1994, he was granted political asylum in the United States as a host of the American Muslim Council, a structure financed, unsurprisingly, by Saudi Arabia. Kamareddine Kherbane, a co-founder of the FIS, landed in Paris in 1990 straight from Peshawar; Farid Benyettou’s brother-in-law Youssef Zemouri, who actually mentored Benyettou through Salafism and was himself a member of GIA, ended up being arrested in 1998 for plotting an attack against the soccer World Cup in Paris that year. The Algerian civil war finally ended Feb. 8, 2003, long after an entire generation had been turned toward extremist doctrines accompanied by the most extreme forms of violence.

In Toulouse, Fabien Clain was in touch with a man named Larbi Moulaï, who had settled in France in 1991 as both a member of the GIA and the main head of the Salafists for the southwest region of France. In 2003, Moulaï was expelled from France. In the meantime, though, he introduced Clain to a strange but determining figure named Olivier Correl, a tall, white-haired, white-bearded man nicknamed “the white sheïk” by the French press, who had been misled by his name to think he was a French convert.

Corel was, in fact, born in 1946 in Homs, Syria, as Abdel llat al-Dandachi, and had come to France in 1973 as an official representative of the Muslim Brothers. France had a long tradition of sheltering political refugees, and when Hafez al-Assad started his repression against the Brotherhood in Syria in the early 1980s, al-Dandachi was able to take French nationality. He then changed his name as a precaution. Soon after, he settled on a farm of the Artigat region near Toulouse which, with time, would become the center of what the police would later call “the Artigat network.”

The encounter between Corel and Clain sometime in 2003 would appear to have been decisive in the latter’s embarking on the path of violent jihadism. Clain at the time was selling religious books in Toulouse’s Sunday markets. The books came from Brussels, where they were printed by the Belgian office of the Islamist World League, a Saudi organization. Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain had settled in Brussels for a while in the early 2000s in order to get closer to the Islamist activity that was then boiling in the Belgian capital. They lived close to Molenbeek, the neighborhood from which 13 years later would come most of the commando members of the Nov. 13, 2015 massacre in Paris.

Back in Toulouse, Fabien Clain moved into Corel’s Artigat farm for a while and started what could be described as “the Islamist commune.” While Corel kept proselytizing in mosques where he sometimes served as imam, Fabien Clain toured the Haute-Garonne region to sell his Salafist books, and the two men began to organize weekly religious discussions at the Artigat farm. Given the Iraq War, recruitment was easy, but Corel and Clain were cautious, and did their work in a semiclandestine fashion. In the discussions they hosted about jihad, the Iraq War, Israel, and the United States, Clain revealed once more the charisma he had proved to have when converting his family three years prior. During this period, under Clain’s influence, Souad Merah and then Abdelkader Merah—the sister and brother of the future killer of the children at the Ozar-Hatorah school of Toulouse in 2012, Mohamed Merah—became Salafists. This context is important, in part because it refutes Merah’s assertions to the police after the killings (“I read the Koran alone in jail”) and the subsequent initial description of Merah by the police as a “lone wolf.” It also discredits the narratives of the left-wing press at the time, for whom Merah simply was a lost kid and a victim of French social discrimination.

But as always with Islamist networks, things are both more complex and looser than the stories told by the police and the press. Although he might have gone to fight in Syria through Corel’s contacts there, or through Clain’s contacts in Brussels, Merah instead left for Waziristan in search of jihadist training with no real help from the Artigat network. Corel, for one, seem to have found him too young, too jumpy, and untrustworthy.

Yet Merah kept in touch through email, and once in Waziristan, managed to get in touch and be received by Moez Garsallaoui, an al-Qaida operator of Tunisian background who had set up in the Pakistani tribal zones with the goal of coordinating jihadist networks in Europe. There is no way that such a high-ranking operator as Garsallaoui would receive and train someone as inexperienced as Merah without some sort of an introduction. In 2003, Garsallaoui had married in Brussels Malika el-Aroud, the daughter of Moroccan migrants in Belgium and the widow of one of the killers of Shah Ahmad Massoud, “the lion of Panjhir.” Massoud’s killing in Afghanistan two days prior to Sept. 11 had been engineered from Molenbeek, Brussels, by Belgians of Moroccan background at the behest of Osama bin Laden. Given Fabien Clain’s connection with Molenbeek, there is reason to believe that Merah’s introduction to Garsalaoui came from Clain. When Merah came back to Toulouse, according to Mohamed Sifaoui, “Fabien Clain came to see him every day until he himself was arrested.”

That arrest came in 2009, when French police decided to dismantle the Artigat network. Clain went to jail for three years. He was still jailed when Merah began his killings in March 2012. Freed some weeks later, Clain and his clan then moved back to Alençon, the city where they’d spent their childhood, while Corel remained on his farm, where he still lives.

In between, though, Clain’s name had appeared in connection with another attack, this time in Cairo, where the clan of six families had moved in 2006 or 2007. In February 2009, a bomb at the souk of Cairo targeted a group of French high-school students, wounding 24 and killing one. One of the suspects, Farouk Ben Abbes, mentioned Fabien Clain in the context of a plan for a future attack against the Bataclan Theatre in Paris, which was then owned by Jews and seen therefore as a “Zionist” place.

But after he came out of jail in 2012, traces of Fabien Clain become more erratic. He was spotted renting a room in Alençon, where several Islamists met so regularly that the owner of a nearby halal butcher store imagined a regular gathering of imams. Clain’s phone number and email address were found on several terrorists. And his voice was identified on an ISIS video claiming the November attacks in Paris against the Bataclan.

Fabien Clain’s voice is, in fact, all that remains of his presence in France. We can hear it in the encrypted messages sent through the phone messaging app Telegram in which he allows us to hear the war songs that, as a former amateur rap singer, he composes and sings in French along with his brother Jean-Michel:

Go forward, go forward with no surrender, ever capitulate
go forward unvanquished warrior
with your sword in your hand
kill all the devil’s soldiers with no hesitation
Be afraid of nothing in this war
you have everything to win
fight until you meet the Almighty
and run toward your prey like a roaring lion
kill all the apostates that the Devil mislead
With the people of the Fake the war is on
no more polemics no more philosophy
either you kill them or they kill you:
it is all benefit
whoever opposes shari’a is lost
even if he claims to be virtuous
so cut off the heads of ignorance
Cut off the heads of the soldiers of wandering.
We will terrorize you
We will slit your throats
To die or to kill
Is the same benefit…

The music is soft and entertaining. The scariest part of the song, in fact, is the sweet, joyful, a capella voices of the two brothers: They could be the voices of grown-up altar boys. And in a way, they are.


Marc Weitzmann last wrote for Tablet magazine about anti-Semitic terror in France. Read more on the consequences of the Syrian Civil War six years after its start here. Review Tablet’s long coverage of the Syrian crisis here.

Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.