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Teen girls suspected of seeking to join Syria jihadists return home

© This screengrab shows two teenage girls, Israe and Louisa, who are suspected of attempting to travel to Syria to join the IS group.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-03-07

Two French teenagers suspected of trying to travel to areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group returned home on Sunday two days after they went missing, French officials said.

The two girls, identified as Israe, 15, and 16-year-old Louisa, disappeared from their school in Haute-Savoie in the French Alps on Friday, prompting the police to launch a search for the pair.

The girls were spotted leaving the Carillons de Seynod High School on the outskirts of Annecy at 1pm, according to public prosecutors. The girls’ classmates made an attempt to intercept them at the Chambéry train station. When that failed, they alerted the authorities at around 7:30pm.

The public prosecutor in Annecy confirmed Sunday night that both girls had returned home by that evening – Louisa in the afternoon after hearing a TV appeal from her mother and Israe a few hours later.

Israe was already known to the authorities as having been "radicalised" and had been placed in foster care and banned from leaving the country. A travel ban was put in place for Louisa on Saturday. Her uncle dismissed any allegations that his niece was intent on travelling to Syria, describing her simply as a "runaway".

Israe's mother Nadia told Le Parisien newspaper that she had caught her daughter trying to leave for Syria two years ago. Nadia alerted the authorities and Israe was enrolled in a deradicalisation programme.

"It is not easy to break this cycle ... she has been sucked in by it," Nadia told the newspaper. "She wanted to go to Syria to help children and serve a good cause."

Dounia Bouzar, who runs the anti-radicalisation centre Israe attended, said the girl had recently left a psychiatric hospital where she had been treated for "teenage depression". She described Israe as "fragile" and suicidal.

More girls heading to Syria

French intelligence services have reported an increasing number of girls among the teens departing for Syria. Among the 81 French minors who have left for Syria, 51 are female.

According to the interior ministry, there are another 867 French adolescents of both sexes who have been flagged for radicalisation.

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 month, another teenage girl also attempted to leave for Syria. The girl was already undergoing psychological treatment and had been attending a deradicalisation programme after authorities discovered that she was involved in a plot to bomb a synagogue in the city of Lyon.

The case sparked discussions about the weaknesses of the French deradicalisation programmes. One called Stop Jihad, launched by the French government after the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015 and aimed at deterring would-be jihadis, has been called a “joke” by teenagers and experts alike.

'I’m going to end up polygamous'

The recurrent cases also illustrate the effectiveness of the IS group's social media propaganda campaign. 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 who communicate frequently with each other and contacts in the Middle East. Girls often receive individual attention and guidance from recruiters, who frequently go as far as planning their trips to Syria.

The personal connections can be intensely meaningful to teenagers, especially the troubled. Le Monde's article included an excerpt from a conversation between two radicalised French teens in which one girl recounted how much attention she got from Islamist 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]."

Much has been written about the teenage dreams of these young women hoping to find jihadi husbands. Yet Alyas Karmani, a former radical who now works as a counsellor involved in deradicalising young people, says the narrative is much more complex.

During a Guardian Live event, he said that women who travel to Syria should be held responsible for their actions in the same way as the 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’

These young girls often lack knowledge about the workings of the shadowy world of the Islamic State group and what they will experience once they arrive. There have been many reports of sexual violence carried out against women and girls in Syria.

But one thing is certain – an increasing number of young, Western women who join jihadist groups 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 IS group isn’t just about becoming a “jihadi bride”.

“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,” Maher said at the Guardian Live event.

Once in IS group-controlled territory, these women and girls are charged with transmitting jihadist beliefs – both to the children they might bear and potential recruits.

This problem of teenage female radicalisation is not unique to France. The Telegraph newspaper 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 de facto capital of the so-called "caliphate". Over the past year, reports of the lives of these young girls have trickled out, offering a picture of what awaits young European women heading to Syria. According to a group of activists in Raqqa and 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 their families reported that they had lost contact with the girls.

Date created : 2016-03-07


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