LEZIGNAN-CORBIERES, France — On the day she left for Syria, Sahra strode along the train platform with two bulky schoolbags slung over her shoulder. In a grainy image caught on security camera, the French teen tucks her hair into a headscarf.
Just two months earlier and a two-hour drive away, Nora, also a teen girl, had embarked on a similar journey in similar clothes. Her brother later learned she’d been leaving the house every day in jeans and a pullover, then changing into a full-body veil.
Neither had ever set foot on an airplane. Yet both journeys were planned with the precision of a seasoned traveler and expert in deception, from Sahra’s ticket for the March 11 Marseille-Istanbul flight to Nora’s secret Facebook account and overnight crash pad in Paris.
Sahra Ali Mehenni and Nora El-Bahty are among some 100 girls and young women from France who have left to join jihad in Syria, up from just a handful 18 months ago, when the trip was not even on Europe’s security radar, officials say. They come from all walks of life — first- and second-generation immigrants from Muslim countries, white French backgrounds, even a Jewish girl, according to a security official who spoke anonymously because rules forbid him to discuss open investigations.
These departures are less the whims of adolescents and more the highly organized conclusions of months of legwork by networks that specifically target young people in search of an identity, according to families, lawyers and security officials. These mostly online networks recruit girls to serve as wives, babysitters and housekeepers for jihadis, with the aim of planting multi-generational roots for an Islamic caliphate.
While girls are also coming from elsewhere in Europe, including between 20 and 50 from Britain, they pose a particular dilemma for France. The country has long had a troubled relationship with its Muslim community, the largest in Europe, and investigators say its recruitment networks are well developed. A bill in France’s parliament would treat those who join jihad abroad as terrorists liable to arrest upon return, despite the pleas of distraught families that their girls are kidnap victims.
Sahra’s family has talked to her three times since she left, but her mother, Severine, thinks her communication is scripted by jihadis, possibly from the Islamic State group.
“They are being held against their will,” says Severine, a French woman of European descent, who reflexively rolls cigarettes as she talks. “They’re forced to say things.”
The Ali Mehenni family lives in Lezignan-Corbieres, an ancient French town of about 10,000 typical of the south of France, in a region famed for its red wine. The family moved here from northern France five years ago so the children could be raised in a safer environment. Severine stays with the baby in their middle-class home, complete with red-tiled roof, while Kamel, an Algerian immigrant and industrial chemist, works at a wine factory.
Sahra, who turns 18 on Saturday, swooned over her baby brother and shared a room with her younger sister. But family relations turned testy when she demanded to wear the full Islamic veil, dropped out of school for six months and shut herself in her room with a computer.
Now she was in a new school, with just two weeks of study behind her. And she seemed to be maturing — she asked her mother to help her get a passport, because she wanted her paperwork as an adult in order.
The week before she left, Sahra casually told her mother she’d bring extra clothing to school to teach her friends to wear the veil. She repeated the comment to her father on the morning of March 11, when he asked about her bulky bags.
Kamel stifled his anxiety and drove her to the train station at the end of town. He planned to meet her there just before dinner, as he did every night.
At lunchtime, she called her mother. I’m eating with friends, she said.
Surveillance video showed at that moment, Sahra was at the airport in Marseille, preparing to board a flight for Istanbul. Her name was on the passenger manifest. She made one more phone call that day, from the plane, to a Turkish number, her mother said.
By nightfall, she had not returned on her usual train. Nor the next one. Worried, her parents backtracked to the school. Then back to her home station. Then to the police.
It wasn’t until the next day that they noticed the missing passport.
That day, police seized the family’s tablet, Sahra’s computer and a camera.
“Everything was calculated. They did everything so that she could plan to the smallest detail,” Severine says. “I never heard her talk about Syria, jihad. It was as though the sky fell on us.”
In the surveillance images from the train station and airport, Sahra, who had no money of her own and could barely manage the commuter train without fretting, is alone.
Sahra called three days later from a line that flashed +1111 on the screen.
She spoke briefly with her father, then demanded her older brother.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Where am I?” Sahra repeated three times, as if awaiting a prompt.
Then: In Syria.
She told her older brother she had married a 25-year-old Tunisian she had just met. She said her Algerian-born father had no say in the matter, as he wasn’t a real Muslim. It was a short conversation.
Her family has spoken to her twice since then, always guardedly, and communicated a bit on Facebook. But her parents no longer know if she’s the one posting the messages, which include links to videos about Islam with guns, blood and mind-numbing music, the same ones she said inspired her to take flight.
“They are just unreal,” Severine says.
Sahra has also told her brother she’s doing the same things in Syria that she did at home — housework, taking care of children. She says she doesn’t plan to return to France, and wants her mother to accept her religion, her choice, her new husband.
This role for girls reflects the desire of jihadists in Syria to attract not just fighters but also families, says Louis Caprioli, a former official with France’s anti-terrorist services.
