PARIS (AP) — The old music box factory had been abandoned for years on the outskirts of the Swiss mountain town, with paint curling at the edges of its dingy grey and yellow walls.
It was the perfect hiding place for the young French mother and her 8-year-old daughter at the heart of Operation Lima, an international child abduction plot planned and funded by a French group with echoes of the far-right extremist movement QAnon.
Lola Montemaggi had lost custody of her daughter, Mia, to her own mother months earlier because French government child protective services feared the young woman was unstable. Montemaggi found people online who shared the QAnon belief that government workers themselves were running a child trafficking ring. Then she turned to her network to do what she needed to do: Extract Mia.
The April 13 kidnapping of the girl from her grandmother’s home marked what is believed to be the first time that conspiracy theorists in Europe have committed a crime linked to the QAnon-style web of false beliefs that sent hundreds to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It shows how what was once a strictly U.S. movement has metastasized around the world, with Europol, the European umbrella policing agency, adding QAnon to its list of threats in June. QAnon influence has now been tracked to 85 countries, and its beliefs have been adapted to local contexts and languages from Hindi to Hebrew.
A California father this summer took his two children to Mexico and killed them under the influence of “QAnon and Illuminati conspiracy theories,” federal authorities say. QAnon supporters also have been linked to at least six attempted kidnappings in the United States, convinced that children are falling victim to pedophiles, according to Mia Bloom, who documented the abductions for her book on QAnon published this summer.
“If someone is trying to get back their child and says they’re with this cabal, there’s now a support network where before QAnon it would not have existed,” Bloom said.
Part of QAnon’s loose collection of beliefs is specific to the United States, where the conspiracy theory began. But the conviction that there is a deep state conspiracy and cabals of government-sponsored child traffickers crosses borders, as does anti-vaccine rhetoric since the start of the pandemic.
The abduction of Mia was inspired by a former politician who promised to save child trafficking victims and lead France back to its former greatness. The AP pieced the story together from interviews with investigators and lawyers, as well as thousands of online messages, showing how QAnon-style beliefs draw in the vulnerable and connect them in often dangerous ways.
Two men charged in the abduction were charged — and two others were arrested Tuesday — in an unrelated far-right plot against vaccine centers and government ministries, a judicial official said on condition of anonymity to discuss the fast-moving investigation. Montemaggi was freed Monday after nearly six months in jail, but remains under judicial supervision until her trial.
Montemaggi is a 28-year-old woman with glossy chestnut hair and pale eyes, a lilting voice and a smile whose very edges curved upwards. Two stars are tattooed on the fragile skin inside her wrist.
She had Mia when she was 20, but she and the baby’s father turned her over to his parents days after the birth, according to their lawyer, who publicly described “social, professional, financial precariousness; maybe too much immaturity.” Montemaggi would drop in for an afternoon from time to time.
One day, when Mia was 5, her mother took her out to play. The two never returned, said the lawyer, Guillaume Fort. It was a year before Montemaggi sent word about the child, Fort said.
By then, Montemaggi had joined France’s 2018 anti-government Yellow Vest movement, according to people who spent time with her in protests, all wearing the group’s iconic fluorescent safety vests.
In November 2019, Montemaggi turned 27. She was not celebrating.
“Today, on my birthday, I am disgusted,” she wrote in a Facebook post on Nov. 12, 2019. “Since I awoke, this famous ‘awakening’ is hard, digesting all that I have learned, all that the TV and the politicians hide from us, all these lies, it’s not easy.”
Over the course of the next year, as France entered one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns, Montemaggi’s world grew progressively darker. She believed 5G towers were concealing population control devices, Bill Gates was plotting to spread the coronavirus, and governments everywhere were trafficking children either to molest them or to extract an essence for eternal youth. She pulled Mia out of school.
The month of her 28th birthday, she concluded that the French government was illegitimate and its laws no longer applied to her, beliefs central to what is known as the sovereign citizen movement. Like QAnon, the sovereign citizen movement started in the U.S., and its followers are anti-government extremists who believe that they don’t have to answer to government authorities, including courts and law enforcement.
