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The jihadist journey of Frenchman Dos Santos

Photo of Mickaël Dos Santos posted on his former Twitter account @Abou_Uthman_2, now suspended

Details emerged Wednesday about the second French citizen identified by Paris prosecutors as one of the jihadists in the latest Islamic State group beheading video.


Last summer Ana Dos Santos, a resident of the Parisian suburb of Champigny-sur-Marne, was making preparations for the family’s annual holiday to Portugal when her plans hit a snag. Mickaël, the oldest of her three children, refused to join the traditional trek to her homeland. The 21-year-old announced he would be staying in France.

It would prove to be just the start of her troubles. On her return home, Ana discovered Mickaël had not only left the family home but had headed for war-torn Syria.

This week – almost a year and a half after her son left without a trace – Dos Santos received a distressed phone call from her mother, Maria, urging her to turn on the television. The news programme was airing still images from a video of young jihadists standing behind beheading victims including US aid worker Peter Kassig and at least a dozen other Syrian soldiers. The show did not mention any specific names, but the two women believe they spotted Mickaël.

Ana called her employer to say she could not work that day. Instead she went to the police to identify her son, now apparently an executioner, waging jihad on behalf of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Mickaël Dos Santos and fellow IS member Maxime Hauchard – the first Frenchman to be identified in the Kassig beheading video – have been the subject of intense focus in the French media this week. Their portraits dominate the top of every news bulletin.

Doubts have arisen over whether a Syrian fighter could have been mistaken for Dos Santos in the gruesome video. Nevertheless, Dos Santos's entire life has been exposed by the media.

Reporters have stalked his family's home, stopping anyone that might have once known or spoken to Dos Santos, prodding them for information about the jihadist.

His former friends and neighbours have spoken candidly to eager journalists about the young man, highlighting his sudden conversion to Islam four years ago, and remembering his once keen interest in football and music.

‘Going astray’

Those who knew him said he grew up in a normal, if somewhat strict, Catholic household. His grandmother and mother were born in Portugal, emigrating to France where they worked as housekeepers. His parents separated at one point, and he lived in Champigny-sur-Marne with his mother and two younger brothers.

Dos Santos was a good student and was training to become a professional house painter. A former high-school girlfriend said that as a teen Dos Santos was particularly concerned about his looks and was a big fan of Tecktonik, a dance craze that swept through France a few years ago.

She told Le Monde daily that their relation soured after he discovered Islam in 2009 via a moderate Muslim he befriended during a professional internship. “One day in May, he told me he wanted to convert. He wanted me to wear the Muslim veil and quit school. That’s when we broke up. He converted the following week,” she said.

A former friend of Dos Santos's told France 2 Television that the two of them had converted to Islam around the same time that year, but that Dos Santos had quickly “gone astray,” adopting radical views.

The website Francetvinfo said that his new mode of dress and behaviour soon became a concern for school authorities. He began wearing a djellaba, an ankle-length robe traditionally worn in the Arab world, and became the leader of a small group that cut class to pray in empty school rooms and preach conversion to fellow students. He refused to shake hands with women.

His newfound faith also poisoned relations at home, especially because of his mother's devotion to Catholicism. “His conversion was difficult for her to accept. There was a rift between the two of them,” a neighbour told reporters.

Dos Santos’ grandmother said the void between mother and son continued to grow. He dropped out of school only weeks ahead of his end-of-year baccalaureate exams. In the weeks before their successive departures to Portugal and Syria, he refused to share dinner with his family, taking his meals in his own room.

From Mickaël to Abu Uthman

The Dos Santos name first appeared on the radar of French anti-terrorism police in 2013. He was part of a home-grown terrorist cell they were in charge of dismantling. But it was too late to bring him into custody: he was already bound for Syria.

In the months that followed, Dos Santos become somewhat of an online celebrity among jihadist social networks, under the moniker Abu Uthman.

He drew praise from extremists and critics' scorn for eulogizing lone-wolf terrorist Mohamed Merah, infamous for murdering soldiers and a Jewish family in southwest France in March, 2012. Dos Santos posted pictures of decapitated Kurdish women soldiers, urging other young men to join the struggle.

In mid-October he appeared in an Islamic State propaganda video inciting his Muslim “brothers” back in France to kill civilians as retribution for French airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq.

While uncertainty remains over whether Mickaël Dos Santos a.k.a. Abu Uthman is the man seen in the video glorifying the beheading of Peter Kassig and the Syrian soldiers, there is no uncertainty about the young man's allegiance to one of the world’s most feared and active terrorist organisations.

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