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To Syria And Back In 21 Days: Journey Of A Teenage Jihad

Two French teenagers, aged 15 and 16, organized their journey in just a few days, via the Internet, to set off on Jihad in Syria. Once there, they were soon disillusioned.

Toulouse airport was the point of departure
Toulouse airport was the point of departure
Laurent Borredon

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.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


Keep reading... Show less
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