Foreign Relations & International Law Terrorism & Extremism

A Trial in France Raises Hard Questions about the Financing of Terrorism

Tia Sewell
Friday, March 8, 2024, 11:58 AM
Two mothers, two journalists, a lawyer, and a stepfather recently stood trial in Paris for charges related to the financing of terrorism. They argued they were trying to save lives.
The French flag. (Francois Schnell,; CC BY 2.0,

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

In 2013, a 16-year-old girl named Léa left her home in France to join the Islamic State. Six years later, she died alongside her children in a bombing in Syria in 2019. Her mother, Valérie B., recently stood trial in Paris for charges related to the financing of terrorism, accused of having sent more than 6,000 euros to the caliphate—an allegation that she denied, arguing that the funds were transferred “not to the Islamic State, but to [her] daughter.”

Valérie was tried alongside five others in a trial that spanned six days in January, held in Paris’s 16th Chamber—a French criminal court specialized in cases related to terrorism. The case is an unusual one, with the defendants comprising three family members desperate to help their loved ones, two independent journalists moved to action by some blend of compassion and excessive proximity to their work, and a lawyer who stepped beyond his commitment to the legal defense of French foreign fighters in an effort to exfiltrate a jihadist and his family. As put by prosecutor Benjamin Chambre in his indictment, “it’s the story of a loss of bearings and deviation. A little space where genres mix, where objectives intersect and values blur. A microcosm in which the protagonists, flattered by having a certain media spotlight, blinded by the emotional ties that they have or think that they have with the young people in the area, lose all distance, all lucidity.”

As remarked by one of the lawyers present during a recess of the hearing, “everything is in this trial.” It illuminates the desperation of the families of foreign fighters, as well as the fine line separating noble intentions from potential legal transgressions that is walked by individuals entangled in this web of conflict. However the court rules, the answers it provides to the difficult questions before it will be of considerable consequence: It is estimated that 1,200 French nationals have gone to fight for Sunni militant organizations in Iraq and Syria, giving France the largest contingent of foreign fighters from Europe. If the chamber lands on the side of the prosecution, it would mean greater legal jeopardy for anyone who sought to help one of these radicalized individuals or their children—even if they said it was for food, even if they said they were seeking to turn themselves in, and even if the money did not ultimately make its way to the Caliphate.

The investigation into Valérie began, according to Le Monde, with a report from Tracfin, a French financial intelligence unit attached to the Ministry of Finance, which flags suspicious activity relating to the financing of terrorism and money laundering. The report alerted France’s National Financial Prosecutor’s Office that the funds of a publicly subsidized organization for distressed parents of radicalized children were being diverted for personal benefit. Valérie—the mother of Léa and president of the anti-radicalization association—had, from 2014 to 2017, allegedly embezzled funds from the association to support her daughter. But the prosecution alleges that Valérie was not acting alone: Anne S., the treasurer of the organization (whose children had gone to Syria as well) also stands accused of having taken money from the association’s coffers in order to send money to her children and help exfiltrate foreign fighters.

Valérie, accused of embezzling some 50,000 euros, recounted her contacts with government representatives while on the stand, stating that a ministerial adviser had once given her verbal agreement to use the public subsidies to finance smugglers. According to her lawyer’s remarks, Valérie “was dedicated body and soul” to “repatriating the children and her daughter from Syrian hell.” She remained in contact with her daughter while she was in Syria, who sometimes, “in panic,” would ask her mother for financial assistance. “I am a concerned mother,” Valérie protested during the proceeding. “I would have sent everything I had to provide for my daughter,” to which the court’s president, Judge Benoît Descoubes responded, “Except, madame, that it is not your money, but that which the state gave you to prevent radicalization.”

The other mother on trial, Anne, allegedly embezzled 11,000 euros from the association—some of which she used to pay rent arrears, and more than 10,000 of which she sent to her son and daughter in Syria. Anne stated that she did not regret financially supporting her children in Syria, arguing that they were “hostages” of the Islamic State, an organization that she “strongly condemns.” Speaking of the dire situation her children faced on the ground, Anne argued that she only acted only to “preserve their lives.” Her daughter is now incarcerated in France following her repatriation in 2022, while her son remains in Syria under the detention of Kurdish forces.

The prosecution requested suspended prison sentences of three and two years, in addition to fines of 25,000 and 5,000 euros, for Valérie and Anne, respectively, for breach of trust and the financing of terrorism. It also recommended six months for Anne’s husband, Raymond, who was allegedly complicit in sending money orders to his stepchildren. “Sending money to someone who is in a terrorist group, even if they tell you it is for food, and even if you do not subscribe to their ideology, is a crime,” the prosecutor contended, adding that “pain and sorrow are in no way a totem of immunity.”

As Valérie and Anne operated their association from 2014 to 2017, they became acquainted with two journalists—identified in the court proceedings as Céline M. and Edith B.—who were working on a book detailing the stories of French women who left France to join the Islamic State. Valérie helped to connect the journalists to families whose children had left for Iraq or Syria, and the women became close—so close, in fact, that when Western Union began blocking Valérie’s money orders to Léa, the two journalists agreed to transfer funds on Valérie’s behalf to her daughter, “out of compassion.”

