France’s Latest Terrorist Suspect: A French Convert Near Retirement Age

French soldiers in Mali arrest a 58-year-old Frenchman who is suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—and who may prove to be a key source of intelligence on the group

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Francois Rihouay / REUTERS

French soldiers patrol in the Terz valley, in northern Mali, on March 20, 2013

France’s newest prisoner in the fight against terrorism does not fit the profile of the modern jihadi that French investigators have, in recent years, broadly focused on — that of a young, disaffected man. Gilles Le Guen, a French convert to radical Islam who was arrested by French forces on April 28 in northern Mali, is 58.

When last seen in an online video uploaded in October 2012, Le Guen — who also went by the name Abdel Jelil — was declaring his allegiance to the Islamist group Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and threatening his homeland with retaliation if France intervened against his fellow extremists who had taken control of northern Mali. Both his look and message raised many eyebrows among security officials back in France. Many aspiring jihadis in Europe begin the radicalization process at home before seeking instruction and combat training from radical groups abroad. Le Guen, by contrast, veered to extremism only once AQIM-allied militias stormed northern Mali — an area where he’d quietly lived, approaching retirement age, with his wife and children for two years.

(MORE: Jihadi Strike in Timbuktu Reflects Altered Terrorism Threat in Mali)

“The average case involves a younger man leaving for a zone where jihadi activity — usually combat — is already under way, not waiting for jihad to come to the door,” says a senior French antiterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity and who notes several French nationals are known to have traveled to Mali to fight aside AQIM-linked militias. “[Le Guen] lived as a convert to Islam in Timbuktu as a pious husband and father, and only radicalized once extremists took control of the region. He’s the polar opposite of [Toulouse jihadi killer] Mohammed Merah.”

That late-in-life transformation is what appears to have inspired Le Guen’s October video, in which he warns France and other nations to halt plans for the military intervention that in January drove the Frenchman’s fellow Islamists out of northern Mali. It’s still unclear to French security officials, however, whether Le Guen actually took up arms against French and Malian soldiers. Whether he did or did not will shape the terrorism-related charges Le Guen will face after his anticipated extradition to France by Malian officials. On May 1, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio that Le Guen had “clearly already fought with jihadi militias,” but didn’t say whether that included recent combat with French troops.

Born in 1955 in the Brittany region of France, Le Guen worked in the merchant marine, according to French security authorities and press reports. In his video, Le Guen says he converted to Islam “30 years ago.” He later settled down in Morocco, then Mauritania, before finally putting down Malian roots in 2011 in a village near the fabled city of Timbuktu. Le Guen spent two unremarkable years there living with his second wife and five children until ethnic Tuareg nationalists joined arms with Islamist militias to take control of northern Mali in March 2012. Shortly after, French security officials say, Le Guen allied himself with the new rulers of the region, and turned up in aerial photos amid AQIM combat units.

But according to French authorities, the Breton’s zeal prompted suspicion among AQIM leaders who had him arrested until it they could establish he wasn’t a spy dispatched by French intelligence. Given his age, background and profile, it’s little wonder Le Guen was viewed askance by fellow jihadis. Despite his defiant video warnings to foreign nations about intervening in Shari‘a-ruled Mali, some news reports cite locals as saying that Le Guen was an active defender of women and suspected criminals and that he had consequently fallen afoul of the new Islamic police forces. French media interviews with Timbuktu residents also indicate Le Guen made several public stands denouncing top AQIM Islamic police authorities. At one point, Le Guen reportedly stormed a local prison demanding people he believed were unjustly arrested be freed.

All that has led to some debate among French security officials on whether Le Guen isn’t more a quixotic figure than an Islamist militant; an overeager convert seduced more by the romantic allure of jihad than the violence that can accompany holy war. “All the serious fighters withdrew to the mountains as armed forces advanced, but the old white guy stuck around, waiting for a soldier to recognize and arrest him as the skinny geek from the video,” the senior French antiterrorism official says. “If all jihadis we had to deal with fit Le Guen’s profile, our work would be much easier.”

Le Guen’s actions and experiences may yet prove valuable to the wider antiterrorism effort — especially in the push to quash AQIM in and around Mali. Despite the relatively potent military campaign against the region’s extremists, the news that broke on April 30 about a suspected Islamist sleeper cell unearthed in Bamako suggests that the Islamist threat in Mali may still linger.

“He was there when the Islamists controlled everything, saw who called shots, knows the identity of recruits who came in from abroad, and may know the way those volunteers were contacted and transported,” the French official says. “He may also know what jihadi groups may be planning now. As a fighter and potential terrorist, Le Guen may not be much to look at, but he could surpass himself as an intelligence source if he cooperates.”

MORE: French Officials Warn ‘Success’ in Mali Won’t End Islamist Threat