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Middle east

French mother says jihadist ex threatens to take toddler to Syria

© AFP (Archives)

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-12-23

For more than two months, Meriam Rhaiem was in a state of anguish after her estranged husband abducted their young daughter during a routine weekly outing.

But late last week, the Frenchwoman’s distress turned to panic when her former partner called to tell her that he was ready to cross the border from Turkey to Syria to join a jihadist group – with the couple’s 20-month-old toddler.

Rhaiem says she received a call on Friday from her estranged husband, Hamza Mandhouj – a French national of Tunisian origin – informing her that he was ready to cross into Syria from Turkey.

“He told me clearly that some men will take him to the Syrian border and he will cross the border with them and then the goal is to join the al-Nusra Front,” the 25-year-old mother told a French radio station over the weekend.

The al-Nusra Front is an al Qaeda-affiliated group that has been designated a terrorist group by the UN and the US. Ever since it announced its existence in early 2012, the Salafist group has been attracting a number of foreign fighters.

Families on the jihadist home front in Syria

But it’s not just radicalised adult males who have been responding to the call to join jihadist groups battling forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In recent months, there have been several reports of families travelling to Syria to form a sort of home front for the cause.

Video clips posted on the Internet have featured interviews with European Muslim women – along with their children – joining their husbands in Syria. In July, a UK news channel broadcast a report of a British woman who travelled to Syria to meet and marry a Swedish national who was fighting with rebel groups in Syria’s Aleppo province, where the couple had a child. In October, the hardline ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) posted a video of around 150 Kazakh nationals said to be from the same family – including children and women – who had come to Syria to “fulfill their Islamic duties”.

Experts believe an increasing number of families are going to Syria to provide a support base for the foreign fighters. While the men fight on the battlefront, the women maintain the home front, feeding and looking after the fighters while indoctrinating their children in a jihadist ideology.

Given the security situation and the clandestine nature of such border crossings, estimates of the number of foreign fighters and their families in Syria are hard to arrive at. The Hague-based International Center for Counter-Terrorism estimates that between 1,100 to 1,700 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria since the conflict began in 2011. A substantial number are believed to hail from France, which is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population.

Radicalised after a trip to Mecca

In Rhaiem’s case, she claims she regularly received calls from her estranged husband in Turkey asking her to join him – despite the fact that the couple had been separated for over a year.

Married in September 2011 in the southern French city of Lyon, the couple separated in July 2012, when Rhaiem and her baby moved in with her parents in the eastern French city of Ain.

According to the attractive 25-year-old Frenchwoman, her husband got radicalised “after a trip to Mecca” and started demanding that she wear the veil, and prohibiting her from listening to music with their child, or even allowing the little girl to play with a doll.

In an interview with the local French daily, Le Progrès, Rhaiem said her husband began associating with Forsane Alizza, a French Islamist group that was founded around 2010 and outlawed in February 2012.

Rhaiem last saw her daughter, Assia, on October 14, when her estranged husband had arrived to pick the girl for the day – as he did every Monday. According to Rhaiem, Mandhouj said he was taking their daughter shopping, but the girl never returned home.

"The next day, he called to tell me he had changed his original plan and was leaving for [the southern French city of] Perpignan,” Rhaiem told French news organisations. But she now believes Mandhouj had by then already left the country and was making his way to Turkey.

Shortly after the call, the young mother immediately filed a police complaint alleging that Mandhouj had “kidnapped” Assia. Rhaiem’s lawyer, Gabriel Versini-Bullara, has told reporters that French investigators had traced Mandhouj’s call to the Turkish border area and Turkish authorities have been alerted.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 on Monday, Versini-Bullara said there had been no word from Mandhouj since Friday.

“He was just two fingers away from crossing the border – if he hadn’t crossed it already,” said Versini-Bullara. “My client is very worried.”

Date created : 2013-12-23

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