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The next step on the jihadist trail: a tough return home

AFP /Sylvain Thomas French security forces escort one of three suspected jihadists as he walks towards a plane bound for Paris after being arrested in southern France.

Among the hundreds of French nationals who headed to Syria to join the jihad, some have opted to return and surrender to authorities. But are they potential "lone wolf" threats or mere victims of indoctrination?

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It was the end of a hopelessly embarrassing episode for French authorities.

On Wednesday, three suspected French jihadists finally turned themselves in after an improbable journey worthy of a comedy – except this time, it was all too real, with potentially grave consequences.

The three men handed themselves in at a village police station in southwestern France after a surreal journey that saw them dispatched to the wrong airport, then passing through a French passport check without raising an alert. This followed by a failed attempt to turn themselves in at a police station, because the police were out on their rounds.

The catalogue of errors was exacerbated by false claims by government officials and the fact that all three men were well known to French intelligence services. Abdelouahab el-Baghdadi is the brother-in-law of “Toulouse gunman” Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people in two 2012 attacks. Another suspect, Imad Jjebali, was Merah’s childhood friend, according to French authorities, and Gael Maurize is alleged to have terrorist links.

The botched return has put the focus on the next stage of the alarming trend of foreign nationals fighting in the Syrian conflict: the difficulties of their return home.

As soon as Baghdadi, Jjebali and Maurize turned themselves in, they were placed in custody and then sent to the headquarters of France’s internal intelligence agency, the DGSI (Directorate General of Internal Security) in the Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret.

The three Frenchmen are set to appear before a magistrate and will be placed under a formal investigation for “criminal association with a terrorist organisation”. They can then be placed under provisional detention for an indefinite period or placed under judicial control.

“In 99% of cases, they are placed under provisional detention for an indefinite period,” explained Martin Pradel, a Paris-based lawyer who is currently representing around a dozen suspected jihadists who have returned to France from Syria and Iraq.

A jihadist dream gone wrong

While authorities across Western Europe, the US and the Middle East region have been worrying about the threat of blowback from returning jihadists, Pradel argues that the humanitarian aspect of this phenomenon has been overlooked. "They went to [Syria to] save a civilian population abandoned by the international community," he explained.

That’s a justification dismissed by a number of analysts, who focus instead on “religious indoctrination” rather than a humanitarian urge as a prime motivation for the influx of Western nationals volunteering in the battlefields of Syria. "These young French people are leaving to build a religious state – a goal that is not wrong in and of itself. They do not go to cut off heads, that’s not why they head for Syria – except on very rare occasions,” said Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist groups.

Once on the battlefield though, many of these recruits realise they have been manipulated, according to lawyers for several returnees. "It's the classic story of young French or Western nationals, who dream of an Islamic state, a society based on religion. But when they get there, they are terrified by the fanaticism, the crimes and torture that is being carried out,” said Christian Etelin, a lawyer for one of the men, told Reuters. “Mr. Baghdadi and his two companions say they have experienced the horror in Syria and did everything they could to leave,” Etelin added.

The war these young men are thrown into is dirtier than anything they had ever imagined, the religious authoritarianism stricter than anything they have experienced, and, above all, the violence between jihadist groups is brutal.

“Some Frenchmen – with the exception of those who have joined IS (the Islamic State militant group) ranks – have seen their living conditions deteriorate and could even find themselves shooting other Frenchmen [in rival jihadist groups]. That’s when they want to leave,” explained Nasr.

The situation for those wounded in battle is particularly difficult. The combination of their injuries, lack of access to proper medical care and the boredom of enforced idleness make them particularly susceptible to the pleas of their anguished families.

"It sounds silly, but some of them are very young and cannot ignore the pleas of their parents who are begging them to come back home," said Pradel, whose clients range from 16 to 30 years.

The French Interior Ministry estimates that out of the 930 French nationals who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the jihad, 180 have left.

The difficult decision to return

Nevertheless, the decision to return is not an easy one. Fear of reprisals, as well as anxieties over how they will be received by their friends, deters many Western jihadists from returning home.

"Once they leave, they cannot turn back because they know they risk being perceived as traitors and the only thing they can hope for is death,” said Pradel. So, to escape the violence, some volunteer jihadists – who have surrendered their identity papers to jihadist commanders in Syria – cross the border and live in Turkey.

Lawyers for the three men who returned to France this week say that Jjebali and Maurize were captured by the IS group after they attempted to return home and detained from February to March 2013 on suspicion of being French spies.

"They believe they were sentenced to death by the Islamic State group,” said Etelin. “This is why they did everything to escape and they turned themselves in to the Turkish police to ask for help and the protection of the Turkish authorities.”

Once in Turkey, they were held in a detention center. Turkish authorities alerted their French counterparts who were supposed to arrest them upon their arrival in France.

‘Victims of brainwashing’ rather than outcasts

Etelin maintains that the three men returned to France in good faith. Yet the fate that awaits returning jihadists could be a deterrent to other potential returnees, he believes.

Regardless of the reasons for their departure, the conditions of their stay or the reasons for their return, "they are considered terrorists," explained Pradel. "This raises questions about the definition of a terrorist. If a man left to fight alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is he a terrorist? If he was fighting on the side of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad’s army, is he a terrorist?”

Pradel denounces the legal machinery that "abandons any reflection" and paints a "caricature" of young men and women who have left France for Syria. "The justice system makes these young people outcasts while many are obviously victims of brainwashing,” said the lawyer.

Once they return to France, Pradel adds, suspected jihadists remain committed to the idea of building an Islamic state and the need to “save” people.

"But that does not make them terrorists – so far," Pradel said, noting that cases of "lone wolf" returnees are very rare. "They are extremely dangerous profiles, I do not deny it. But those who announce their return [and turn themselves in to French authorities] are particularly traumatized. What they need is psychological help."

(This article was translated from French. Find the original article here.)

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