As a teen, Salim Benghalem smoked weed and went out clubbing. Now, the Frenchman is an Islamic State jihadist wanted by Washington which accuses him of carrying out executions for the extremist group.
The US State Department last week singled him out as one of 10 wanted “foreign terrorist fighters”, describing him as “a Syria-based French extremist and ISIL member” — using an alternative name for IS — as well as an executioner.
But this description has left friends and relatives of the 34-year-old, who grew up in Cachan near Paris, baffled.
On condition of anonymity, they acknowledge he is a Muslim who travelled to Syria to pursue “an ideal of justice”, but “definitely not an executioner.”
Described as a happy, “slightly puny” man, Benghalem is the fourth of seven children. He got on with his family but suddenly, unexpectedly left his hometown in 2012, leaving behind a wife and two young kids.
He waited four days before contacting his relatives, telling them he was in Syria and had joined the Islamic State group, which controls large parts of the war-torn country as well as swathes of Iraq.
He gives regular news via Skype or Viber, calling every 10 to 15 days from Internet cafes near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. His relatives say they sometimes see armed fighters in the background.
“He didn’t belong in France. He found himself over there,” a person close to him said, wishing to remain anonymous, adding that his task in Syria is to hand out fines on behalf of IS “for illegal possession of cigarettes, or things like that.”
“But he is not an executioner,” he insisted.
Benghalem last contacted his family in August, from Aleppo, as bombings raged. He had grown a small beard.
– ‘A non-practising Muslim’ –
This is not the first time he has left France. In 2001, he fled to Algeria where his family originates from after being accused of murder and attempted murder as part of a fight between rival gangs.
He remained in contact with his family for a year, finally returning in 2002, when he was detained.
After five years in custody, he was sentenced in 2007 to 11 years in jail, but was partially released from prison and then fully freed in 2010 thanks to his “good behaviour” and “repentance”, said his then lawyer Leon Lef Forster, who is “stunned” by what Benghalem has become.
“He was a non-practising Muslim, he only observed Ramadan, without any religious excess,” he told AFP.
“The person we’re talking about now does not tally with the young man I knew.”
One of his childhood friends, who also wished to remain anonymous, said Benghalem was “very funny, always teasing.”
“He liked to crack jokes and was fun-loving,” he said.
“And he wasn’t particularly brave. When there was an altercation, he was not on the front line.”
Benghalem never finished a vocational training qualification he had started, and went from one job to another: supermarket cashier, electrician, supervisor in a dining hall…
In his spare time, “he went out at night, with everything that entails: girls, some alcohol, but particularly weed,” his friend said.
“When I saw him again after his release from prison, I felt he had matured,” he said, but stressed that nothing pointed to any form of radicalisation.
“I don’t think anyone can explain what happened.”
His name had appeared as part of a French probe that led to the dismantling in November 2013 of a jihadist network in the Val-de-Marne region where Cachan is located, according to a source close to the case.
But by then Benghalem was already in Syria.
The source said he is believed to have “actively participated in fighting” in the country and “is thought to have volunteered around a year ago for a suicide operation.”
But another source, who also wished to remain anonymous, questioned the emphasis placed on Benghalem by Washington.
“He is definitely a radicalised boy who could be dangerous and is known by authorities. But there are others like him.”