As detailed in Le Monde, the journalists also argued that they did so because at the time, “French authorities were in a form of ambivalence, implicitly tolerating the transfer of money by families to their children in the area,” as it “allowed the services to obtain information on their location.” But Céline allegedly agreed to serve as an intermediary for Valérie’s association beyond the transfers to Léa, paying 2,000 euros to a smuggler, for example, who tried (and failed) to exfiltrate a French jihadist by the name of Sarah L. who wished to flee the Islamic State.

Another key part of the trial centered around a moment in the summer of 2017, when Céline was contacted by a French jihadist named Maximilien Thibaut. Maximilien, along with his wife, Mélina Boughedir, had left France a few weeks before the Islamist attacks of November 13, 2015, taking with them their children. Maximilien had been sentenced in 2015 to three years in prison for his involvement in Forsane Alizza, a small group that advocated for armed jihad in France. After fleeing to Syria, he and his wife continued to disseminate extremist messaging on social media, rejoicing at the attacks in France and encouraging the radicalization of French youth. But as the Islamic State was on the brink of defeat in 2017, Maximilien, who is alleged to have been an Islamic State sniper, was stuck with his wife and children in Mosul—at the time, the caliphate’s last stronghold. It was at this time that he asked Céline to help exfiltrate himself and his family from the besieged city.

The journalist testified that she was initially skeptical when Maximilien asked for her assistance, but when she was put into direct contact with his wife, Mélina, her stance shifted. When she received photos of the couple’s four children from Mélina, she stated that she was compelled to act, as was her colleague Edith, citing “the certain death” of the family.

Enter the lawyer charged in the case, identified as Bruno V. during the proceedings. Céline and Edith reached out to Bruno and asked for his help in extracting and defending Maximilien and Mélina. (Unbeknownst to the journalists at the time, Bruno had been on France’s “fichier S” watchlist since 2015, indicating his designation as a potential threat to national security that subjected him to surveillance and restrictive measures.) Bruno accepted, and on June 13, he sent a letter to the Paris prosecutor, liaison magistrate, and the consulate general of Erbil in Iraq, writing, “Mr. Thibaut is preparing to flee Mosul with his family in the aim of turning himself in to the French authorities and being tried in France for the offense he committed,” adding that he sought to ensure that Maximilien’s departure and arrival “take place in complete transparency.” (According to his counsel, Bruno tried to notify judicial and consular authorities of the situation of the family “three times” but did not receive a response.)

The journalists suggested to Bruno that they employ a “fixer” in their network who was working in the war zone in 2017 and could take the family from Mosul to Erbil, and Bruno agreed. Together, the trio set up an exfiltration operation in which a senior member of the Iraqi army agreed to assure that the family be “kept alive” in exchange for 37,000 euros. Bruno served as a briefcase-carrier of sorts, collecting the money from the couple’s French families and personally delivering a 20,000 euro deposit to an intermediary in Frankfurt, Germany, guided via phone during the exchange by one of the journalists. It is unclear if this deposit ever made it to Iraq. 

Le Monde notes that while “Bruno V. warned anti-terrorist prosecutors of his approach,” he “did not mention the terms—namely, the plan of the two journalists to bribe an Iraqi officer who, for 37,000 euros, would agree to let the jihadist, his wife and his children leave Mosul so that they could surrender to authorities.” On the stand, Bruno admitted that he had a professional interest in undergoing the risky operation and indicated that, in fact, he did not intend to argue Maximilien’s defense in France: “I wanted a case like this, to go and plead it in Baghdad,” he stated. “I was undoubtedly pretentious, but that’s how it is. I wanted to be the lawyer of the last Frenchman in Mosul.” His lawyers have argued that the money Bruno carried “was obviously not intended for the Islamic State” and “could in no way benefit it, having been given precisely to the Iraqi army.” They further contend that their client pursued a “double objective”: “to organize the official surrender of Maximilien Thibaut to the Iraqi and French authorities” and “to save the life of this family and in particular that of their four young children sick at the mercy of bullets and bombs in Mosul.” 

The journalists echoed the latter point during the trial. “We acted out of humanity, for the children,” Céline argued. “If we had not acted, the four Boughedir children would have died with their mother in Iraq.” This led to a dispute, with Judge Descoubes rebutting,“The protection of Mélina Boughedir [and her children] is not linked to your action …. There is no connection. The Iraqi army completed its work.

Indeed, in the end, the trio’s exfiltration operation had failed: Just days after the transfer had been completed, Maximilien left to fetch water and never returned. He is now presumed to be dead, suspected to have been shot by a sniper. Mélina and her four children were captured shortly thereafter by Iraqi forces on July 8, 2017. She is now serving a 20-year sentence in an Iraqi prison for joining the Islamic State. Her children have since been repatriated to France, where they remain under the care of the state’s child welfare system.

