TOULOUSE — They didn’t imagine “that it would be so hard.” Maybe that was because everything before their arrival in Syria had been so easy.
Y. and A. are 15 and 16 years old respectively, 10th graders at Arènes High School in the southern French city of Toulouse. Over the course of a few weeks, they became convinced that they should go and fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
In just a matter of days, they managed to organize and carry out their journey to a Jihadist camp. But it didn’t take long for them both to become disillusioned, which forced them to figure out how to head back home to France.
Since Jan. 31, they have been questioned for “criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking.” While in custody they have recounted to investigators of the Central Directorate of Homeland Intelligence (DCRI), the French intelligence agency, just how simple it was to arrange and execute their perilous journey, beginning in mid-December.
Like millions of French people who travel, they booked their flights online. While A.’s mother did not have a credit card, Y. was able to use his father’s to buy two tickets to Istanbul. A. invented a school trip as an excuse — his friend wrote the fake letter to the parents — and stole cash from his mother to reimburse his friend and finance the costs once they arrived.
Auto-suggests on Facebook
On Jan. 6, when they were supposed to return to school after the Christmas holidays, the two boys set off as if it were a normal day. But instead of going to school, they took the bus to the Toulouse Airport. Their journey abroad would begin there without a hitch, because authorizations to leave the country are no longer required for minors in France.
They were prepared. In Syria, they had a contact who provided them with the roadmap. To find him, there was no need for a special network or underground movements. Facebook was enough. Thanks to the social network’s auto-suggests, the two friends came across user Abou H., whose photo showed him bearing a rifle, and whose account described him as, “The fighter at Allah’s service.”
Abou H. claimed to be in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city in the north of the country, where the heart of the battle against the regime is taking place. After communicating for a bit, he asked the two teenagers if they wanted to come to the country. No big sermon was necessary. The recruiter simply provided instructions and practical information.
The destination was Hatay, in the southern tip of Turkey, some 40 kilometers from the border and just over 100 kilometers from Aleppo. In Istanbul, their connecting flight was canceled. It was there that the two teens began having their first doubts after one of them called his mother, who burst into tears and begged for him to return. But they chose to board the first flight that took them to another southern city, Adana, a bit further from Syria, and they finished their journey by bus.
After a night at the hotel, the boys arrived by taxi in Reyhanli, very close to the Syrian border. They traveled the last few kilometers in a car driven by one of Abou H.’s contacts. During the short ride, they caught a glimpse of one of the big refugee camps. A few hundred meters away from Syria, the man stopped the car. They took their belongings, and ran across the border. On the other side, another man and another car were waiting for them. They were safe and set to meet Abou H. in a village located between Aleppo and Idlib, a hotbed of the rebellion.
It was time for the first military briefing. Abou H. outlined the clashes raging in the region between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the local Islamist groups and the “al-Dawla,” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a militia made up of foreign jihadists who were gaining ground.
An atmosphere of suspicion
The two teens quickly felt lost. Y. told investigators that he only realized they were enrolled in the al-Nusra Front — a group linked to al-Qaeda — days later. In the house, there were fighters from all over the world. A week later, they were transferred to Idlib, because, according to Abou H., the FSA was approaching their village and wanted to kill the foreign fighters.
The waiting in Idlib continued, along with around 20 other French-speaking members. They then returned to the first village, where a training camp was set to open. Communicating with the 30 other foreigners — Chechens, Kazakhs, Tunisians — was not easy, having learned only bits of English back at school in France. A. also spoke some basic Arabic, which made him the translator. The two boys could only describe their comrades to investigators by saying they looked like “Shaggy in Scooby-Doo.”
From one house to another, each day looked just like the last. They awoke at 6 a.m. for prayer, breakfast and chores. The living conditions were austere — no hot water, no heating, and a prevailing atmosphere of suspicion. Entertainment was non-existent, and when Y. tried to play a game on his computer at the camp, he was “told off.”
Still, despite almost constant surveillance, both regularly went to the village’s sole Internet café to communicate with France.
Spread the word
These exchanges were even encouraged by the group’s leaders, who made the aspiring fighters pose with weapons before asking them to upload the pictures to their Facebook profiles, in order to “encourage people to come over.”
But the experience for the two boys actually had the opposite effect. A. gave in first. He found the other French speakers in the group to be “lame” thugs, and that a war between rebel groups formed an “illicit Jihad.” And being forced to stay out in the cold to get “used to it” was not really a pleasant experience.
More mundanely, they simply missed their families. According to the teenagers, they were not harmed physically but they had to put up with constant “moralizing” rhetoric.
Eventually, both A. and Y. managed to return home. Waiting on the other side of the border in Turkey — on Jan. 26 for A., the 27 for Y — were their families. While their journey had made news in France, it was French intelligence officials who welcomed them when they got off the plane. They did not return as heroes, or even wayward children, but as suspected terrorists.