Who are the teenage boys?
They were typical 15-year-old high school students, their time consumed by social media, mobile phones and their studies. But somehow the boys became connected with jihadist recruiters online. Then on January 6th, instead of turning up for school after Christmas, they began their journey east to fight in Syria, apparently using their dad's credit card to fund the journey.
French newspaper La Depeche carried the helpless account of one of the boy’s fathers, who is hunting for his son. The father is among hundreds of French parents who have learned their sons have been convinced to fight and if necessary die among the rebels in Syria.
Why so many?
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 700, French President François Hollande said in his new year press conference on Tuesday.
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.”
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.
French authorities said they are facing a wave of recruitment for Syria previously unseen for other conflicts with a tie to the Muslim world.
“We are seeing today a mass recruitment that has nothing to do with the recruitment for the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan,” an unnamed source told French daily Le Figaro. “It was a couple dozen people per year. This is like a factory.”
The recruiters target at-risk kids and young adults between the ages of 15-25, but it’s also spread to boys with strong ties to their schools and communities. The key to this type of recruitment is the internet, which allows anyone to find “a brotherhood of arms that will consider him a hero if he joins the fight,” Le Figaro reported.
“A 15-year-old boy today possesses a physical and mental maturity that has nothing to do with kids the same age 20 years ago,” the source told Le Figaro.
What is next?
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.
For the father of the 15-year-old boy, there is only waiting and hoping. He spoke with his son on Tuesday, apparently from Syria.
“He said we wouldn't hear from him for a month, if he was still alive,” the father said. “He was with al Qaeda fighters. During his last phone call to us, he was talking about the fighters as his brothers.”