“The propaganda put in place is to form a union with the jihadists, to have children and to raise future fighters,” he says.
Sahra’s family does not know how — if at all — the investigation into her disappearance is progressing, and the computers confiscated by police have not been returned. Under French law, judicial authorities are not permitted to release details of investigations until a case goes to trial.
“Long live France. Long live the Republic,” Kamel says bitterly. “We have to get out of this as best we can on our own.”
Nora’s family knows less about her quiet path out of France, but considerably more about the network that arranged her one-way trip to Syria.
Nora El-Bahty grew up the third in a family of six children, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants in the tourist city of Avignon. Her parents are practicing Muslims, but do not consider themselves strictly religious.
She was recruited on Facebook. Her family does not know exactly how, but the propaganda videos making the rounds there rely heavily on the ideals and fantasies of teenage girls, showing veiled women firing machine guns and Syrian children killed in warfare. The French-language videos also refer repeatedly to France’s decision to ban the all-encompassing veil and limit the use of headscarves in public, a sore point among many Muslims.
Nora was 15 when she departed for school on Jan. 23 and never came back.
It was only the next day that Foad, her older brother, learned that she had been veiling herself on her way to school, that she had a second phone number, that she had a second Facebook account targeted by recruiters.
“As soon as I saw this second Facebook account I said, ‘She’s gone to Syria,'” Foad says.
The family found out through the police investigation about the blur of travel that took her there. First she rode on a high-speed train to Paris. Then she flew to Istanbul and a Turkish border town on a ticket booked by a French travel agency, no questions asked.
A young mother paid for everything, gave her a place to stay overnight in Paris and promised to travel with her the next day. The woman decided — at the last minute, she claimed — to abandon the trip, according to police documents shared with the family.
Nora’s first contact with her family also came on Facebook, three days after she left. She told them she was happy and in Aleppo, that she was there to help Syrian children. Her brother says she is babysitting the children of jihadis.
Nora’s destination was ultimately a “foreigners’ brigade” for the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida branch in Syria, Foad says. The idea apparently was to marry her off. But she objected and one of the emirs intervened on her behalf. For now at least, she remains single.
At first, Foad says, he spoke with his sister by phone several times a day.
“There was a woman behind her who was telling her what she needed to say. … Everything this woman said, my sister repeated it,” says Foad, who has since met other families of departed teens. “And all the girls who are leaving for Syria, they are saying the same thing. Word for word. They have a script: ‘I’m good. I’m eating well. I’m going to paradise.'”
A video filmed secretly by an activist in the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa shows a similar scene. In the video, a roomful of black-robed women, all speaking perfect French, insist to their weeping mothers that they will never return.
Then in mid-March, Nora said she wanted to come home. Phone calls grew rare. But Foad managed to secure an agreement to visit her in Syria.
When he arrived, Nora was living in a house with several women and children, all locked up and held against their will, Foad says. She saw him and broke down weeping.
Nora said she had gone because she thought it was her duty to help Muslims suffering. Once there, she was told she would not be allowed to leave.
Numerous French boys have been permitted to leave Nusra, including two from the southern French city of Toulouse, according to Agnes Dufetel-Cordier, a lawyer representing one of them. She says her 16-year-old client was recruited on Facebook and ended up cleaning houses for Nusra fighters, but was allowed to go after a few weeks.
It’s a different story with the girls.
“As soon as they manage to snare a girl, they do everything they can to keep her,” Foad says. “Girls aren’t there for combat, just for marriage and children. A reproduction machine.”
Two people have been charged in Nora’s case, including the young mother who sheltered her in Paris, according to a legal official and the family’s lawyer, Guy Guenoun. The travel agency has been questioned but not charged, Guenoun says.
“It is not at random that these girls are leaving. They are being guided. She was being commanded by remote control,” he says. “And now she has made a trip to the pit of hell.”
Other jihadi networks targeting girls have since been broken up. In September, five people arrested in the city of Lyon included a woman who had returned from Syria to recruit, officials say. In the apartment of one of the suspects was a 13-year-old girl they were preparing for the trip, according to a French security official.
French senator Nathalie Goulet is leading an inquiry into the recruiting networks, and she defends the decision to treat even young girls as terrorists.
“When people return, how can you be sure that they are detoxified? And they have to be detoxified,” Goulet says. “It’s a violent word, I know. … If you’re looking at girls, you’re right to, because they are a target population, fragile in their ability to be drawn in, then very strong once they’re in the system.”
It’s unclear what awaits Nora if she returns. Her brother says he would rather have her go through whatever happens in France than stay in danger in Syria. She sent home a photo of herself wearing a full-face veil — only her eyes are visible, red and moist with tears.
In the meantime, the room Sahra shared with her sister remains intact, the same room that months before her disappearance slowly filled with tokens of her faith. The printout of local prayer hours, the rug where she knelt, and the image of Mecca on the bookshelf await her return, as do the stuffed animals she left behind.
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