France tries man accused of running al-Qaeda site

Finding himself unemployed in his early 20s, Letellier said he started frequenting websites devoted to Islam

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A Frenchman who operated what prosecutors described as an al-Qaeda propaganda website went on trial on Tuesday on charges of defending and promoting terrorism. It was the first test of a 2012 law outlawing “cyberjihad” in response to attacks by a radical Islamist who killed seven people in the south of France.

Romain Letellier has been jailed since his arrest in September in the Calvados region of Normandy. The 27-year-old, who adopted the psydonym Abou Siyad al-Normandy, faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

His long hair pulled back tightly and a thick beard reaching to his chest, Letellier on Tuesday acknowledged acting as an administrator for the site Ansar al-Haqq, which the prosecutor said had 4,000 members.

Letellier said he never intended to incite anyone to violence. He faces charges for translating and disseminating al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine as well as for his administration of the site, but he told the judge he withheld information on sabotage.

“Because then you could really think that we were inciting people technically to do something,” Letellier said.

No attacks are linked to the site.

French security officials have focused on Internet forums and online activity since the 2012 killings in the south of France by Mohammed Merah. He died in a shootout with police after killing seven people.

Letellier described growing up in a Norman village, believing in God from a young age although his parents were atheist communists. His encounter with Muslims at his school as a teen, he said, “it released something in me to see people talking about God without mockery.”

Finding himself unemployed in his early 20s, Letellier said he started frequenting websites devoted to Islam, ultimately becoming an administrator in 2013 for the site that got him arrested later in the year.

He acknowledged posting the translations of two issues of Inspire, saying that although he had sought out translators he did not read through the online magazines. And he acknowledged that one of the pages posted, with photos of a person being shot in the head and the slogan “A bullet a day keeps the infidel away” was inflammatory.

“Does this send a message or not?” the judge asked sternly.

“It was stupid, very stupid. I regret it and if I could redo it, I would,” Letellier said.

Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc, president of a French terror victims’ association that joined the case as a civil party, said he was not necessarily hoping for jail time for Letellier.

“I want him to serve as a witness to anyone in danger of radicalization,” Denoix de Saint Marc said.