PARIS (AP) — Two French women who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group went on trial Monday for trying to blow up a car near Notre Dame Cathedral in 2016, in a case that authorities hope sheds light on the wave of extremism that has hit France.
The trial is also highlighting the role of women in recruiting and violence by IS extremists.
The Notre Dame terrorist plot fell apart after the gas canisters doused with fuel failed to explode, and no one was hurt.
But the women had been recruited by one of France’s most notorious jihadists, and prosecutors say the attempted explosion — in September 2016, long before the fire that ravaged the medieval cathedral this year — could have killed dozens of people in one of the French capital’s most-beloved, tourist-friendly neighborhoods.
The two main suspects, who face life in prison if convicted, were subdued as the trial opened in a special Paris terrorism court. Six other people are also on trial for related charges.
Lawyer Thibault de Montbrial, representing French police and a terrorism victims association, described Monday’s action in court as the first significant trial related to the 2015-2016 attacks in France, which deeply shook the country and hardened its security posture.
He said the trial also “puts in the forefront the role, often unknown, underestimated and sometimes even negated by some, of women in radicalization, fanaticism, and their ability to execute a terrorist act.”
Ines Madani, now 22, is considered the key player. She was just a teenager when she and Ornella Gilligmann joined a channel on the social network Telegram run by French jihadist Rachid Kassim, according to court documents.
Kassim was central to French recruiting efforts for IS, prosecutors say, and was believed linked to a gruesome attack on a French priest inside his Normandy church and the killing of a French police couple at home in front of their child. Kassim moved to Syria in 2015, and during the summer of 2016 he multiplied his threats against France on social networks and released a guide detailing how followers should commit attacks. Among his suggested methods were group stabbings or “filling a vehicle with gas cylinders and spraying them with fuel.”
Madani and Gilligmann tried to do just that, after sending Kassim videos pledging allegiance to IS, court documents say.
On Sept. 4, 2016, they parked a Peugeot carrying six gas canisters near Notre Dame, doused them with diesel fuel and tried to set them alight. But they failed, and then fled.
Police quickly found their trail. The car belonged to Madani’s father, and the two women’s fingerprints and DNA were found on the gas canisters.
Gilligmann, who was already known to intelligence services for trying to reach Syria in 2014, was arrested two days later in southern France.
Madani then tried to plot a new attack with help from Kassim and other women extremists. On Sept. 8, three of them took kitchen knives and attempted a rampage as police closed in.
Madani “acknowledges responsibility” for plotting the Notre Dame attack and is expecting a conviction, her lawyer Laurent Pasquet Marinacce told The Associated Press. The lawyer said Madani was manipulated by Kassim and is “no longer radicalized at all. She has done a lot of self-examination.”
Kassim is being tried in absentia. An international arrest warrant was issued for him, but he was believed killed by a drone strike in 2017 around the Iraqi city of Mosul. U.S. authorities confirmed his death, but no proof of death was officially reported to the French courts.
Masha Macpherson in Paris contributed.