She urged others to join her and enlisted in a Telegram group for sovereign citizens in the Lorraine region. Montemaggi tended to leave short voice messages punctuated by a gentle laugh, trying to set up meetings, wishing people a happy New Year, or admonishing those she thought were insufficiently dedicated to the cause.
She told those around her she was going to empty her apartment, sell her furniture and “go under the radar with her daughter.” Montemaggi had been losing weight for months, arguing so violently with her boyfriend that her family feared Mia was in danger.
To her new acquaintances on Telegram, she casually mentioned a court summons Jan. 11 that would prevent her from joining a proposed meeting, “a personal thing.” She rejected the judge’s authority to interfere in her life or her child’s.
The judge thought otherwise. Montemaggi lost custody of her daughter to her own mother.
She could see Mia twice a month, never alone, at the grandmother’s house in Les Poulières, a village about a 30-minute drive from Montemaggi’s apartment. And she could not speak to her by phone.
Montemaggi had no plan, but her beliefs were hardening.
“There are no laws above us except for universal law,” she said in one message over the winter to a Telegram correspondent. “There are no government laws. You have to understand that.”
While the Capitol insurrection in the United States is the best-known example of violence tied to QAnon, it is far from the only one. Twenty-seven people in U.S. have been linked to QAnon violence unrelated to the riot, eight of whom also had ties to the sovereign citizen movement, according to recent research from the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. A quarter of the QAnon offenders were women – an unusually high percentage for alleged crimes.
In March 2020, a Kentucky mother who adhered to QAnon as well as an American sovereign citizen movement kidnapped her children from her grandmother, who was their guardian. In November the same year, a woman who had lost custody of her children shot her legal advisor in the head in Florida after deciding he had joined a cabal of child-stealing Satanists.
By the time the mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 this year, QAnon already had a solid foothold in Europe. At first, it was on the margins of protests against coronavirus lockdowns in Germany and Britain. But during the lockdowns, QAnon accommodated a range of other conspiracies and turned darker, first in the United States and then across the Atlantic.
It was around this time that the name of a disgraced French politician started circulating in French QAnon chats on Telegram.
Rémy Daillet-Wiedemann was finding new audiences for his previously obscure calls to overthrow France’s government, resist the “medical dictatorship” of coronavirus restrictions and protect children from the government-linked pedophiles in their midst.
“In Europe, a tipping point came when everything got wrapped “under the banner of ‘Save our Children,’” said Andreas Önnerfors, a Swedish researcher who studies the history of conspiracy theories.
Daillet-Wiedemann’s name appeared 271 times in a QAnon Telegram group from October until April, when its chat history was scrubbed. Most of those mentions came amid a debate among the “digital soldiers” about whether his movement to overthrow the government was authentic, according to data shared with the AP by Jordan Wildon, an extremism researcher who archived the material before the chat history was erased.
The more Daillet-Wiedemann’s theories aligned with the QAnon conspiracy, the more his audience grew. In early spring, a group of his supporters fell under surveillance by French antiterrorism investigators. Around the same time, one of Montemaggi’s Telegram friends advised her to contact Daillet-Wiedemann about her custody troubles.
Daillet-Wiedemann, who had been living in self-imposed exile in Malaysia for years, had a network of a few hundred supporters, with a much smaller “hard core,” according to François Pérain, the prosecutor in the region’s main city of Nancy. He instructed one of his supporters to make a plan for Mia and for another French child in a similar situation, and wired 3,000 euros for transportation and equipment, Pérain said.
Five men, ages 23 to 60, came together in the plot they dubbed “Operation Lima” – an anagram of Lola and Mia’s names. They gave themselves code names as well: Jeannot, Pitchoun, the Crow, Bruno, Bouga. A sixth man, a retired lieutenant-general from the French military, forged government paperwork for the mission in France’s Vosges region, near Switzerland. That officer on Tuesday was among those detained in the plot to attack vaccine centers, the judicial official said.
