Culture Magazine

Stolen Youth: Nora and Sarah, Teenagers Lured to a Foreign War

By Colin Randall @salutsunderland


This story takes up a whole page in today's edition of The National, Abu Dhabi. That is as it should be; the manipulation of minors as a weapon of Jihad, typically by online indoctrination, seems as wrong as grooming them for sexual purposes. Indeed, one imam has told me the two motives are sometimes combined. My story, Nora and Sarah's story, can also be seen at

Nora was 15, Sarah a year or so older. In January and March, they left their homes, in different towns in southern France, as if to go to school.

Both of them ended up in Syria, enticed by online indoctrination, their relatives say.

“Nora is a young girl more or less like any other,” says her family’s lawyer, Guy Guenoun, in Avignon. “She was happy, loved and normal. She was kidnapped by internet, her adolescence stolen.”

Like Nora – not her real name, and that is her shown, face obscured, with her brother in a photograph supplied by the family – Sarah, the daughter of a French mother and Algerian father living in Lezignan-Corbieres between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees, made her way to Syria through Turkey.

“It’s time France changed the law,” says Sarah’s elder brother, Jonathan. “It’s absurd that a minor can leave the territory without parental consent, with no more than an identity card or passport.”

More than 50 French minors are thought to have made the same choice as Nora and Sarah. The girls are not expected to fight, says Jonathan and others. “They are most commonly destined for marriage, or there to serve men,” he says.

The nightmare for their families – and for those of the hundreds of other young French nationals attracted to fight with or support jihadists with as much hatred of the West as they have for Bashar Al Assad – is bleak enough.

Now, with the sudden release and return of four French journalists who had been held hostage by one such group in Syria for a year, has come the first indication that French citizens may have been among the captors.

The luring of impressionable adolescents to an overseas conflict, and the possibility that they could be assigned such duties as helping to seize or guard kidnapped compatriots, has driven Francois Hollande’s government to emergency action.

The president’s new interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, has announced measures described by the French media as a “massive battle plan” to prevent the flow of young people to join anti-Assad militias and punish those who recruit them.

The plan was largely the work of Mr Cazeneuve’s predecessor, Manuel Valls, who became prime minister in a recent cabinet reshuffle.

Its publication coincides with news from Mali of the death of a French hostage, Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, 62. It was reportedly the result of the denial of essential medical treatment by his kidnappers, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

Hundreds of French people of Muslim origin, or converts, are thought by officials to have joined the Syrian rebels who are fighting independently of the main opposition forces backed by the West.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, puts the number at 500, but even higher figures have been suggested.

A study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) based at King’s College, London, estimates that almost 9,000 foreigners are combatants in Syria.

Most are believed by the ICSR to originate in Arab countries, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but the number of westerners is steadily increasing.
European and North American governments support the revolt against the Assad regime but suspect those aligning themselves to extremist rebel elements pose a security risk to the West.

Mr Hollande has said, during a visit to the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, that France would take “all measures to deter, prevent, or punish those who are tempted by Jihad”, using an arsenal of all available techniques, including cybersecurity – a reference to the easily accessed websites that encourage young people to join the conflict.

A free telephone hotline will be established to allow people to report concerns about young relatives.

New controls will also make it easier for parents to object to the departure of their children for Syria or a bordering country.

The government will also enable authorities to confiscate passports and, according to some reports, establish procedures for the expulsion of those found to be involved in Jihadist networks.

Mr Guenoun says the government has made welcome steps but he stresses the need for the law to distinguish between minors and adults, the latter being “responsible for their own actions”.

This was a reference to the controversial case of two French school pupils, aged 15 and 16, from Toulouse in south-western France.

They traveled to Turkey in January intent, like Nora and Sarah, on joining other French jihadists after finding it easy to enrol online.

Both were arrested and put under formal investigation for association with criminals linked to a terrorist enterprise after being sent home by the Turkish authorities.

But David Thomson, the author of the book French Jihadists and a correspondent for Radio France Internationale who reported on the Tunisian and Libyan revolutions, says the word “recruit” may be misleading.

He tells the French website “It is very often the young people themselves who seek out contacts on social networks that allow them to join the Jihad in Syria.

“The combatants on the spot don’t even need to recruit. In 98 per cent of cases, young people digest jihadist ideology from their own research on the internet.

“They then feel the need or obligation to leave for a land of Jihad (in Arabic is called the hijra, the emigration of Muslims from a land of disbelievers to a Muslim country). For them, true Islam is practised where fighting is taking place. Today, that place is Syria.

“Above all, for these young people it’s a matter of life or death: if they do not go, their soul is doomed to hell.”

For Thomson, the mechanics of enlistment could hardly be simpler: “Just find someone on Facebook who has the profile of a combatant in Syria and contact him.”
Nora’s case demonstrates, he says, that it is possible for parents to have no idea of a child’s intentions.

“She had two Facebook profiles: one presenting herself as an ordinary little schoolgirl, the other a jihadist profile with photos of bin Laden,” he said. “It is with this profile that she was in contact with jihadists already in position.”

In January Nora, one of six siblings, left home. She had €550 (Dh2,793) and her travel documents. She took a train to Paris and stayed there overnight. Two women who put her up have been arrested and face criminal proceedings. Then she flew to Istanbul.

A few days later, her family received two phone calls, first in Arabic and then in French, in which a man sought immediate verbal approval for her hand in marriage. The parents flatly refused.

Her brother, identified by request as Fouad, traveled to Syria in April and was able to meet his sister, but only twice during a week-long stay. One meeting lasted 30 minutes, the other less than five.

He believes her intention – as a girl without a violent thought in her head whose dream was to work with an aid organisation such as Medecins Sans Frontieres – was to assist with humanitarian causes in the Syrian conflict.

A public prosecutor in Paris said her family had noticed a steady radicalisation of Nora in the months leading to her departure, but this is denied.

Fouad, 37, says: “That’s not true. Everything we know now was found out after she left. She was leading a double life.”

He says it was obvious to him that Nora, clearly unhappy and unwell during their brief meetings, regretted having left France.

But it was also clear she was not free to return. Her 16th birthday passed in February in what her family regards as captivity.

“It’s a tragedy,” Fouad says. “She is a victim, as the French authorities fully accept – a lost child.”

He has a simple message for anyone with influence over what happens next in Nora’s life: “She is not just my sister but my young friend. Her family needs her back. Please do anything in your power to make sure she comes home.”

For Mr Guenoun, the girl’s plight is the clearest possible example of an innocent teenager who should be treated as a victim, not a jihadist at risk of prosecution.

“We’re talking about a young girl with no problems at school who was nevertheless manipulated and enticed from her own family, by an organised and professional network.”

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