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French jihadist school pupils 'to return home'

Joshua Melvin · 27 Jan 2014, 12:55

Published: 27 Jan 2014 12:55 GMT+01:00

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One of two French high school boys who ran away from home to fight in the Syrian civil war has been found in Turkey and will soon be sent back to France.

The boys, aged 15 and 16 years old, had been unaccounted for ever since they failed to show up at their school in Toulouse after the Christmas holidays on January 6. But almost three weeks after they went missing it appears both boys will soon be reunited with their families in France, Europe 1 radio reported.

Various reports in France on Monday said one of the boys had been picked up in Turkey although the details about how he was found and who tracked him down were vague. Europe1 radio claimed the second boy returned of his own accord on Sunday.

Their attempts to reach Syria to join the "holy war" against Bashar al Assad highlighted the growing issue of hundreds of French nationals, mostly young men, leaving France to fight jihad in Syria. 

Previously one of the boy’s fathers told newspaper La Depeche that his son had called to say he had joined ‘jihad’ fighters.

“He said we wouldn't hear from him for a month, if he was still alive,” the father told La Depeche. “He was with al Qaeda fighters. During his last phone call to us, he was talking about the fighters as his brothers.”  

Interior Minister Manuel Valls has said despite what the boy recovered on Monday had told his father, he was in Turkey and had not yet made it to Syria.  The boy had made the trip on a ticket purchased with his father’s credit card.

Since the conflict broke out over two years ago, foreign fighters have been drawn to the front lines in Syria. The number of French rebels has grown exponentially, with the number up to around 250.

French intelligence believes young men were first drawn to the effort to topple dictator Bashar al-Assad, but increasingly the fighting is attracting those who want to join in jihad, Islamic holy war. So it was for the teens from Toulouse.

One of the boy’s fathers, who has not been named, told La Depeche his son is Muslim, but doesn’t speak Arab, and was radicalized on the internet.

“From the start of December, my son was brainwashed online,” the father told La Depeche. “There were exchanges on Facebook, videos about the war in Syria. With his computer and on his phone, he was always on social media with his friend.”

Story continues below…

The story has common threads to that of two other young men from Toulouse who joined the fight in Syria. Nicolas Bons, 30, and his 22-yeard-old half-brother Jean-Daniel had converted to Islam three years prior and then went to fight in Syria with an al Qaeda-linked group.

Jean-Daniel Bons was killed in August 2013 fighting, while his older brother was killed by a car bomb in December. Before they died the young men recorded a YouTube video encouraging their “brothers” to join the fight.

The young men who fight in Syria with al Qaeda-tied groups and survive will face, at the minimum, police surveillance if and when they return home. Charging them with a crime or for ties to terrorism is complicated at best for prosecutors.

In order to bring a terrorism charge, according to French daily Le Monde, prosecutors would have to show the fighter was involved in a terror attack on civilians or is part of confirmed terror group. The porous nature of Syrian rebel groups and their memberships make it difficult to clearly define terror links.

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

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