An Algerian man suspected of training in al-Qaida camps and cultivating ties with well-known terrorist groups across Europe was extradited to France on Thursday, judicial and Interior Ministry officials said.
Said Arif, 38, was sent to France from Syria, jailed and put under investigation — a step short of formal charges — for links to terrorist organizations, the officials said.
In an unusual statement, the Interior Ministry confirmed the extradition, describing Arif as "very mobile and experienced in all the terrorist techniques taught in Afghanistan and Chechnya."
His alleged background led officials to "consider him one of the most hardened jihadists our country has faced in the last few years," the statement said.
Two French anti-terrorism judges, Jean-Louis Bruguiere and Jean-Francois Ricard, had issued an international arrest warrant for Arif, judicial officials said. The Interior Ministry said he had been tracked for months by French and foreign services.
Arif's lawyer, Felix de Belloy, suggested that the background details about his client may have been coerced out of him in prison.
"My client was held for one year in Syria in extremely difficult conditions," he said. "Statements made during that year in detention must really be subject to caution."
Arif, also known as Slimane Chabani or Abderrahmane, is a native of Oran, Algeria. He is believed to have deserted his North African nation's army and spent time in al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, the ministry said.
The Interior Ministry said his name had come up in investigations into one of "the closest lieutenants of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." Al-Zarqawi is the Jordanian-born terrorist the U.S. military believes is behind many of the bombings in Iraq.
The "lieutenant" linked to Arif is believed to have operated in the Caucasus, the ministry said.
Arif also is believed to have "close relations" to a group of Algerians that led a foiled plot to plant a bomb in the bustling French holiday market in Strasbourg on New Year's Eve 2000, the ministry said. That cell was based in Frankfurt, Germany.
The ministry said Arif was able to escape capture and head to the Caucasus, notably Georgia, where he collaborated with al-Qaida militants.
There, he met veterans of Afghan camps who would later be arrested in France on suspicions of plotting a chemical attack against Russian interests. The network was dismantled in December 2002 with the arrests of nine suspects in the Paris suburbs of La Courneuve and Romainville.
At the time, the ministry said that three of them had trained with Chechen rebels and met "high-level al-Qaida operatives" in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, near its border with Russia.
The extradition came in the framework of the French judges' wide-ranging investigation into networks of militants linked to Chechnya. Judge Bruguiere's previous successes include tracking down the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal.