This week, two French teenagers were arrested trying to reach Syria to join fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. Three men from Paris went on trial on Thursday on similar charges. Now Belgian parents tell France 24 about losing their children to jihad.
It is a situation not unique to France. Young people from all across Europe have travelled to Syria to join the ‘Holy War’ against Assad, often leaving without warning, their parents unaware to their sons’ and daughters’ plans to become soldiers in a foreign land.
In Belgium, an estimated 300 citizens have left their country for the Syrian battlegrounds. Many parents believe their children, young and impressionable, have been manipulated into taking up the jihadist cause.
Gathered in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, a group of mothers with children in Syria have staged a protest to press the authorities into tackling the problem.
They are making a stand against what they claim is a lack of action by the authorities.
“We’re the parents of jihad fighters, of terrorists. People are afraid of them, of us. But we’re not the ones who’ve sent our children over there,” says Veronique, one of several protesters wearing masks they say symbolise “misunderstanding”.
“Our children were tricked into this,” says another. “They didn’t go to Syria of their own free will. I mean: it’s not normal, that a kid who had no problems finds himself over there, that’s not normal. These are children, Belgian children… They’re not terrorists!”
‘Our children have been manipulated’
Veronique has set up a group called the Concerned Parents’ Collective, where parents whose children have taken up arms in Syria meet regularly to provide mutual support to one another.
Samira, one of the group’s members, says her 19-year-old daughter Nora left Belgium eight months ago to join her husband in Syria.
“We woke up one morning and her bed was empty,” Samira tells FRANCE 24. “It was on a Sunday. She’d often say: ‘I’m of no use here, I want to help! I want to help!’”
Samira describes her daughter as hard-working, cheerful and a devout Muslim. She believes Nora travelled to Syria mainly out of love for her husband. He was killed just 15 days after she arrived.
Samira recently received a letter from Nora, via the Belgian police.
“Even if I’m going to a country at war, I will be a good person, Mum,” the letter reads. “You wanted me to be happy and I’ve found happiness. And even if I’m no longer around I hope you’ll say that you’re proud of your little daughter. I love you Mum, but I love Allah above anything else.”
Another woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, shares Samira’s anguish. Her 23-year-old son has been fighting in Syria since May 2013.
“He had just finished recording a music album. We didn’t think he was about to leave us. He’s not the kind of boy who’d say his prayers on a regular basis,” she says.
“Our children have been manipulated from the outside. Groups would show them all sorts of pictures. My son would go with friends to play video games – that’s where they recruited him.”
‘The community let them slip’
Last year, Belgian authorities dismantled several jihadist recruitment cells. They would approach youth via Internet forums but also in mosques.
Mimoun Aquichouh, president of the local mosque in Vilvorde, north of Brussels, says his place of worship has nothing to do with the enrolment of jihad fighters, but believes that everyone must take their share of responsibility for the recruitment of young Belgians by radical groups.
“I recognise the fact these young people were left behind, that the community let them slip,” says Mimoun.
“Whether here at the mosque, whether in the youth clubs, the city, the national authorities - we failed to supervise them. We should all do our part and start finding solutions for the youth.”
Some parents have gone to extraordinary lengths to bring their children back home safely.
Dimitri Bontik, a former soldier, travelled to Syria three times to find his 18-year-old son Yayoun. He spent 36 days in Aleppo interviewing fighters from different rebel groups. One thought he was a spy working for Assad.
“They hit me and they pressed the [barrel] of an AK-47 to my head. I thought I was going to die and I told them, 'I’m just a father looking for his son. I’m not a spy, just a father looking for his son.'”
‘What’s the point of returning home?’
Yayoun returned home after eight months in Syria with the help of a French NGO and after he had found out about his father’s efforts to track him down.
He spent 37 days in jail upon his return. He now lives with his family as he awaits trial, accused of taking part in the activities of a terrorist group. He is banned from going outside after 7pm, cannot attend a mosque or speak to the media.
Dimitri believes such treatment by authorities is discouraging more young people from returning from Syria.
“This is why young Belgians in Syria start thinking: ‘Well, if that’s the way it is, let’s just stay in Syria and never come back. We can stay living in big houses with swimming pools as free men. What’s the point of returning home, being arrested, going to prison, being accused of this and that?’”
Alexis Deswaef, a lawyer representing the Concerned Parents’ Collective, agrees. The group is filing civil cases against the jihad recruitment cells. They also want to make it easier on a legal level for their children to return home.
“Rather than jail time it would be better to have a strict framework, a very tough supervision to make sure they engage into a de-radicalisation process,” says Deswaef.
“There should be a follow-up for these youths so that they don’t end up bringing back home the type of activities they engaged into when they were in Syria. That’s where the effort should be."