The main planner went by the nickname Bouga and was an educator, according to his lawyer, Randall Schwerdorffer. He vetted Montemaggi with an online questionnaire before organizing what he considered “a legitimate intervention,” the lawyer said. He declined to release his client’s real name for reasons of privacy.
Concluding that Mia was in psychological danger, the men drew up a script for their roles in extracting her. Anti-terrorism investigators listening in on Daillet-Wiedemann’s supporters overheard troubling discussions about “a camping trip” in the eastern borderlands but could make little sense of it.
On April 13, an anthracite gray Volkswagen van pulled into Les Poulières. Flashing official-looking paperwork, the two men inside claimed to be carrying out a welfare check on Mia for the government. The girl’s grandmother agreed to their request to take her briefly away for an interview.
A quick call to the real child protective services revealed her mistake. By then Mia was long gone, on her way to a neighboring village.
There, Montemaggi waited in a black Peugeot with the other men. They caravaned to the Swiss border, then Montemaggi and two of the men entered the woods.
Over several hours, Montemaggi and the men hiked eastward, taking turns carrying Mia. When they reached Switzerland, another member of the network met them in his Porsche Cayenne. He took them not to a safehouse as expected but to a hotel.
As they were settling in for the night, the kidnapping alert flashed on television screens across France, one of only two dozen the nation has authorized in the past 15 years. The photos of Mia and her mother were beamed to millions of screens simultaneously.
That’s when Daillet-Wiedemann stepped in again from Malaysia, Pérain said. He sent out a call for shelter that only one person answered — and only for one night.
By then, the antiterrorism investigators had connected the van from Les Poulières with the anti-government clique of Daillet-Wiedemann supporters under surveillance. They figured out that the coded language of the “camping trip” referred to the abduction in the Vosges region.
Most of the men were arrested in France the next day. None bothered to hide their role or their conviction that the kidnapping was actually a restitution. One 58-year-old man compared himself to Arsène Lupin, the fictional French gentleman thief.
“They passed from conspiratorial beliefs to very serious acts, and those who went into action didn’t necessarily realize that they were on the wrong side of the law,” Pérain said.
Mia and Montemaggi were still missing, but investigators now knew that they had crossed the border and were headed east.
On April 15, Montemaggi and Mia were driven to the decommissioned music box factory. It lacked electricity, running water and beds, but had something the young mother turned kidnapper needed more – isolation.
With no alternatives, Montemaggi spent three nights at the factory, chatting briefly with the artists and hikers who passed through during the day and trying to keep Mia amused. Witnesses said the pair baked a cake, played games and explored the surrounding clearing.
She told one woman she was going to take the girl to Saint Petersburg, Russia, but had no clear idea how. That period in the factory gave investigators the time they needed to find Mia and her mother before they left Switzerland.
The police arrived on Sunday morning. They spotted Mia first, checking her photo against the kidnap alert. Then her mother walked outside, and the game was up.
Montemaggi was taken into custody on kidnapping charges. Her family declined comment, as did her lawyer. Mia was reunited with her grandmother.
Daillet-Wiedemann posted a video praising the kidnappers.
“These are heroes. They are re-establishing the law. I congratulate them and will do everything to free them,” he said in a YouTube video viewed 30,000 times.
He would not get the chance. Malaysia expelled him in June.
Now he himself is jailed on charges of conspiring in the organized abduction of a child. At his first court hearing, Dailet-Wiedemann declared himself a candidate for president, maintaining that the charges against him are political.
His YouTube channel went offline soon after Mia was returned to her grandmother’s village home.
“Let them arrest me,” he said at the time. “People will see that I’m on the front lines and that’s how I will lead my revolution.”
Judges on Monday finally agreed to Montemaggi's requests to be freed until trial, after months of insistence from her family and lawyer that she poses no danger to her daughter or anyone else.
“I’ve begun to put down in black and white my natural rights,” she wrote to a Telegram acquaintance, weeks before she was arrested. “With this text, I’ll ensure my rights are respected.”
Bram Janssen in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Paris contributed to this report.