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Omar Diaby is back from the dead. Ten months after masterminding his own death, the man accused of spearheading the recruitment of French jihadists has pulled off another PR stunt by announcing his resurrection in an interview with France 2 television to be broadcast on Thursday.
Diaby, who also goes by the name Omar Omsen, is the self-proclaimed emir of a katiba – or fighting group – of French jihadists in Syria, many of them hailing from the southeastern French city of Nice. He was presumed dead when, last month, he reportedly made contact with France 2 journalist Romain Boutilly. Speaking on Skype, Diaby told the reporter: “The emir Omar Omsen is not dead. His death was announced for a very precise reason.”
The 40-year-old of Senegalese origin, who has an international arrest warrant issued in his name, said his parents announced his death on Twitter last August so that he could “leave Syria to have major surgery in a neighbouring country” while avoiding detection by security services. His purported death from injuries sustained on the battlefield was confirmed on social media by other relatives and then widely reported by French news outlets.
His public reappearance in recent days coincides with the opening in Strasbourg of the trial of seven Frenchmen suspected of travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) group. The suspects, among them the brother of one of the November 13 Paris attackers, are believed to have been recruited in 2013 by Diaby’s former lieutenant, Mourad Fares.
Before the IS group
After a stint in a Nice penitentiary, Diaby rose to prominence in 2012 by producing a series of lengthy propaganda videos under the title “19HH”, a reference to the World Trade Center and the 19 terrorists who took part in its destruction on September 11, 2001.
The videos claimed to reveal “the truth” about Islam, Western imperialism and the death of Osama bin Laden. They got tens of thousands of views on YouTube, and have been credited with inspiring the first wave of jihadist fighters to leave France – before the IS group and its online propaganda machine even existed.
Diaby left for Syria in the summer of 2013, setting up a unit of French fighters linked to the al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which would later become the IS group’s main jihadist rival.
It was Diaby himself who contacted France 2’s Boutilly after hearing of his interest in Diaby’s propaganda techniques. He agreed to let a Syrian cameraman film his camp for three days, although he carefully controlled what could be filmed and which fighters could speak.
The exclusive footage offers a rare insight into the life of foreign jihadists in Syria while also serving Diaby’s promotional aims. It shows his recruits diving into the crystal-clear waters of a lake and veiled women strolling around the camp grounds with young children. The men openly acknowledge killing Syrian soldiers, their faces uncovered.
‘Vote for Marine Le Pen’
In the interview, Diaby stressed the differences between the IS group’s methods and his own. “They (the IS group) target a reactionary, impulsive audience, that is very different to ours,” he said, dismissing IS group propaganda videos as “five-minute clips that merely stir rage”.
Diaby said that the jihadist outfits also differed in their understanding of Muslim Sharia law. “When we come to a country that is not our own, we cannot impose laws that the people don’t understand…,” he said. “We have to first educate the people, make them understand and love religion. Sharia law is not about cutting hands or stoning the adulterous.”
While Diaby is not suspected of any direct link with the terror attacks in France last year, he welcomed the deadly shootings at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. “Those who insulted the prophet were executed,” he said, referring to Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, Islam’s holiest figure. “I wish I’d been chosen to do that,” he added.
In a bizarre foray into French politics, Diaby expressed his support for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party, who is routinely accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in France and has likened Muslim prayers in French streets to the country’s wartime occupation under the Nazis.
“If the French don’t want war, they should vote for Marine Le Pen,” he said, referring to France’s involvement in anti-jihadist military operations in Syria. “This woman has asked French troops to go home because this war is none of their business. Well, she’s absolutely right.”