PARIS — Confusion reigned Tuesday over the whereabouts of three suspected French jihadists arrested in Turkey who include the brother-in-law of Toulouse Jewish school killer Mohammed Merah after an apparent bungle by authorities.
The French interior ministry had announced that the three men, including the 29-year-old husband of Merah’s sister Souad, Abdelhoued Bagadhali, had been arrested by French police on their arrival at Paris’s Orly airport after being sent back from Turkey.
But it later turned out that the men had not landed in Paris at all, but were put on a flight to the southern city Marseille where they were — to their apparent surprise — able to walk freely from the airport.
The ministry claimed that after the pilot of the Paris-bound flight refused to allow them on board, the Turkish authorities put them on the flight to Marseille. But it insisted that Paris did not become aware of the change until after the men had landed on French soil.
“They weren’t arrested at all,” Apollinaire Legros-Gimbert, one of the men’s lawyers, told AFP. “They are free but ready to explain themselves and be questioned.”
But he said did not know where the men now were.
Police marksmen killed Mohamed Merah after a two-day siege of his apartment in Toulouse in March 2012. Over the previous two weeks he had gone on a killing spree in the name of jihad murdering seven people, including three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in June that Merah’s sister Souad had gone to Syria.
Another of the trio’s lawyers, Pierre Dunac, said the men were not questioned when they landed. “As incredible as it might seen, it’s true.”
The men are not at large, their lawyers insist: “Technically they are not on the run.”
They were thought to have been arrested in Turkey on suspicion of being part of a network that recruited jihadists for Syria.
Christian Etelin, a lawyer who had once represented Merah, said he had been in contact with Bagadhali before he boarded the flight to France. He asserted that the three jihadists had planned to join the Islamic State in Syria, but were disillusioned with the group.
“It’s a classic story of young French or Westerners who dream of Islamic State, a society based on religion, but when they get there they are terrified by the fanaticism, the crimes and torture that is being carried out,” he said, according to Reuters.
Etelin said the three men were later imprisoned by the Islamic State as suspected French spies, after they had expressed a desire to leave the war-torn country, the news agency reported.
“They were sure they would be condemned to death and it’s for this reason they did everything they could to escape and handed themselves over to the Turkish police to ask for their help and protection,” Etelin said.
An airport source in Paris said earlier Tuesday that the plane they were due to be on “was stopped on the tarmac” at Orly airport near Paris but the three suspects “were not inside,” adding that the captain had refused to accept them on the flight after Turkish police failed to provide adequate documents.
French authorities are wary about nationals who have traveled to Syria and Iraq — where the radical Islamic State group occupies large areas — and may return to their home country to stage attacks.
After Mohamed Merah’s death it emerged that he had visited Pakistan and Afghanistan prior to his attacks and had been on the radar of French intelligence, who had gravely underestimated the threat he posed.
Souad left Toulouse in May for Barcelona, from where she took a flight to Istanbul and then another plane for the Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border.
According to a source close to the case, she is currently in Algeria after having left Syria.
According to Cazeneuve, around 930 French citizens or residents, including at least 60 women, are either actively engaged in jihad in Iraq and Syria or are planning to go.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.