The young man in a video posted on YouTube last July identified himself as Abu Abdel-Rahman and told his French “brothers” it was their religious duty to join him in Syria to fight the Assad regime.
In perfect French, he called on President Francois Hollande to convert to Islam and to distance himself from Jewish and American allies.
His real name was Nicolas Bons and he was from Toulouse. On Jan. 2, his mother Dominique Bons received an SMS saying her 30-year-old son was dead. She called the number and someone told her in French he’d died in a suicide attack near Homs. Her stepson and Nicolas’ half-brother Jean-Daniel, 22, had already died in combat in August near Aleppo.
The Bons brothers aren’t unique. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the group that burst into prominence last week by seizing much of northern Iraq, is the destination of choice for Europeans who have joined the radical Islamist cause in Syria. While European countries favor the ouster of Bashar Assad, and French warplanes were hours away from bombing his military assets last August, their security forces are preparing for the eventual return of battle-hardened veterans.
“On the one hand we have our foreign minister opposing dictators and defending a politically correct vision of the Middle East,” said Philippe Marini, a senator from former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party. “And on the other hand, we have the interior minister stepping up security to prevent the spreading of the conflict back home. We’ve created a real confusion.”
There are already signs that European fears are coming true.
Paris prosecutors say the prime suspect in the May 24 murder of four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum is an Islamist radical who fought in Syria. Spain’s Interior Ministry said Monday that eight people were arrested in Madrid on suspicion of recruiting fighters for ISIS, and French police detained four people for the same reason earlier this month.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told Parliament on April 30 that 285 French were in Syria fighting, 120 were on their way, and 100 had returned home. Hollande said on June 4 that 30 had died there.
Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s anti-terrorism coordinator, estimates that 2,000 West Europeans are or have been in Syria, alongside 5,000 volunteers from North Africa and 500 from the Balkans. Chechens are also said to be among the fighters.
Besides France, other large European contingents come from Britain and Belgium. The U.K. estimates that about 400 of its citizens are fighting in Syria, some with ISIS, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday. The Partnership for Peace Consortium, a grouping of research institutes based in Germany, estimates 5,000 Arabs from other countries and 3,000 Europeans are among the Syrian rebels.
That’s about twice as many foreigners as traveled to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan after 1979, or the Americans in Iraq after 2003. It may be the biggest migration of volunteer fighters since the Spanish Civil War drew tens of thousands of leftists to battle fascism in the 1930s.
“Syria is the perfect terrain for jihad,” said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France’s top anti-terrorist magistrate until 2007. “The Islamists are playing a leading role, you have a dictator, you have Shiites to combat.”
Access is also easy via Turkey, which shares a 910-kilometer border with Syria, doesn’t require visas for most Europeans, and receives almost 40 million tourists a year, making arrivals hard to track.
Although a Frenchman blew himself up in an attack on a Mosul police station last month, according to an ISIS Twitter post, there don’t appear to be many foreigners among the forces that have taken Mosul and Tikrit and are threatening Baghdad.
“There are surely some foreigners and some French with ISIS in Iraq, but this offensive is mostly backed by old Baathists and Sunni tribes,” said Louis Caprioli, the ex-head of DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit, and now an adviser to Paris-based security consultants Groupe GEOS. “The foreigners are mostly in logistics or used as cannon fodder.”
Romain Nadal, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said so far there were “no indications” of French nationals involved in the Iraq fighting.
That’s not the case in Syria. A government-sponsored hot-line set up on April 29 for families to alert authorities to relatives at risk of going to Syria received 126 calls, Cazeneuve said June 2.
The Bons half-brothers were born into divorced agnostic families, and converted to Islam in 2010 after an adolescence of poor grades and short-term jobs, according to a website that Dominique created to help other families with children in Syria. In March 2013, they told her they were going to Thailand to learn kickboxing. Instead, they flew to Turkey. They phoned home every week from Syria until their deaths.
Bons’ website includes accounts such as that of Jonathan, who says his 17-year-old sister Sarah left their home near Carcassone one Tuesday in March to go to school. The next his family heard from her was when she called three days later from Aleppo, saying Syria was “nothing like” how the media represent it.
“Islam doesn’t allow you to take a child from her mother,” Jonathan said. He said his sister hadn’t withdrawn any money from her bank account, so “someone” else had paid for her Marseille-Istanbul plane ticket.
“There is a growing threat from European Union citizens, who, having traveled to conflict zones to engage in terrorist activity, return to the EU with a willingness to commit acts of terrorism,” Europol, the European police organization, said May 28 in its annual Terrorism Situation and Trend Report. “Syria will remain the destination of choice for prospective fighters departing from EU Member States, as long as the civil war there continues.”
Since 2012, French residents returning from overseas can be prosecuted if they are in contact with groups classified as terrorists. “Fortunately, these guys are bigmouths on social media, otherwise it would be very hard to prove,” said Caprioli, the former head of French anti-terrorism.
The French government plans to submit legislation this month that would make it a crime to prepare to leave France in order to join a terrorist group.
Cazeneuve said last month that Souad Merah, the sister of Mohammad Merah, who murdered three soldiers and four other people at a Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012 before being shot by police, had left for Syria two weeks earlier with her four children. She’d been questioned but never charged, so there were no grounds to put her under surveillance or prevent her from going, Cazeneuve said.
The government’s plan to tighten the laws could face constitutional challenges, Caprioli said.
“In all serious legal systems, you need a real element, not just intent, to condemn someone,” he said. “They will try to create something around watching websites and being in contact with certain people. We are at the limit of what’s possible.”