PARIS: Two high school classmates, both French Muslims, headed off to Syria this month instead of going to school. They were located, brought home – one fetched by his father – and are now being investigated on terrorism-linked charges.
The unfolding drama of the teenagers, aged 15 and 16, highlights how Syria has become a magnet for a vulnerable fringe of young Muslims in the West. It is among a small wave of cases that are putting French authorities, and some families, on edge.
The bloody 3-year-old conflict in Syria has drawn thousands of Muslims to join the ranks of battalions trying to topple the regime or other fighting groups looking to conquer the region in the name of Islam.
French authorities say that more than 600 French have gone to Syria, are plotting to go or have returned, and more than 20 have been killed in fighting. As of mid-January, a dozen French adolescents were in Syria or in transit, according to authorities.
Many of the alleged would-be jihadists are clearly amateurs.
“He’s a victim. He’s not a terrorist,” said the father of the 15-year-old before his son was handed a preliminary charge linked to terrorism Friday – a rare event for a minor. “He never touched a weapon,” said the father, calling his son’s trip “an error of youth.”
As the boys from France’s southern Toulouse region were questioned Friday by a judge, the trial of three French Muslims caught heading to Syria was concluding in another wing of the Palace of Justice in Paris.
The three, ages 21 to 26, had made a long list of purchases, from camouflage hoods and vests to gun holsters and night-vision goggles. But their trip in 2012 ended before they boarded the plane, aborted by their arrest at a French airport.
French intelligence is in close contact with western nations, from European neighbors to the U.S. and Australia, to try to spot would-be jihadists and track those who return and present a potential danger. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls plans to present a series of measures to President Francois Hollande in coming weeks aimed at stemming the tide of French Muslims to Syria.
France feels especially vulnerable. It has the largest Muslim population in western Europe, estimated at 5 million, and Syria, once under French rule, is familiar to some citizens.
For Alain Chouet, a former intelligence director at France’s DGSE spy agency, youth looking for a cause are attracted by Internet battle videos or recruitment forums, media attention and easy access from Turkey, a vacation destination for many French people. The western support for the Syrian National Coalition fighting Assad may have further legitimized Syria as a destination.
“It is considered a just cause [because of] the position of the French, Europeans and Americans,” Chouet said. Not all would-be jihadists follow the ins and outs of the war, but “what people understand is that this revolution is just.”
“There is a certain romanticism linked to armed warfare,” Chouet said. Combine conviction and romanticism and “you give yourself an image boost.”
Two of the three young men on trial last week denied their goal was jihad, and all three said their intention was to film war widows and massacres of children. They bought much of their gear on sites for hiking and fishing.
Court testimony showed the three – two of whom live with their parents – were squabbling before their departure and their planning was erratic. One of the defendants, Fares Farsi, 21 but 19 at the time, refused to go by land because of possible car sickness.
“I don’t see how I’ve been radicalized,” as the charges claim, said another, Salaheddine Gourmat, 24, in a final statement to the court. “It’s like you’re talking to someone from Al-Qaeda.”
The third defendant, Youssef Ettaoujar, 26, the only one held in prison, worked to convince the court that his numerous vacations in places like Mali and Syria were not aimed at making contacts with jihadists, and that the name of his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, “Jihad,” did not reflect his intentions.
The prosecution is seeking three-to-six-year sentences for the defendants. The verdict was set for March 7.
The cases – including the death this month in Syria of a 30-year-old man from Toulouse – has raised alarm bells in French households. Two mothers, in Nice and Avignon in southern France, whose children went missing have voiced fears they have taken off for Syria.
The father of the 15-year-old charged Friday told a Toulouse newspaper this month that his son left the house the morning of Jan. 6 presumably to catch his bus for school, then called home late that evening to say “don’t worry.” He had used his father’s bank card to buy two tickets to Turkey, for himself and his friend.
The father made two trips to the border area, and brought him home last Monday.
A day after his friend returned.
Christian Etelin, one of the lawyers for the 15-year-old, said the boy had crossed from Turkey to Syria on what was supposed to be a humanitarian mission, but “was placed in a camp of terrorists.” He then left, the lawyer said.
The two teenagers were charged with criminal association in connection with a terrorist organization. If the charge is finalized after a full investigation, they would face up to 10 years in prison.
The risk of a conviction, said Chouet, the former intelligence chief, “is to turn them into martyrs.”
“I would not be very comfortable in the judge’s seat,” he said.