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The dangers of ISIS' calibrated propaganda
The dangers of ISIS' calibrated propaganda
Soren Seelow

PARIS — This is a new kind of police investigation. It is a terrorist affair that touches the edges of childhood, psychological manipulation and social discontent. The protagonists of this story are a group of girls torn between their teenage troubles and the traps of a tormented time. Aged between 14 and 19, they come from different regions of France and never actually met in person. They got to know each other on Facebook.

They share a common background, all coming from middle-class families who practiced little or no religion, and found that the Internet can offer an absolute ideology, a magical mindset that has an answer to everything: radical Islam.

Behind their keyboards, they talked for months with "hunters" from ISIS and supported each other in their deadly delirium. Two of them left for Syria, the other three planned an attack in France. This is the story of how they were recruited. Their names and geographical origins have been modified.

Léa is 14. She goes to school in the Paris region and has always been a good student. Those close to her describe the young girl as someone fragile, easily influenced and prone to cry. Islam doesn't have an important place at home. Her father, of Algerian origin, isn't a practicing Muslim. Her mother, who was also born in Algeria, doesn't wear the veil. But over the course of two years, Léa's reading of her religion of origin has become literal. Against her parents' advice, she now insists on wearing a jilbaab — a long veil that covers the whole body except for her face. Tensions begin to rise inside the family.

On June 18, 2014, the young girl goes missing. While her classmates are heading for the school cafeteria, Léa takes a Thalys high-speed train to Amsterdam. At 6:15 pm, she sends one last SMS to her father and boards a plane to Istanbul. After a 10-hour bus ride, a smuggler transports her from the Turkish-Syrian border to Raqqa, in northern Syria, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital. In just one day, the French school student becomes a citizen of the "Caliphate." Her future husband, eight years older than her, is there to welcome her.

Under her mattress, back home, Léa left a farewell letter. "First of all, I apologize for the many spelling mistakes," she wrote. "You're not suspecting a thing, but 10 hours from now I'll be gone. Gone from this country that prevents me from freely practicing my religion properly. … I took a flight towards al-Sham, this blessed city located in Syria. … I left for a holy country where we will be reborn on the day of the resurrection. I left because for me, my joy is to make my life religious and not to have any constraints. Because Daddy refuses the jilbaab and because both of you forbid me from not going to school."

Léa doesn't know the first thing about al-Sham — a land dating back from Islam's golden age, and not a city — her final destination in Raqqa, and of what's awaiting her in Syria. And for good reason: Her running away was managed remotely. French investigators quickly realize she's friends on Facebook with a man who calls himself Abu Saad al-Maghrebi, an ISIS predator from the southern French city of Nîmes.

They also discover that before she left, Léa had been in contact with several other girls living in France. Camille, 15, is one of them. She's a student at a technical college in a small town in southern France. Neither her father, from Algeria, nor her mother, of Catholic upbringing, are religious. But Camille wishes to wear the full veil and to move to Syria. Little by little, she is radicalized on the Internet. In March 2014, the authorities ban her from leaving French territory.

Meanwhile, up north, another girl who's been in touch with Léa, 14-year-old Juliette, lives in a blended family. She was brought up a Catholic. She wears a niqab and gloves, just one year after her conversion in a local mosque.

Two days after Léa goes missing, the police interrogate Camille and Juliette. The two admit they've been in touch with her, but deny playing any part in her leaving. During the questioning, Camille doesn't try to hide her ideological inclinations. "My parents are atheists. I'm a salafist," she tells them.

"We're not going just to any group," she adds, visibly proud. "For me, the right group is the Free Army of the Levant a confusion between the Free Syrian Army, an anti-Assad rebel group, and the term Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another name for ISIS. For me, they're the ones in possession of the truth."

Despite her shaky knowledge of geopolitics, the police decide to tap her communications. What they hear leaves them stunned. Wiretapping teenage girls is rather unusual, but what's even rarer is to hear them proclaim they want to "kill for Allah."

On Aug. 14, Camille is chatting with a 17-year-old girl unknown to the anti-terror services, Fatima, a student at a technical college in central France. Frustrated of not being able to go to Syria, the two teenagers mention a vague attack project involving Juliette.

According to their exchanges, the idea was suggested to them by someone named Vanessa, who's been contacting them on Facebook from Syria. This 19-year-old grew up in a non-religious family of Christian culture, but has been haunted by the ghost of a father she never knew, a former UN peacekeeper who fought in Bosnia. She joined the Syrian conflict in May 2014, one month before Léa.

Rihanna or Merah?


The three teenagers' terrorist project conveys a melding of anger towards France and Jews, morbid images and suicidal tendencies. And yet given the naivety of the messages they sent one another, it's unlikely they would ever have taken action. The violence they expressed however illustrates how powerful ISIS' propaganda can be on weak minds, their apparent determination as well as the extreme anti-Semitism of their exchanges which ultimately led to their arrest by the police on Aug. 19.

While in custody, Camille doesn't shy away from speaking her mind in front of the investigators: "I don't necessarily see my position as extreme. I consider that killing in the name of Allah or dying as a martyr are normal actions in religion," she tells them.

The name Mohamed Merah — who killed three French soldiers as well as three children and a teacher in a Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012 — keeps coming up in the girls' answers, like an obsession. "Some want to do everything like Rihanna, I want to do everything like Merah," Camille says.

Asked about her potential terrorist projects, the young girl, described by social services as being on the edge of anorexia, casually locks herself up in her delirium. "Yes, that's it, an attack like Merah, or blow everything like a kamikaze. Carry out a mass shooting like he did, killing adults, especially Jews ... My project was more a shootout than a suicide attack because it's hard to find explosives in France, even though I never looked for them. If it was easy, France would have blown up a long time ago."

