Questions after Syrian Salafist allowed to study in France

Spokesman of Syrian jihadist group Jaysh al-Islam leaves French authorities with serious questions to answer, casts spotlight on terrorists attempting transition into academia.

PARIS - France last week announced the arrest of a prominent member of the Syrian Islamist group Jaysh al-Islam on charges of war crimes and torture, in an investigation warmly applauded by rights groups.

But how was Majdi Mustafa Nema - better known by his nom-de-guerre of Islam Alloush - allowed to have a visa to enter France, not least as part of the EU's Erasmus student exchange programme, to attend a leading French academic institution?

Rights groups say his story leaves the French authorities with serious questions to answer, as Syrians who took part in their country's civil war could be eyeing a shift to respectability in academia.

Born in 1988, Nema was a captain in the Syrian armed forces before defecting, later becoming a senior official and spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam.

In June 2017, he left Jaysh al-Islam, one of the key groups opposing the rule of President Bashar al-Assad but which also stood accused of carrying out a "reign of terror" in rebel areas it controlled, especially Eastern Ghouta.

"This group controlled the checkpoints through which humanitarian aid passed for Ghouta and it took taxes as it went through," Fabrice Balanche, a geographer specialising in Syria at the University of Lyon, told AFP news agency.

Nema's Facebook account says he attended the ELTE public university in Budapest in 2018 and then obtained a diploma in political science and international relations from the Aydin University in Istanbul.

His aim was to "recycle himself and become an agent of influence with a university background to be more credible," Balanche said.

'No due diligence'

According to judicial sources, Nema has been in France since November 2019.

He was registered as a student at the IREMAM research institute for the Arab and Muslim world at the Aix-Marseille University in southern France, operated in cooperation with France's CNRS national academic research centre.

According to the institute, Nema had a visa issued by the French consulate in Istanbul. The French foreign ministry confirmed during an online briefing that Nema was issued a "short-term visa ... based on a complete file, after questioning by the appropriate ministerial services." 

Short-term visas are usually for 90 days and allow access to Europe's Schengen area of 26 countries. It wasn't immediately clear whether Alloush had traveled beyond France, or when he arrived.

Richard Jacquemond, IREMAM's director, said it was common for young Arabs who had been deeply involved in the uprisings against authoritarian regimes to later try to gain a foothold in academia.

He said that he was unaware of Nema's past, adding that because the process of obtaining a French visa is so tough, one could assume "that the consulate services have done their work."

He also said such people often have "very interesting profiles as they can bring us first-hand experience."

But Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) in London, said Nema was rejected by a prominent British University and expressed bewilderment at the lack of checks by France.

"There was seemingly no due diligence (in France) and I can't see why," Doyle told AFP news agency.

"How many other people like him are trying to do the same sort of thing, trying to get into the EU and trying to start life again as academics, but have a very shady background in terms of what they have done on the battlefield?" he said.


Jaysh al-Islam was one of the strongest groups based near Damascus until their defeat in 2018 and departure to northern Syria. Its founder, Zahran Alloush, was killed in an airstrike near Damascus in December 2015.

One of the most powerful Syrian rebel factions, the group was headquartered in Douma, the most populated area of eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus.

Nema left the group in 2017, telling The Associated Press at the time that he resigned to work as a researcher under his real name.

Jaysh al-Islam is suspected of involvement in the December 2013 kidnapping of Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamada and two colleagues, Samira Khalil and Nazem Hammadi. They are still missing.


Zaitouneh was one of the most prominent civil society figures in the uprising against Assad, and in 2011 she was awarded the prestigious Sakharov prize for human rights along with other activists.

Jaysh al-Islam, which has taken part in Syria peace talks in Astana and Geneva, has denied any involvement in the kidnapping of the so-called Douma Four.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and two other NGOS had filed a criminal complaint in June last year against members of Jaysh al-Islam for alleged crimes.

It was the FIDH that signalled Nema's presence in France to judicial authorities on January 10, after painstaking research into the Jaysh al-Islam hierarchy.

The fact that someone who had a public role at a Salafist group was allowed to obtain a visa "is surprising for us to say the least," FIDH legal coordinator Clemence Bectarte said.

Besides torture, war crimes, and complicity in the two, Alloush was also charged with "enforced disappearance," according to the FIDH. Preliminary charges in France mean the suspect could be freed if an investigation turns up nothing, or formally indicted and sent to trial.