Thu, Oct 16, 2014 - Page 9 News List

How French teenage girls were lured to jihad online

Propaganda videos making the rounds play to the ideals and fantasies of teenage girls, showing veiled women firing machine guns and Syrian children killed in warfare

By Lori Hinnant  /  AP, LEZIGNAN-CORBIERES, France

Illustration: Mountain People

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 a security camera, the French teenager tucks her hair into a headscarf.

Just two months earlier and a two-hour drive away, Nora, also a teenage girl, had embarked on a similar journey in similar clothes. Her brother later learned she had 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 to Istanbul, Turkey, flight to Nora’s secret Facebook account and overnight crash pad in Paris.

Sahra Ali Mehenni and Nora El-Bahty are among about 100 girls and young women from France who have left to join the 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.

Girls are also coming from elsewhere in Europe, including between 20 and 50 from Britain. However, the recruitment networks are particularly developed in France, which has long had a troubled relationship with its Muslim community, the largest in Europe. Distraught families plead that their girls are kidnap victims, but a proposed French law would treat them as terrorists liable to be arrested upon their return.

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, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“They are being held against their will,” said Severine, a French woman of European descent. “They are over there. They’re forced to say things.”

The Ali Mehenni family lives in a red-tiled middle-class home in Lezignan-Corbieres, a small town in the south of France. Sahra, who turns 18 on Saturday, swooned over her baby brother and shared a room with her younger sister. However, family relations turned testy when she demanded to wear the full Islamic veil, dropped out of school for six months and closed herself in her room with a computer.

She was in a new school 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.

On the morning of March 11, Sahra casually told her father she was taking extra clothing to school to teach her friends to wear the veil.

Kamel stifled his anxiety and drove her to the train station. He planned to meet her there just before dinner, as he did every night.

At lunchtime, she called her mother.

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