He calls it “brain matching”. The instant connection David Vallat felt when he was introduced to Khaled Kelkal by a local imam. Vallat was enamoured of Kelkal even before they met, after reading an interview with him in Le Monde about the integration of young French people of North African origin.
“The interviewer asked him, are you French or are you Muslim? He replied: ‘I am solely Muslim.’ That’s when I knew we had reached the same level – where there is only ideology left,” Vallat said of Kelkal − once France’s most wanted men, a ringleader in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and mastermind behind its series of deadly terror attacks in Paris and Lyon in 1995.
On the third anniversary of the 2015 Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed and 413 injured, France continues to grapple with homegrown terrorism. The country currently classifies more than 17,000 individuals as terrorist threats, according to this senate report. A total of 512 people are currently serving time for terrorism offences in France and another 1,139 prisoners have been flagged as having been radicalised. To combat further conversions in prison, the French government announced a plan earlier this year to create 1,500 new spaces in its prisons to isolate radicalised inmates.
Vallat – who described himself as a “first-generation jihadist” – says that what draws young people to extremism hasn’t changed, more than 20 years after his own involvement and subsequent imprisonment.
Now, he’s on a mission to speak up about his experience in hopes of preventing more young people from becoming martyrs through his organisation, Analyses des Islams politiques et des radicalisms (AIPER). From his home near Lyon, Vallat told Euronews about his journey from radicalisation to reformation.
In the beginning
Vallat, 47, describes his younger self as a misfit. Born in France, he grew up in the suburbs of Lyon as the eldest of four children, raised by a single mother in a secular family. At 16, he dropped out of school and turned to a life of petty crime, but quickly realised it would get him nowhere. He yearned to go to back to school and, at 19, converted to Islam to fill that void. Religion was a way for him to distance himself from drugs and alcohol, and gave him some semblance of a social circle.
At his local mosque, VHS footage began circulating of Bosnian Muslims being brutally executed in Yugoslavia. Incensed by what he saw, Vallat decided to join the fight. Having watched the Alain Resnais documentary about Nazi concentration camps, Night and Fog, at the age of 15, Vallat promised himself he would not stand idle if faced with a genocide.
He was paralysed by fear by what he saw in battle in Bosnia. “I thought I would change the situation on the field, but the field changed me,” he said.
He decided he needed an ideology, something that would allow him to fight without fear. When he met fighters from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Qatar who practised Salafism, an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist form of Islam, he found it.
“They explained to me, if I died, I’d go to paradise. I’d be compensated in my afterlife because I’m Muslim,” Vallat said. He was no longer afraid to die.
When he returned to France in 1994, he began to read the Koran. Kelkal advised him that if he wanted to be a martyr, he would need training. He travelled to an al-Qaeda camp in Khalden, Afghanistan, where he stayed for ten months, with a daily routine of prayer, fitness, artillery training, political discussions and studying of the doctrine.
Upon his return from Afghanistan, Vallat planned to go back to Bosnia – but he didn’t make it. In September 1995, after a string of attacks by the GIA – including bombs being detonated on the Paris train network and at the Arc de Triomphe – Kelkal was killed in a live, televised shoot-out by the French police after his fingerprints were found on an undetonated bomb found on train tracks near Lyon. When police found his address book, his associates were quickly rounded up – including Vallat.
Vallat claims he had split from the group weeks before his arrest, saying the group had strayed from its mission to support terrorist networks in Algeria. He says Kelkal did not tell him what they were plotting, but he knew he didn’t want to take part in it.
Vallat’s desertion from the GIA earned him enemies among his former “brothers”, who placed a fatwa on his head. As such, prison became an unlikely sanctuary – and ultimately a saviour. “In prison I could finally think,” he said. “The people who I thought were my enemies were treating me well and those who were my brothers wanted to execute me. It started to change my attitude.”
By the time he was released, he claims he was “deradicalised” and had even developed a newfound appreciation for the French state.
Vallat says that leaving prison was one of the hardest things he has been through. He no longer had enemies, but nor did he have anything to do. He had received a diploma in prison that allowed him to enroll in university, in Bordeaux, where he studied history. But still, he struggled to move on.
“For six months, I had a lot of nightmares and couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t connected to my social circle anymore. I worked, had an apartment, a car and friends but no ties to reality.”
Then Vallat met an imam who asked him to look after a student from Uzbekistan who had just arrived in France, seeking asylum. The student introduced him to a woman from Azerbaijan and her two children. She invited Vallat to her house and introduced him to her daughter.
“She was radiant,” he recalls. “She smiled at me, and I thought there might be more to life.”
The pair married and Vallat credits his now former wife with saving his life.
“She accepted me as I was. I didn’t have to hide that part of my life. The moment that really marked my return to normal life was the birth of our daughter Sarah, in 2005. I could finally see a future, because I was responsible for her.”
No one else in his life knew of Vallat’s jihadist past – until the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks prompted him to step out of the shadows and speak up. Vallat teamed up with sociologist Dr. Amelie Myriam Chelly to form AIPER, with the aim of using his experiences to prevent other young people from following the path he now regrets taking.
Last year, the French government shuttered its only deradicalisation centre. The centre had capacity for 25, but only nine people participated in its ten-month programme, and none of them completed it. Vallat thinks its failure was, in part, due to its voluntary basis. He wants to see awareness programmes in schools as well as screening for extremist literature, which he says are easy to find in Islamic book shops.
And there is another issue he claims must be addressed if progress is to be made in the fight against extremism: “We are afraid of being labelled Islamophobic.”