French authorities expected to question Naamen Meziche on links to extremist networks.
Pakistan on Tuesday deported a Frenchman accused of links to Al Qaeda and suspected of recruiting Islamist fighters, according to diplomatic sources.
Intelligence officials believe the man, Naamen Meziche, was once connected to Al Qaeda’s so-called “Hamburg cell”, which planned the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Meziche has been in Pakistani custody since being arrested in May 2012 in the southwest of the country along with three other suspected French jihadis, who were sent back to France in April.
He was escorted onto a flight from Islamabad and arrived in Paris Tuesday afternoon French time, a diplomatic source said. French police are expected to question him about links to extremist networks.
At the time of his arrest, French intelligence officials described Meziche, who also holds an Algerian passport, as “an important Al Qaeda cadre linked to the Hamburg cell,” but his genuine significance in jihadi circles is unclear.
The case is likely to spark strong interest in France, where memories are still fresh of the murderous rampage by Mohammed Merah in March last year.
Merah shot dead seven people in southwest France after returning from spending several months in Pakistan, saying he was acting on behalf of Al Qaeda.
The three others arrested along with Meziche in southwest Pakistan were detained on their return to France for “associating with wrongdoers with a view to committing terrorist acts.”
Sources say Meziche is likely to face charges under the same section of French law. It gives authorities broad powers to detain and prosecute a suspect for intending to carry out terrorist acts or contacting organizations suspected of terrorism. Though Meziche is suspected of being a long-time Al Qaeda member, no proof has yet emerged of his involvement in any specific act of terror, and security officials were divided about how big a player he is.
One French anti-terror officer said this week Meziche was “a big fish—right in the historic heart of Al Qaeda.” But another source close to the case said it was “hard to say if he is an active player or a bit of a has-been.”
Western and Pakistani intelligence officials have described Meziche, aged around 43, as close to Younis al-Mauritani, an important Al Qaeda figure arrested in Pakistan about six months before him.
According to the Pakistani military al-Mauritani was personally charged by Osama bin Laden with planning attacks against targets in the U.S., Europe and Australia.
The fact that Meziche was arrested in the company of three young Frenchmen in a part of Pakistan where numerous Islamist militants circulate added to suspicions he was in the business of recruiting young Europeans for extremism.