'Radicalised' French girls trigger police manhunt
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French police have confirmed the return of one teenage girl after they embarked on a manhunt for two 'radicalised' teenagers suspected of leaving for Syria.
Louisa returned to her family’s home on Sunday afternoon, local police authorities said.
“Her parents alerted national police that she came home around 4pm” investigators in Annecy in charge of tracking down the runaways told the AFP news agency, adding the teen was being questioned by police.
At the weekend, French national police had tweeted a photo of Louisa and fellow teenager Israe, who they said were “likely using false identities and will attempt by any means possible to leave the country”.
The girls were last seen around 1pm on Friday, 4 March as they left the Carillons de Seynod High School, located on the outskirts of the town of Annecy, according to public prosecutors.
The girls’ classmates began to worry about their whereabouts and made an attempt to intercept them at the Chambéry train station. When that failed, they alerted authorities at around 7:30pm.
Public prosecutors said they had reason to suspect that the girls had either left or wanted to leave for Syria and had plans to get on a train to Paris in the town of Chambéry.
“One of the girls was already suspected of radicalisation and was under surveillance. She had been placed in a group home and banned from leaving the country. On Saturday morning, we also enacted a travel ban on the second girl”, public prosecutors said.
More girls heading to Syria
French intelligence services have reported an increasing number of girls among the teens departing for Syria. They reported that among the 81 French minors who have left for Syria, a majority (51) are female.
According to the Interior Ministry, there are a further 867 French adolescents who were flagged for radicalisation, like one of the young runaways from Haute-Savoie. It is not known how many of those teenagers are girls, but there are many anecdotes.
In early December, a 16-year-old French girl ran away from home, allegedly to join the IS group, but was eventually found and reunited with her family.
Later that same month, another teenage girl also attempted to leave for Syria. The girl was already undergoing psychological treatment and had been attending a de-radicalisation programme after authorities uncovered that she was involved in a plot to bomb a synagogue in the central French city of Lyon.
The case sparked discussions about the weaknesses of the French de-radicalisation programmes. A programme called Stop Jihad, launched by the French government after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January and aimed at deterring would-be jihadis, has been called a “joke” by teenagers and experts alike.
Young, western and radicalised
Perhaps even more than exposing flaws in the French de-radicalisation programme, these recurrent cases also illustrate the strength of these young girls’ convictions, reinforced by highly effective social media propaganda used by the Islamic State group. The caliphate is “presented as a utopian society, while also providing those sensations of adventure, belonging and sisterhood,” researchers Melanie Smith and Erin Marie Saltman wrote in “Till Martyrdom Do Us Part: Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon”.
A recent article in French daily Le Monde discussed the network of radicalised young people in France, who may hail from different regions but communicate frequently with each other and those in the Middle East. Girls often receive individual attention and guidance from recruiters, who frequently go as far as planning their trip to Syria. The personal connection can be intensely meaningful to teenagers, especially the troubled. The Le Monde article included an excerpt from a conversation between two radicalised French teens. One girl recounted how much attention she got from Islamic militants online.
“I don’t even count the marriage proposals anymore,” she joked. “I’m going to end up polygamous with 50 husbands over there [in Syria]”.
In all, much has been written about the teenage dreams of these young, Syria-bound women hoping to find jihadi husbands. Yet Alyas Karmani says the narrative is much more complex than that. Karmani is a former radical who now works as a counsellor involved in de-radicalising young people.
During a Guardian Live event, he said that women who travel to Syria should be considered in the same way as men.
“[There are stereotypes that] the women are somehow victims of grooming, or they’re susceptible or they have multiple vulnerabilities. The men are just bad,” he said. “I don’t like the term jihadi bride; it’s quite sexist and reinforces lots of the stereotypes we have around Arab men, Muslim men and their vociferous sexual appetite. Women act on their own agency - like men.”
A ‘shadowy world’
The very young age of these teenage girls and the lack of knowledge about the workings of the shadowy world of the Islamic State group make it difficult to fully understand their reasons for joining the IS group or, indeed, what they will experience once they arrive in Syria. There are many reports of sexual violence carried out against women and girls there.
But one thing is certain, an increasing number of young, Western women who join the Islamic State are acting as formal and informal social media propagandists and even recruiters for the terrorist group. Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, agrees that joining the Islamic State group isn’t just about becoming a “jihadi bride” for young women.
“A lot of the guys [who join the IS group] are idiots – they’re attracted to the macho side of it - whereas women tend to have given it much more sober thought and made a very conscious choice”, he said at the same Guardian Live event.
Once in IS group-controlled territory, these women and girls are charged with transmitting Islamic State group beliefs-- both to the children they might bear and potential recruits.
This problem of teenage girl radicalisation is not unique to France. The Telegraph reported in 2015 that an estimated 100 girls had left Germany for Syria.
In a highly publicised incident last year, three British high schoolers from the London area of Bethnal Green went to Syria to join the Islamic State armed group.
They were brought to Raqqa, the IS bastion. Over the past year, reports of the lives of these young girls in Raqqa have trickled out. They offer a picture of what awaits young European women heading to Syria. According to a group of activists in Raqqa, quoted by the Telegraph, the Bethnal Green girls were placed under the watch of a female handler after their arrival.
By July last year, two of them had been married to IS militants. In January of this year, families reported that they had lost contact with the girls amidst increased air strikes on Syria.