Two teenagers from the southern French city of Toulouse have run away from home to become jihadists in Syria.
The youths—both aged 15—are believed to be the youngest-ever European jihadists to join the fighting in Syria since the war there began in March 2011.
The boys are part of an influx of up to 2,000 Europeans—including 700 from France alone—who have traveled to Syria in the hopes of overthrowing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replacing it with an Islamic state.
European security officials say that in recent weeks they have noticed an "alarming acceleration" in the number of European jihadists traveling to Syria to obtain combat experience with Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda. They say their primary concern is about the potential threats these battle-hardened "enemies from within" will pose when they return to Europe.
The two teenagers from Toulouse—home to the radical Islamist Mohammed Merah, who murdered seven people in and around the city in March 2012—left for Syria on January 6, the first school day of 2014, after stealing credit cards from their parents to purchase airplane tickets to Turkey.
The parents of the youths (French media are calling them Hakim and Hassan, fictitious names to protect their identity) say they did not notice anything was amiss until the boys failed to return home from school.
Although the school policy is to notify parents when their children do not show up for class, the procedure failed in this circumstance because two individuals posing as parents of the teenagers phoned the school to say they were sick. It was not until later that evening that Hakim phoned his parents to tell them he was in Turkey and on his way to Syria.
In an interview with the Toulouse-based newspaper La Dépêche du Midi, Hakim's Franco-Tunisian father said his son had given no indication that he was planning to leave for Syria, nor did he ever talk about fighting or jihad. He said the 15-year-old—who does not speak Arabic— was well integrated into French society but had been "brainwashed" by jihadist recruiters on the Internet.
Hakim's father said he believes his son is being used as "cannon fodder" in the northern Syrian city of Idlib, a jihadist stronghold situated some 40 miles (60 km) west of Aleppo. The father said Hakim was sobbing during his most recent telephone conversation. Hakim told his father he was at a jihadist training camp and promised to phone again in a month if he was still alive.
"Hakim realized he could no longer turn back," said the father, who remains anonymous. "In his mind, he was going to spread the message of Islam. He wanted to be a good Muslim. I do not think he was aware of what he was getting himself into." The father added:
I do not understand how a minor can leave France with only a passport in his pocket and without authorization from his parents. We talk a lot about the protection of minors in France but—paradoxically—today they can fly freely... It is incomprehensible!
What has happened to us can happen to any family. Our son did not attend mosques and was never involved with a bad crowd. He was a good student. We are very worried. We will do everything we can to find him safe and sound. Today it is a matter of life or death.
We need the government to be fully aware of the scourge of these jihadist recruitment networks. These people exploit any and all loopholes and weaknesses of youth to enlist them to fight in Syria. These boys are innocent and have nothing to do with these extremist ideologies.
A separate article published by La Dépêche du Midi on January 18 suggests the teenage jihadists are not as innocent as their parents seem to believe. The newspaper reported that both youths had been in contact with their friends via Facebook since their arrival in Syria.
"The last message we received from them was on Wednesday [January 15]. They seemed happy but also worried," said Rania, a high school classmate who has known Hakim and Hassan since childhood. "I wrote to Hakim telling him that he must return home. He has a family, he has his whole life ahead of him, but he did not want to listen. He told me that in the end he would be rewarded by Allah." Hakim also told Rania he might never return to France.
School officials expressed consternation. "This is the first time in France that adolescents and very young students are being recruited by jihadist networks," said Denis Demersseman, the principal of the high school where the teenagers were students. But Demersseman also admitted there were rumors that jihadists sometimes loiter outside the gates of the school—next to a transportation hub where students stand in line waiting for rides to go home—to proselytize for Islam and tell students about holy war.
Hakim and Hassan are not the only jihadists from Toulouse—where Muslims make up roughly 10% of the total population—to have left for Syria.
In March 2013, two half-brothers from Toulouse took a bus to Barcelona, Spain. From there they flew to Casablanca, Morocco and on to Istanbul, Turkey. From Turkey they crossed the border for the Syrian city of Aleppo.
The two converts to Islam came to the attention of French intelligence in July when they posted an Islamist propaganda video on YouTube appealing for holy war. With Kalashnikov and Koran in hand, they urged French President François Hollande to convert to Islam.
On August 11, one of the brothers, Jean-Daniel, 22, was killed in fighting in Aleppo. Just four months later (on December 22), his half-brother Nicolas, 30, was "martyred" as a suicide bomber in the Syrian province of Homs. In an interview with the French press agency AFP, Nicolas' mother said he "was waiting to go to paradise."
As the conflict in Syria drags on, the full scope of the jihadist problem facing France and Europe is gradually coming into focus.
According to the latest estimate compiled by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King's College in London, the number of Europeans fighting in Syria has more than tripled from 600 in April 2013 to 1,900 in December 2013. But these figures may already be out of date.
During a press conference on January 14, French President François Hollande revealed that French intelligence services believe that more than 700 French nationals and residents have traveled to fight in Syria. This number is far higher than ICSR's estimate of between 63 and 412 French fighters.
As the number of European jihadists in Syria grows, the fighters are getting younger and younger. On January 19, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said more than a dozen French nationals under the age of 18 are currently active as jihadists in Syria. According to Valls, many French youths are being recruited through the Internet rather than the local mosque.
Valls also warned that the possibility of terrorist attacks by the hundreds of European jihadists returning home from Syria represents "the greatest danger we will have to face in the coming years. We, French and Europeans, could be overwhelmed by this phenomenon, given its scale."
In an incisive analysis of the jihadist problem facing Europe, the Norwegian political scientist Thomas Hegghammer writes: "We can thus say with high confidence that at least 1,200 European Muslims have gone to Syria since the start of the war. This is a remarkable figure; we are talking about the largest European Muslim foreign fighter contingent to any conflict in modern history."
Hegghammer sums it up this way: "We can conclude from this simple exercise that the number of European foreign fighters in Syria is alarmingly high and historically unprecedented. Moreover, France, Germany and the U.K. may have the largest foreign fighter contingents in Syria, but Denmark, Norway, Belgium and Austria have contributed a much higher proportion of their population. Given that police resources are limited, these countries may have a larger problem on their hands than do their bigger European neighbors."