France stabbing: Attacker denied Swedish citizenship over Syrian army service

Court documents show that Abdelmasih Hanoun was 'on a mission' in Kiswa, where protesters were killed in the early stages of the uprising

Flowers and tributes to the victims after the knife attack in Annecy, France.  EPA
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Swedish court documents show that a Syrian man who attacked toddlers with a knife in a park in south-east France last month served in the Syrian Armed Forces in the early years of the civil war, leading to his citizenship being denied.

The documents shared with The National shed new light on the life led by Abdelmasih Hanoun, 31, before he moved to Sweden in 2013 and his time when the government was engaged in a brutal repression of opposition members in a key Damascus suburb.

Swedish courts twice refused his citizenship request due to his active role in the Syrian Armed Forces. This rejection caused him to become depressed and revived “memories of the army” his former wife recently told French magazine Le Point.

She described her husband as paranoid and schizophrenic and said that she tried to warn France’s immigration office but received no response. She obtained Swedish citizenship in 2021. The couple had a daughter before they separated.

On June 8, Hanoun shocked France when he stabbed six people, including three children aged between 22 months and three years old, in the French town of Annecy.

The attack came four days after he was notified that his request for asylum in France had been refused, a “troubling coincidence”, according to France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

His victims all survived but the possible long-term effects of their injuries has not been made public.

Hanoun’s mental state raised questions among locals at the time about whether his knife attack was a consequence of trauma sustained during the war in Syria.

Standing in the crowd of onlookers who had come to pay their respects to Hanoun's young victims the day after the incident, a man in his sixties who gave his name as Joseph told The National: “I condemn what he did. But I think he’s a collateral victim of the war in Syria, rather than a mentally deranged person.”

Few knew what to make of the attack on helpless children in a playground, described as "cowardly" by French President Emmanuel Macron. Joseph said he believed that his point of view was not widely shared in Annecy. Some locals said they believed that Hanoun was mentally unwell.

A 25-year wait for citizenship

Hanoun has so far reportedly given no explanation for his crime. During the attack, witnesses heard him mention his daughter, his wife and Jesus Christ, according to the prosecutor, who said he also wore a cross and carried two Christian images with him. Hanoun later told police that he is Christian.

He is currently detained and was charged on June 10 for attempted murder and armed rebellion.

The court documents reveal that Sweden refused Hanoun’s citizenship request because he had served in his country's army after the start of its 12-year civil war.

Sweden’s migration agency declined to publicise the reasons for its refusal, but court documents are available upon request.

Hanoun would have had to wait 25 years between the time he served in the army and possibly obtaining Swedish citizenship. The court said that this was the recommended time that should elapse in the case an applicant had served in an institution accused of extensive human rights offences – which is the case with the Syrian army.

The trail of paperwork left by Hanoun at the migration agency seem indicate a strong yet frustrated desire to become Swedish.

The agency told The National in an email that Hanoun made his first citizenship request in October 2017. It was rejected one month later. He made a new application in August 2018, which was refused in February 2022.

For the first time, Hanoun appealed, and the administrative court of Malmo refused the appeal in May 2022. He lodged a third application for citizenship in August 2022 but left the country shortly after and arrived in France in October, stopping in Italy and Switzerland on the way.

He hoped to obtain French citizenship, according to Le Point.

Court documents give imprecise indications of what Hanoun did while he was in the Syrian army. They indicate that as part of his asylum process, Hanoun had said that he had been a sergeant from June 2011 to December 2012. This means he would have been 20 years old when he was drafted.

During this time, he changed locations and made several arrests.

“You say in the asylum investigation that you were responsible for an area called Kiswa,” according to the document, in apparent reference to a town 15km south of Damascus.

“An officer had instructed you to cordon off the area and that some [guards] would stand guard there."

There is also mention that Hanoun, who was armed, participated in a raid and detained an unspecified number of people.

The document does not say when Hanoun was stationed in Kiswa, but the town is known for being a site of brutal repression against protesters during the time he served in the army, according to analysts.

Strategic location

“There was very early on important popular support for the revolution, numerous protests, then an implantation of armed rebels,” said Thomas Pierret, senior researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The brutal actions of government forces in Kiswa are linked to its strategic location, which is the reason why the town houses several military bases known for their loyalty to Damascus, including the army’s first division, Mr Pierret told The National.

Kiswa is a necessary passageway between eastern and western Ghouta as well as between Damascus and the southern town of Deraa and Syria’s main crossing point into Jordan in Nasib.

“It was imperative for the regime to squash the protest movement in Kiswa,” Mr Pierret said.

Tactics adopted by the army included firing live ammunition, which killed several dozen people, mass raids, including indiscriminate arrests of all young men from certain neighbourhoods, he said.

They also encompassed the use of light and medium firearms against houses to terrorise inhabitants, and the construction of at least 14 military checkpoints in the city.

“These measures were effective,” Mr Pierret said. “By the end of 2012, protests had ended and armed rebels left to other areas in the region.”

The court document makes no mention of Hanoun shooting at protesters, manning checkpoints or participating in human rights offences.

Conscription in the Syrian army is mandatory for men between the ages of 18 and 42, resulting in many young men fleeing the country.

There have been numerous reports of conscripts being forced to serve for years beyond the mandatory 18 months. Exemption fees reportedly cost thousands of dollars and bribery is common.

There are no further details of Hanoun’s time in the army in the court documents.

His former wife told Le Point that he had managed to flee to Turkey after a horrific attack conducted by ISIS in late 2012 in his home region of Al Hassakah in north-east Syria.

His friends said he was "neither for or against the Assad regime", according to the magazine.

Hanoun’s defection is unsurprising, as tens of thousands of other fighters left the Syrian army in 2012, Mr Pierret said.

As long as Hanoun remains silent in custody, it will be difficult to understand where his loyalties lie.

Syria's many communities are diverse. Though many Christians sided with the government because they feared Islamist rule, Christians have also held prominent roles within the opposition, said Aron Lund, a fellow with Century International.

"A lot of Syrians have left the country to avoid the draft, or to follow family members fleeing conscription," Mr Lund said. "In and of itself, it doesn't necessarily indicate that they're pro or anti anything, although by default it means that they end up being wanted by the government for the crime of draft evasion."

Yet ISIS was not created until 2013, meaning that Hanoun could not have fought the terrorist group, an apparent contradiction of his fomer wife’s statement.

She may have been referring to fighting between the Syrian army and Jabhat al Nusra in November 2012 in Ras al Ayn, 78km from Al Hassakah.

The rebel group was established in Syria as a branch of ISIS in Iraq and later became an ISIS rival.

“His ex-wife’s account is plausible,” Mr Pierret said. “Jabhat al Nusra eradicated the last positions held by the Syrian army and executed prisoners.”

Hanoun’s former wife reportedly now lives under police protection.

Updated: June 28, 2023, 12:04 PM