Juliette admits she cried when Merah died. "Did you cry for the Jewish children, or the soldiers Mohamed Merah killed?" a police officer asks her. "No," she answers.

Fatima, who confesses suicidal tendencies, also admits her fascination for something the killer allegedly told anti-terror police during the assault in which he eventually died: "I love death as you love life."

An exchange on Facebook between Camille and Matthieu, a 16-year-old boy who converted to Islam and lives in southern France, highlights how jihadist ideology exalts teenage angst.

- "U don't wanna no what it feels like to blo up with the bomb? lmao

- No lmao … but I don't wanna feel nothing I wanna fight I prefer taking bullets.

- Yeah your right it hurts more than blowing up in one go I think lol."

Juliette also spontaneously mentions her suicidal tendencies when she explains her conversion to Islam. "Simply because it's this religion that saved me, because I wanted to kill myself." The young girl, who wears a niqab with "a veil on top so people really can't see her face," talks about her difficult childhood, her father leaving, her being brought up by her grandparents and a common argument with girls at school that apparently traumatized her. Ancient wounds which the promise of a better life after death seem to have helped heal.

"Life here on Earth is a prison for the believer as much as it is paradise for he who doesn't believe," she tells the police. "As a matter of fact, these people non-jihadist Muslims are attached to everything that's material. I know that life in the hereafter will be better because it says so in the Koran. I used to feel ill at ease toward Christianity, especially because they consider Jesus as God. What's more, I don't wanna go to hell, like the non-believers."

Not shocked

The police, determined to test how indoctrinated Juliette is, and how she feels about violence, ask her if she's seen beheading videos on the Internet. She says yes. Asked if she thinks it's normal to kill people in that fashion, she replies, "I tell myself that they must have deserved it. To answer your question, for example if that person has killed, raped or doesn't respect religion even when asked nicely."

She adds that beheading videos are "not my cup of tea, but I'm not shocked by it. I saw the video of the American journalist who was beheaded, but I found it looked like a cartoon."

An analysis of the girls' cell phones gives a startling glimpse of their tormented universe, that of a hopeless adolescence transcended by a mystical way out. In a series of text messages exchanged with a friend, Camille sets out a brief summary of the life she imagines for herself at 14 — marriage, kids, death — accelerated by the simplifying dynamic of the jihadist psyche. "I'll be married soon in Turkey and then I'll be a mother, God willing, then we'll raise our child who'll be born in al-Sham, nothing more beautiful, and it'll be a pious child, and then one day you'll get a phone call telling you I was killed in battle and that's it, easy."

Life and death wishes come tumbling out in their conversations, but the teenagers also say things that could sound normal among girls that age, if it wasn't all taking place against a backdrop of holy war. They're very interested, fascinated even, by male jihadists, so much so that ISIS has turned it into a recruiting tool.

According to the latest figures released by France's Interior Ministry, some 867 teenage girls have been flagged as "radicalized." Between October 2013 and October 2015, the proportion of women among the French who left for Syria increased from 12 to 35% (218 out of 593 people). 31% of them are converted Muslims, against 23% for men, and their radicalization process is much faster.

Girls make up the majority (51) of the 84 French minors who traveled to Syria. Often in open conflict with their families, or at school, they are typically motivated at first by humanitarian or religious considerations, linked among other things to their wish to wear the veil. Their emigration is sometimes monitored remotely by an older jihadist with whom they're hoping to realize their dream of starting a family. ISIS has moved beyond just conquering land, and is now trying to populate its territory. It therefore encourages these unions as a way to maintain its project over time.

The newly converted, known for being more radical than local women, are particularly valued by idle jihadists who spend most of their time on the Internet when they're not on the frontline. In a wiretapped phone call, Camille thus told a friend how much success she had among male jihadists on Facebook. "I've lost count of how many marriage proposals I've had," she said.

Some online head-hunters have made it their specialty to recruit young girls. Léa's recruiter, Abu Saad al-Maghrebi — whose real name is Brahim El Khayari — is one of them. This 22-year-old jihadist was simultaneously in touch with Léa, Camille and Juliette, and asked all three of them to marry him. Is he on a mission or is he simply feeling lonely? In any case, he's been very insistent, and the teenagers admit he had "pressured" them when they told him they couldn't join him so quickly. "Come tomorrow, after that it'll be too late. They'll close the borders, you won't be able to come."

What should the judicial response be when you're facing young girls like these, brainwashed by such calibrated propaganda? Are they a danger to society or only to themselves? One in three women who returned from Syria are currently in jail, though they're often seen as victims. Sure, ISIS's doctrine dissuades women from fighting, preferring to confine them to housework and maternity, but some anti-terror magistrates are worried about the fact that they are "sometimes more radical than the men."

Camille, Fatima, Juliette and Vanessa have all been placed under formal investigation for conspiracy to commit terrorism — just like Matthieu, the young convert who used to chat with Camille on Facebook. Vanessa, who after more than a year finally abandoned her husband in Syria to return to France in July 2015, was imprisoned. After she tried to commit suicide in prison, she was placed, like the other girls, under legal supervision in January 2016.

As part of her legal supervision, Camille started a training for childcare work, and took part in a prevention program against radical Islam. During a hearing with a judge in September 2014, the teenager seemed to have changed. "We were indoctrinating one another, we were repeating the sentences that another had said, it was copy-paste, we were like robots, like in a cult."

But the words appear to be less than sincere, as investigators recently found out she was still trying to leave for Syria. Wiretapping enabled them to understand that she'd been in touch with a recruiter living on the other side of France. Now aged 17, Camille was sent to prison in early January.

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