PARIS, Oct. 22 – France’s antiterrorist police on Friday identified a young Frenchman killed fighting the United States in Iraq, the first confirmed case of what is believed to be a growing stream of Muslims heading from Europe to fight what they regard as a new holy war.
Redouane el-Hakim, 19, the son of Tunisian immigrants, died during an American bombardment of insurgents in Falluja on July 17, according to an intelligence official close to the case.
Intelligence officials fear that for a new generation of disaffected European Muslims, Iraq could become what Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya were for European Islamic militants in past decades: a galvanizing cause that sends idealistic young men abroad, trains them and puts them in touch with a more radical global network of terrorists. In the past, many young Europeans who fought in those wars came back to Europe to plot terrorist attacks at home.
“We consider these people dangerous because those who go will come back once their mission is accomplished,” the intelligence official said. “Then they can use the knowledge gained there in France, Europe or the United States. It’s the same as those who went to Afghanistan or Chechnya.”
Hundreds of young militant Muslim men have left Europe to fight in Iraq, according to senior counterterrorism officials in four European countries. They have been recruited through mosques, Muslim centers and militant Web sites by several groups, including Ansar al-Islam, the Kurdish terrorist group once based in northern Iraq.
French officials emphasize that there is not yet evidence of a broad French network funneling fighters to Iraq, and terrorism experts say the vast majority of foreign fighters there come from other countries in the region. But past experience with returning fighters from other Muslim holy wars is causing anxiety in Europe.
Virtually all of the major terrorists arrested in Europe in the past three years spent time in Bosnia, Afghanistan or Chechnya. Two years ago, the French antiterrorism police broke up a cell of Chechen-trained militants who they believe were plotting a chemical attack in Paris. Those arrests triggered an investigation that is still active into what French counterterrorism officials call “the Chechen network.”
“Now, the new land of jihad is Iraq,” the intelligence official said. “There, they’re trained, they fight and acquire a technique and the indoctrination sufficient to act on when they return.”
A network of recruiters for Iraq first appeared in Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Norway within months of the United States-led invasion, officials said. Some officials said the recruitment effort had now spread to other countries in Europe, including Belgium and Switzerland. The network provides forged documents, financing, training and information about infiltration routes into the country.
The movement to Iraq has increased in recent months, officials say, but they decline to provide specifics.
One senior European intelligence official said there was evidence that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant believed to be operating in Falluja, has established a sophisticated network that has helped recruit nearly 1,000 young men from the Middle East and Europe. “These young men know where the action is – they easily cross the borders of Syria or Turkey, and they go directly to Falluja,” the official said.
The French official said many people en route to Iraq were passing through Britain, once the major staging point for Muslims going to Afghanistan, or through Saudi Arabia, using the cover of a pilgrimage to Mecca to enter the Saudi kingdom before making their way across the border.
In June, French news organizations reported that Syria had stopped two French citizens from entering Iraq and had expelled them to Turkey. A Tunisian who left from the southern French port of Marseille was also reported to have died last year in a suicide bombing in Iraq.
That man, Lofti Rihani, had links to a terrorist cell now on trial in France for plotting to attack a market during the Christmas holidays in the eastern French city of Strasbourg in 1999, according to a report in the French newspaper Le Figaro.
Last year, German news media quoted the president of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, August Hanning, as saying Germany had evidence that some Islamic militants had left Germany to fight in Iraq. He said fighters were also being recruited in Britain and Bosnia.
Seven men arrested in northern Italy last year were accused of providing false passports and money or other support to an Islamic network smuggling fighters to Iraq.
More recently, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, known as Muhammad the Egyptian, who is facing charges of orchestrating the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, was recorded on wiretaps boasting in Italy that he was about to send a team of suicide bombers to Iraq.
Little is yet known about the man recently killed in Falluja, Mr. Hakim, other than that he left France earlier this year ostensibly to study in Syria. Intelligence officials say that he flew to Damascus with his brother, Boubaker, 21, who is wanted for questioning by the French antiterrorist police because of his association with a group suspected of terrorism-related activities in France. Boubaker was detained in Syria and is still in custody there, but Redouane Hakim continued on to Iraq.
Officials say they became aware of Mr. Hakim’s death while questioning his family about the activities of his brother, Boubaker.
In June, the investigation in which Boubaker was identified led to the arrest of a dozen people in nine locations north of Paris on suspicion of terrorist-related activities. The 12, including an Islamic cleric, were associated with a small mosque in the Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret.
The group, identified as Irqa by Le Figaro, had taken control of the mosque and was using it to collect money and recruit volunteers for holy war, the newspaper said. The police say wiretaps picked up conversations that indicated some associates of the group were traveling through Syria to fight in Iraq.
According to Le Figaro, the group’s leaders, a Tunisian and an Algerian identified only as Adnen T. and Djamel D., were well known to France’s intelligence services. Adnen T. had been questioned during the investigation of the 2002 bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, in which 19 people died. Djamel D. was close to a group that provided logistical support for Djamel Beghal, arrested in 2001 for plotting to blow up the American Embassy in Paris.
Le Figaro reported that on June 11 police found a text message from Iraq on the cellphone of a third member of the group, identified as Toufik T. The message said: “The group has arrived. I will contact you if I need help.” Le Figaro reported that the police believe that the message was sent by Greg, a French convert to Islam who had previously worked for a security company at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris and was known to have gone to Iraq.
A National Police official on Friday confirmed the accuracy of Le Figaro’s report.
French intelligence officials say they know of at least two other Frenchmen in Falluja and believe that there are at least 10 others in Iraq, mostly of Tunisian origin from working-class suburbs of Paris.
Craig S. Smith reported from Paris for this article, and Don Van Natta Jr. from London. Helene Fouquet contributed reporting from Paris.