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.

Radicalization

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.

'Almost All Are Middle Class'

The number of young people who have become radicalized and have disappeared is rising rapidly. More than 140 families have contacted Bouzar since January 2014.

Radicalization used to be limited to the poor and the uneducated, says Bouzar. Immigrants from Muslim backgrounds were usually the ones who joined jihadist groups. But the situation has changed today, she explains. "Now three-quarters of them come from atheist families." They include Christians and Jews, and almost all are from the middle class, with some coming from upper-class families, the children of teachers, civil servants and doctors. Bouzar is even familiar with a case involving an elite female university student. It also appears that more and more girls and young women are fantasizing about jihad.

Indoctrination

The Internet and social networks make it easy to indoctrinate young people. In her research, Bouzar discovered that the French-speaking unit of the Al-Nusra Front actually employs headhunters to recruit young women and men.

The process of brainwashing usually follows the same principles, not unlike the approach taken by sects. First the victim, be it a boy or a girl, is isolated from his or her surroundings. The young people are pressured to sever all ties to family and friends. Then the indoctrination begins, through videos about genetically engineered food or alleged conspiracies. The goal is to make the victims believe that the world is evil and that only they have been chosen to make it a better place.

As a result of this brainwashing, the young women and men gradually lose their connection to everyday life and their old identities. Once a new identity has been created, they often see themselves as members of a chosen group of fighters for a better world.

Bouzar has found that the radicalized young women have a common trait: They are all interested in careers in social work or humanitarian aid. Sahra, for example, wanted to become a kindergarten teacher. As soon as these aspirations become apparent, through such channels as a Facebook profile, the Islamists begin casting their nets. They masquerade as "sisters in spirit" and become friends with the young women. During this initial phase, the conversations do not revolve around religious issues, but around an emotional world that is being created. The recruiters foster feelings of dismay, using images of children gassed by the Syrian regime, for example. Only when the victims have become sufficiently unsettled, and when they begin to question their current world and way of life, does Islam come into play.

Devious Methods

"Of course, it isn't Islam that is being communicated to them," says Bouzar, herself a Muslim. The extremists use the religion to lead their victims to believe in a higher, "godly" objective, she explains. And girls like Sahra, confused and disgusted by the supposed decadence of the West, believe what they hear. Bouzar and her associates have set up Facebook profiles, which they use to reconstruct the terrorists' devious methods.

In the end Sahra, an insecure and naïve girl, and an introverted and helpful person, became so indoctrinated that she left home.

Sometimes she sends a text message or a Facebook message to her parents or her brother. She writes that she is doing well. Although her mother calls the number every day, Sahra never answers.

Sahra's parents have written letters to the French president and the interior minister. They want the French government, which they accuse of allowing their underage daughter to simply leave the country, to get her back -- or at least to tell them where she is. They have only received one response, a letter from the Elysée Palace, from the office of President François Hollande, dated May 2. "You should know that the President of the Republic empathizes with you in your distress," the letter reads. They have heard nothing else since then.

Dividing Families

Dominique Bons, 60, is sitting in a brightly lit café in a suburb of Toulouse, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the family's home. She, more than anyone, can empathize with the anguish Sahra's parents are feeling. Bons, a retired civil servant, is a gaunt, petite woman with a striking face. She too is an atheist.

Bons lost her son Nicolas, 30, to the Islamic State extremists. All she has left of him is a text message, sent to her mobile phone on Jan. 2, 2014. It reads: "Your son committed a suicide bombing in a village near Homs that was occupied by the enemy. May he be accepted by God as a martyr."

That was on Dec. 22, 2013. Nicolas had left France nine months earlier, in March 2013, together with his half-brother Jean-Daniel, 22, his father's son from a second marriage. Jean-Daniel also died in the fighting in Syria.

Nicolas told his mother that he was going to spend two weeks in Thailand with friends. When she didn't hear from him, she called one of her son's friends.

"Thailand? We were never in Thailand," he said.

After that, Bons spoke with her son on the phone regularly.

"Why are you doing this?" she would ask.

"My place is here, fighting against (Syrian President) Bashar Assad," Nicolas replied.

A Son Becomes an Extremist

Bons describes Nicolas as an affectionate, insecure person who was often ridiculed for his gullibility, even by his friends. His parents divorced when he was three. He converted to Islam at 27, even though no one in his family was a Muslim. At first, Bons thought it was one of his quirks. She was pleased when he stopped smoking hashish and drinking. She thought that if religion gave her son a sense of security, it must be a good thing. The only thing she didn't like was the beard he grew.

"You shouldn't walk around like that," she told him. When he started wearing a loose-fitting floor-length coat and a prayer cap, she forbade him from visiting her dressed like that. "I'm a Frenchwoman, and I'm a committed secularist. It was too much," says Bons.

When Nicolas's views became more and more extreme, they began arguing frequently. He criticized his sister for wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt on a summer day. His mother was outraged. "That's enough now, Nicolas," she told him. He replied that they would probably never meet in paradise. By now, Nicolas often said how disgusted he was by life in France. "There are no true Muslims here," he would say.

His mother suggested he find a job. "At least a regular income makes people a little happier," she said. Her son's attempts to convert people annoyed her. Nicolas was now spending a lot of time reading the Koran.

He appeared in an IS propaganda video in July 2013, with the black IS flag waving in the background. He was wearing a Keffiyeh and called himself Abu Abd al-Rahman. His speech sounded stilted, as if he had been programmed. "I am a Frenchman. My mother is a Frenchwoman, and my father is a Frenchman. My parents are atheists. They have no faith. Al-hamdu lillah, All Praise and Thanks be to Allah that I converted to Islam almost three years ago."

In the video, he called upon his "French brothers" and his "European brothers" to emulate him, and to come to the blessed land of Sham -- Syria -- to fight. "Jihad is obligatory," he said, and repeated the same phrase again, like a broken record. In the end, he called upon François Hollande to withdraw France's troops from Mali and convert to Islam, because that would be the only way to save himself "from the flames of hell."

'I Will Never Get My Child Back'

Extremism expert Bouzar has found that boys and men who join the jihadists do it for different reasons than girls and women. They too often fit the profile of the humanitarian and starry-eyed idealist, but it is less pronounced than the belief that they are "knights" with a mission. Many men become fighters to satisfy their fantasies of omnipotence.

"It's a question of playing God, of being in control of life and death," says Bouzar. Mohamed Merah, the man who killed several people at a Jewish school in Toulouse, fit the same profile.

Others are simply motivated by a desire to belong, to be part of a group, a clique. This could also apply to Nicolas Bons.

His mother unlocks the door of her Renault Clio car. She has just finished smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. It was Nicolas who taught her how to roll them.

Her son died 10 months ago, in a foreign country and as a person who had become a stranger to her. He was a man who appeared on camera dressed in a combat uniform and carrying a Kalashnikov, someone who treated the mujahedeen in Afghanistan as his role models.

"I will never get my child back, but I can help other parents," she says. She established an organization to help others in similar positions, and within a week three couples that had lost their sons in Syria contacted her. Together, they now try to arrange counseling for returnees in prison.

The government sees everything in black and white and treats anyone who travels to Syria as a terrorist, says Bons. For her, as a mother, things aren't quite as clear. "Mostly they're just confused children, victims," she says.

Kenza Mehenni recently had a tantrum and sent her older sister Sahra a Facebook message filled with invective. "Sahra, you are incredibly mean," she wrote. "How can you abandon us like this, how can you do such a thing to Mama and Papa, all for this shit, for this war, someplace far away."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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