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French jihadists

Susanna Dörhage / nhSeptember 3, 2014

Thousands of young Europeans have become fighters for jihadist causes - some 700 from France alone. DW's Susanna Dörhage met one young man who escaped the clutches of his jihadist compatriots at the last minute.

Symbolbild islamistischer Kämpfer
Image: Fotolia/Oleg Zabielin

The number of young Europeans who decide to join jihadist groups is on the rise. Organized Islamists identify and indoctrinate young recruits at mosques in Europe or via the Internet, eventually sending them off to fight in war zones in the Middle East like Syria. "Emmanuel", a young Frenchman with long dark hair tied at the back, converted to Islam years ago. He said it wasn't an easy decision and that his search for truth led him to some dead ends.

Emmanuel said in the moderate mosques they told him to approach it calmly and take his time. "But I'm idealistic," he said. "The world is often unjust, and I wanted to move forward faster." Emmanuel started browsing the Internet. "That's easy, one website leads to the next. And so I ended up on the extremists' pages and got on this bad trip." Emmanuel didn't want to be filmed in a way that his face would be shown. He is still in hiding.

Emmanuel is in hiding and does not want to have his identity revealedImage: DW/S. Dörhage

'Foam on the sea'

Few people are willing to reveal they've had contact with extremist circles. Such contact is dangerous: once hooked, Islamistic preachers don't like to let people off their lines. The Internet is the meeting place. One of the people active on it is Omar Omsen, the number one Islamist agitator in France, whose propaganda videos get thousands of clicks: "We Muslims are a huge community, more than 1.5 billion people. Among us a very special chosen group is like the foam on the sea."

Omsen's rants have led some 700 young French people to take part in "holy war", or jihad, in Syria, according to official estimates. Most of them come from atheist families. The jihadists always use the same method online, showing the young people shocking images that paint the Western world as degenerate and corrupt. Emmanuel said he believed them. "People become convinced that there is a huge conspiracy among the Jews, the financial industry, and America. They develop a kind of paranoia and see evil everywhere."

Propagandabild IS-Kämpfer
There's another looming fear in Europe: what might those fighters do when they come back home?Image: picture-alliance/abaca

Throw away food, alcohol, perfume

Dominique Bons' son Nicolas listened to the fanatic preachers. He went to Syria and, half a year ago, staged a suicide bombing. His mother is in shock and regards Nicolas as the victim of an unscrupulous network. Out of the blue, a text message arrived: her son was now with Allah. "I didn't even receive his body," she said. Dominique Bons now plans to travel to Syria and take a handful of soil back with her. "Then I would at least have something enabling me to mourn him."

These pied pipers are active in many European countries, leading increasing numbers of people to their deaths. In Frace, special police units are now looking for youth who cross international borders. The French government commissioned the sociologist Dunia Bouzar to train officers to expose the perpetrators' methods. Since then, she has received threats from the Islamists and is under police protection. But she passes on information to parents as well as investigators. "The Islamists forbid people to eat Western food and they give them a long list of foods to avoid," she explained. The young people are also told to throw away their parents' alcohol and perfume, to tear any curtains bearing pictures, and not to listen to music.

Belgien Attentat Jüdisches Museum Brüssel Videostill Täter SCHLECHTE QUALITÄT
One French fighter returned from Syria to attack the Jewish Museum in BrusselsImage: Reuters

This manipulation isolates the young people. When they've been softened up enough, mediators with airline tickets to Syria contact them. Once the young people have reached this point, it's almost impossible for them to change course. Among those who go to Syria are young women, too. "The girls often go off to Syria believing they'll be doing humanitarian work there," said Dunia Bouzar. "Then they learn about people being slaughtered, and they phone home and cry." Most girls never get over the shock, she added.

Islamist threat a taboo?

Once they arrive in Syria, most young people are already lost. Dominique Bons gave up trying to persuade her son to leave the Islamist group. Nicolas was already living in another world. "They were stronger than a mother's love," she recalled. "Back then, this danger wasn't recognized or spoken about. I was lost. I was all alone."

Dominique Bons
Dominique Bons wants to be able to mourn her son, who carried out a suicide bombing in SyriaImage: DW/S. Dörhage

Some do manage to escape the Islamists' clutches, however. An old friend showed Emmanuel he was no longer thinking for himself. He managed to leave the sect that had roped him in while he was still in France-- in time. "I realized that my radical views were not worthy of any religion -- neither Islam, nor Judaism, nor Christianity," he said, adding that ultimately his Islamic faith rescued him: "The Koran says: seek peace within yourself. That's what those who want to go to Syria have to be told."

Emmanuel has experienced the tricks with which the Islamistic preachers target young people. Now he wants to serve in the struggle against jihad.