The Lost Children France Takes Stock of Growing Jihadist Problem
More than 1,000 young people from France have joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, more than from any other European country. The recruits are no longer just coming from the margins of society.
Sometimes Séverine Mehault climbs the stairs to the second floor for no reason at all. She walks along the hallway, past her son's room and into her daughter's bedroom. Then the 40-year-old lies down on the bed, next to a white stuffed bunny, and closes her eyes for a moment, trying to understand why only one of her two daughters, 15-year-old Kenza, is still there -- and why Sahra has abandoned her.
Not much of Sahra is left in the room: her stuffed rabbit, a Koran in translation, a prayer book and a guide to the correct methods of bathing for Islamic women. The guide is a worn, pink brochure with small illustrations. Chapter 3 is titled: Instructions for Cleaning Your Ears.
There's a dish containing red nail polish, mascara and lip gloss, but Sahra hasn't worn makeup in almost two years. After turning 15 at the time, she converted to Islam.
She left France on March 11, 2014 to joint the jihadists in Syria. The family doesn't know where she is exactly, or which terrorist group she has joined.
Her father drove her to the train station in Narbonne on that March day, as he did every day, when she would take the train to school in the nearby city of Carcassonne in southwestern France. A surveillance camera image shows Sahra, 17, standing on the platform in Narbonne, at 7:44 a.m. She is wearing white jeans, white sneakers and a black headscarf, and she is carrying two shoulder bags. The last image of Sahra on French soil, also taken with a surveillance camera, shows her at the airport in Marseille. She took an afternoon flight to Istanbul, and the next day she continued to Antakya on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Séverine Mehault has spread out photocopies of the surveillance camera images on the dining room table, next to the last photo she took of Sahra. It depicts her daughter dressed entirely in black, in a jilbab, a floor-length robe with baggy sleeves, and a hijab, or headscarf. She is smiling, with a soft, roundish face.
A Faraway Country
"Before she left, I didn't even know what was happening in Syria. It was a faraway country for me," says Mehault, running her fingers across the photo. Her fingernails gnawed to the quick. These days, she anxiously follows the news, trying to discern where exactly the group known as the Islamic State is fighting and where the West is bombing the terrorists. The TV set in the living room is constantly switched on. Sometimes she even leaves the radio on at night.
On that Tuesday in March, Sahra didn't come home in the evening. The family called the police. When officers came to the house the next day, they brought along the surveillance photos and retraced the route Sahra had taken. They asked a few questions, and when they left they took along the family's computer and tablet device.
Séverine Mehault received a call on her mobile phone two days later, with an unknown number appearing on the screen. She was so excited that she passed the phone to her eldest son, Jonathan. It was Sahra. She was calling to tell her parents not to worry, and that she was doing well. "I married Farid, a fighter," she told them. "He's 25 and comes from Tunisia."
"Where are you?" Jonathan asked.
"In Syria," his sister replied.
She also said that she would protect her family, even though they were all infidels. Then she hung up.
Her mother describes herself as an atheist, while her father, Kamal Mehenni, is a Muslim. He was born in France, the son of a French woman and an Algerian man.
But Mehenni never goes to the mosque, and he doesn't strictly abide by Ramadan fasting rules. Sitting next to his wife at the table, he says: "We raised our children without any religion. Togetherness was important to us, not faith."
'We Should Have Noticed Something'
Sahra's father is a tall, gentle man with powerful hands. In a region with high unemployment, he has been supporting his family with odd jobs for the last few years. "We should have noticed something," says Mehenni. His wife repeatedly says the same thing.
Mehault and Mehenni live with their children in a yellow, two-story house, in a town of 8,000 inhabitants near Narbonne, which we will not name, surrounded by the vineyards of the Languedoc region. Wild grapevines are entwined around the front door, and there is a plastic pool in the yard. There are many framed family photos on the walls.
There is nothing to suggest a reason for a 17-year-old girl to run away from this life. Nevertheless, Sahra spent a long time preparing her escape, as she gradually became radicalized, in full view of her family.
Extremism is infecting young French people like a slow but steadily progressing disease. And like a disease, its course varies slightly among individuals, and yet in each case it passes through similar stages.
Targeting French Youth
There are believed to be about 1,000 French citizens in Iraq and Syria, or en route to those countries, more than from any other European nation. Entire families have joined jihadist movements, including about 100 young French women. Many have already been married off to fighters in the Turkish-Syrian border region. Once a girl is married and pregnant, it becomes more difficult for her to flee. The terrorist groups that are targeting France in their recruitment efforts include Islamic State and Syria's Al-Nusra Front.
"Young people are being deliberately targeted, boys and girls, each for different purposes," says Dounia Bouzar, who has been studying the radicalization of French youth for 15 years. Bouzar, 50, an anthropologist specializing in religion, had already analyzed the phenomenon of self-proclaimed holy warriors when officials at the French Interior Ministry were still dealing with isolated cases. She wrote a book on the subject in 2006, a sort of guide for parents. Bouzar says that she saw this wave of radicalization of French youth coming, but that she would have preferred to be wrong.
On a sunny fall day, Bouzar is sitting in a Paris brasserie, ignoring a constant stream of calls on her mobile phone. Today she is part of a small team of advisers to the interior minister. In the spring, when cases of minors who had secretly left the country were mounting, Bouzar set up a hotline for family members seeking advice. About five new families call the hotline every week. But Bouzar also receives calls from young girls wanting to know what to do about female friends who have stopped wearing makeup and no longer want to go to the movies. Instead, they say, the girls are now covering their entire bodies with loose-fitting robes.
Sahra's radicalization began the same way. Then she converted to Islam. When she told her parents about it, Mehault thought that her daughter was simply becoming interested in her father's religion. Then Sahra began praying regularly, first twice and eventually five times a day. She traded her jeans for long dresses, wouldn't leave the house without a headscarf, and stopped plucking her eyebrows. One day, when Mehault caught her daughter trying on a face veil, she said: "Sahra, religion is something you carry in your heart. You don't have to show it to everyone."
Sahra told her mother that she was an "infidel," that she was "impure," and that she had no right to judge what her daughter was doing.
Arguments became more frequent, and there were long discussions over meals. The parents, afraid that Islamophobes might attack their daughter, forbade her from leaving the house in a full veil. Instead, she stayed at home and spent hours in front of the computer.
"We should have stopped it," her mother says.
"We didn't notice how bad things were with her," says her father.
Kenza, who is two years younger than her sister, once eavesdropped on Sahra when she was Skyping with one of her "sisters" while looking at a series of images of dead children. "You shouldn't see this," said Sahra, quickly closing the window on the screen.
- Part 1: France Takes Stock of Growing Jihadist Problem
- Part 2: 'Almost All Are Middle Class'