The prosecutor requested a suspended sentence of one year accompanied by a fine of 18,000 euros against Céline, and one of 10 months with a 10,000 euro fine against Edith. For Bruno, he requested five years of suspended imprisonment in addition to a fine of 10,000 euros and a definitive ban from the legal profession. (Bruno was temporarily suspended by the Paris Bar Association in 2019 following the charges and subsequently decided to retire from the profession permanently.)

While Céline, Edith, and Bruno conceded that they had made ethical faults, they denied the charge of financing of terrorism leveled against them. “I dispute the facts. Just linking the word ‘terrorism’ to my name is unacceptable,” Céline argued. “We are courageous journalists,” she added.“We were facing a tsunami alone …. I stepped out of the frame because I am sensitive to the pain of people, and particularly, children.” Bruno spoke more humbly: “I’m not here to tell you I was a good lawyer,” he said during the trial. “The mistake I made was to mix a practice that occurs when you defend an undocumented Sri Lankan with that of a terrorist. I committed ethical and moral mistakes.” Nonetheless, Bruno’s lawyers have contended, the offense of financing terrorism against their client “does not result from any element of the case but from a pure fiction.”

According to Article 421-2-2 of France’s penal code, the financing of terrorism is constituted by:

providing, gathering or managing any funds, securities or property or giving advice for this purpose, with the intention of seeing these funds, securities or goods used or knowing that they are intended to be used, in whole or in part, with a view to committing any of the acts of terrorism provided for in this chapter, regardless of the possible occurrence of such an act.

Article 421-2-2 stipulates that it is considered a crime to finance a terrorist enterprise even if the intention is not followed by effect, meaning that it is possible to charge anyone who has provided logistical support for the preparation of a terrorist act, regardless of whether or not that act takes place.

This trial therein brings to the fore several interesting and complex questions: For one, how should the French legal system reconcile the genuine humanitarian efforts of individuals with the reality that these efforts were made in support of individuals belonging to terrorist organizations? Further, if an individual believes that they are sending money in order to facilitate a terrorist’s surrender to authorities, can intent (or knowledge of intent) to use these funds for an act of terrorism be proved? And finally, in navigating the ethical quandaries surrounding repatriation, does the French legal system adequately consider the intricate complexities of these cases, ensuring a balanced approach that both upholds the rule of law and addresses the urgent humanitarian needs of individuals, particularly those of children, caught in conflict zones?

To some degree, there is precedent for this case, which does not mark the first time that French prosecutors have pursued the parents of foreign fighters. In 2017, the 16th Chamber declared a mother named Nathalie Haddadi guilty of financing terrorism, sentencing her to two years in prison for having transferred funds to her son before he joined the Islamic State in Syria. Haddadi was accused of having paid for plane tickets for her son to reach Algeria, as well as hiding his passport from authorities and sending some 2,800 euros to him while he was traveling in Malaysia. The prosecution argued that all of this assistance was ultimately intended to finance her son’s journey to the Islamic State in Syria. At sentencing, the magistrates held that Haddadi “knew perfectly well that her son was going to Syria since once he arrived in the area, [he had asked his friend] to tell his mother that he had arrived safely, which means that the the defendant was perfectly informed of the purpose of the trip, a trip financed by and thanks to her.” The court’s decision emphasized that it was not necessary that Haddadi “herself be convinced by the ideology of this terrorist organization in the same way as her son” but, rather, that the sole act of enabling him to join it was cause enough for her conviction.

Haddadi claimed that she had sent her son to Algeria to be with his father in order to “save” him after he had been radicalized in prison. “I cannot believe that I am being associated with financing terrorism,” she stated upon conviction, arguing that she had only sent money to her son “so that he could eat and take care of himself.” She further asserted that she “never sent money to Syria or Turkey.” Her son, Belabbas Bounaga, died in Syria in August 2016 at 21 years of age. Bounaga’s younger brother and best friend, who had also sent him money, were also tried and convicted for financing of terrorism. Haddadi’s sentence was reduced to one year upon appeal in 2021.

It remains to be seen how the 16th Chamber will rule in this case, with a judgment date set for March 22. But as made clear in the trial, the court will have to address fundamentally different questions than it did in its 2017 ruling against Haddadi. In this case, the defendants were sending money to radicalized individuals who had already made it to Islamic State territory, often with the stated intention of helping them leave the organization and surrender themselves to authorities.

The trial of Valérie, Anne, and their co-defendants in Paris raises crucial questions about the intersection of anti-terrorism laws and humanitarian efforts, illustrating in particular the complexities involved in legislating the support extended to family members entangled with terrorist groups. Its outcome could heighten legal risks for any individuals who have attempted to aid foreign fighters or their families, irrespective of the aims behind that assistance.

Tia Sewell is a former associate editor of Lawfare. She studied international relations and economics at Stanford University and is now a master’s student in international security at Sciences Po in Paris.

Subscribe to Lawfare