Saturday 17 August 2019

Paris attacks renew focus on Irish-based terror suspect's extradition battle

Hasna Aitboulahcen is said to have blown herself up as police stormed the flat in Saint Denis where the alleged ringleader of the terror plot, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was holed up
Hasna Aitboulahcen is said to have blown herself up as police stormed the flat in Saint Denis where the alleged ringleader of the terror plot, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was holed up
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

One of the most chilling aspects of the horror inflicted in Paris by the so-called Islamic State is the story of Hasna Aitboulahcen.

The 26-year-old is said to have blown herself up as police stormed the flat in Saint Denis where the alleged ringleader of the terror plot, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was holed up.

Here was a young woman who had previously been described as a bubbly extrovert, who drank and didn't appear to be religious.

Indeed, she was known as "the cowgirl" for her penchant for sporting cowboy hats and had only recently started wearing a niqab.

As police surrounded the flat on Wednesday, she appeared at the window, shouting "help me, help me".

Just how she came to be radicalised to the point where she became Europe's first female suicide bomber - doubts were later cast if indeed she did blow herself up - has yet to be explained.

Of course Aitboulahcen is not the first woman to have been centre stage in an Islamic terror plot in this part of the world.

Indeed, two American women are currently in jail for their involvement in plots allegedly facilitated by Irish-based Algerian Ali Charaf Damache (50), also known by his alleged online persona "Theblackflag".

One of the women, Colleen LaRose, a housewife from Michigan who called herself 'Jihad Jane', was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her involvement in an abortive plot to murder a Swedish cartoonist.

Her target was Lars Vilks, who attracted the ire of extremists after drawing the head of the prophet Muhammad on the body of a dog.

The other woman, Damache's second wife Jamie Paulin Ramirez, was arrested in Ireland and, following her extradition to the US, got eight years for the lesser offence of providing material support to terrorists.

The attacks in Paris have forced all European countries to carefully examine how much of a handle their intelligence services have on extremists operating within their borders. Ireland is no different and in the past week we have learned gardaí are keeping tabs on a dozen or so terror sympathisers.

Damache, whose last known base was Waterford City, is thought to be amongst those being watched.

His extradition was sought by the US in 2012 after investigators there accused him of devising and coordinating a violent jihad organisation. It is claimed in an indictment issued in the state of Pennsylvania that Damache's group was divided into planning, research, action, recruitment and finance teams, some of whom planned to travel to South Asia for explosives training and then to wage violent jihad in Europe.

That extradition application failed because it was considered likely he would end up in solitary confinement in a federal supermax prison for up to 23 hours a day, something the High Court felt was a "cruel and unusual punishment". The court did not have to consider whether or not Damache was guilty or innocent of the allegations.

The Attorney General is to appeal the decision early next year.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions opted not to bring a case against Damache here. It has not disclosed the reason for this decision.

All of this leaves a deeply troubling situation where a man, facing very serious terror allegations, is free to go about his business in Ireland without having those allegations tested by a trial here or in the US.

It will be interesting to see what affect, if any, the attacks in Paris will have on the thinking of the three-judge Court of Appeal when it considers the Attorney General's challenge in January.

Damache has been living in Ireland for nearly 15 years and married Cork woman Mary Cronin in 2002. He worked with a food wholesaler and did courses in auctioneering and law.

But Ms Cronin told a court he changed after they married. He had not been a practicing Muslim, but started soon after.

She said she became afraid of him and they separated in 2008.

Her evidence came at Waterford Circuit Court two years ago where - in the middle of his battle against extradition - Damache pleaded guilty to charges of making death threats to US lawyer Majed Moughni, who organised an Arab-American protest in Detroit denouncing Islamic extremists.

"If you were in front of me, I would shoot you. I would put a bullet in your head," he was recorded as telling Moughni.

Damache initially denied the charges, but changed his plea after the recording was played in court. He received a four-year sentence, but was freed due to time served in custody.

Much of the evidence gathered against Damache by US authorities came from online conversations he allegedly had with LaRose and others in 2008 and 2009.

According to his indictment, Damache helped LaRose and Ramirez travel to Europe.

In one message, he is alleged to have asked a Pakistan-born teenager living in Maryland to recruit online "some brothers who can travel freely… with EU passports… and I also need some sisters too."

Damache is alleged to have advised the teenager, who was subsequently jailed for five years, that the group would train "either with AQIM or ISI" and would be "a professional organised team".

AQIM and ISI are acronyms for al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamic State in Iraq, a former name of the so-called Islamic State.

Damache is alleged in the indictment to have sent a message to another contact asking him to take care of LaRose on her arrival in Europe.

US prosecutors claim LaRose introduced Ramirez, from Colorado, to Damache in an online chat in July 2009. Ramirez arrived in Ireland that September and married Damache the following day, despite having never met him in person before.

The indictment alleges she "travelled to Europe with her minor male child with the intent to live and train with jihadists". It claimed Damache began training the boy "in the ways of violent jihad".

A prosecution filing in Ramirez's case said: "Damache and his associates were truly dangerous people, motivated by hate and prejudice and a desire to exact revenge on non-believers."

LaRose never carried out her plans to kill Vilk and was arrested after returning to the US in October 2009, while Ramirez was arrested along with Damache in Waterford in March 2010.

US authorities are now hoping a successful appeal by the Attorney General will lead to Damache becoming the fourth member of the alleged conspiracy to face trial.

Irish Independent

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