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Minister: French teens go to Syria for jihad

January 19, 2014

PARIS (AP) — About a dozen French adolescents have left for Syria to join jihadi groups or are trying to go, a phenomenon that’s accelerating, France’s interior minister said Sunday.

The civil war to oust President Bashir Assad has attracted more French, and Westerners, than other battlegrounds like Afghanistan ever did. Thousands of Europeans are fighting in Syria and nearly 700 French citizens or residents are in some way involved, Manual Valls said. But teenagers drawn to jihadi organizations fighting there is a “particular phenomenon.”

“The phenomenon has accelerated in recent weeks, since the end of 2013,” the minister said on iTele TV, adding that French intelligence services have just recently identified six minors showing a wish to go.

Valls didn’t provide ages for the youth, referring to them only as minors. But he pointed to “two kids” who recently left for Syria, suddenly walking out on their startled families. Media accounts of the teenagers, from the Toulouse region, put their age at 15. The father of one notified authorities, which the minister said wasn’t unusual. The young man had simply failed to return from school one day, according to an interview with the father published in newspaper Le Parisien this weekend.

The minister suggested the young men were converted to the jihadi cause on the Internet, not in mosques. He said the pair is likely now in Turkey.

“We’re working with the families to recover them,” Valls said.

Asked on the talk show why Syria has become such an attraction for the young, Valls cited among other points Syria’s proximity to France, which makes it “relatively easy” to travel there. Unusually, he also cited the fight against the Assad regime, which the French and other Western governments have backed. That means that the “combat appears rather just.”

The minister said about 250 French citizens or legal residents are fighting in Syria, 150 have shown they want to and 99 are in transit. He said 21 have died on the Syrian battlefield. Valls noted that such exact figures come with a margin of error that may not include French who have taken up jihad in Syria but slipped through the cracks of intelligence services.

The most worrisome of the grim statistics is those returning, he said, saying that 76 so far have done so.

France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe, an estimated 5 million.

Western nations have been raising the alarm over the potential for violence at home instigated by returnees who have learned how to handle arms, make bombs and may come back with a radical mindset.

“This for me is the biggest danger we must face” in the coming years, the minister said. “We can be overwhelmed by this phenomenon given its scale.”

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