In France, a cautionary tale against jihad

It doesn’t take long for the classroom to fill up. First come the community activists and senior citizens. Then a handful of women in hijabs and sneakers. And finally, the teens in hoodies who loudly crack gum, until Mourad Benchellali sits down and starts to talk.

“I was detained in Guantanamo for two-and-a-half years,” he begins. “I had gone to Afghanistan. I was 19 years old. It was in 2001, before the attacks on the United States.”

Benchellali’s story, told at a middle school one recent evening, is one of betrayal, brutality and ultimately, a form of redemption. When he finally became a free man, in 2006, he wrote “A Journey to Hell,” a book describing his experience.

But interest in his story here only surfaced recently, as France grapples to understand the homegrown radicalism behind the Paris attacks and the hundreds of French heading to Iraq and Syria.