French mother fights to protect memory of Islamic State son

Véronique Roy, whose child died as a jihadi in Syria, is leading the attack on radicalisation

Véronique Roy  suspects her son was killed in a suicide attack, because “they tell them if they die that way, they can bring their parents to paradise with them”

Véronique Roy suspects her son was killed in a suicide attack, because “they tell them if they die that way, they can bring their parents to paradise with them”

 

Since her son Quentin died in Syria last January at the age of 23, Véronique Roy has become a public figure in France. In a nationwide television debate last spring, she challenged French president François Hollande to do more to save French youth.

She has recorded videos for the government’s “Stop-Djihadisme” website, spoken to parliamentarians from the Council of Europe, a women’s congress in Lebanon and numerous other associations.

With her blonde hair and blue eyes, Roy is helping to break the preconception that jihadism affects only immigrant families.

“I want to prevent it happening to other people,” Roy says of her public speaking engagements. “I can find no meaning in what happened to Quentin, but it makes me feel useful. I don’t want to go crazy; I want to understand.”

More than 200 French citizens, including 17 minors, have died in the ranks of Islamic State, according to statistics released this autumn. There are more than 700 French jihadis in the Syria-Iraq war zone. French prime minister Manuel Valls estimates that 15,000 people in France are “in the process of radicalisation”.

When Quentin converted to Islam in 2013, Roy accepted it. His practice of religion became increasingly fundamentalist.

“I didn’t like it, but I didn’t think it would isolate him so completely,” she says. “I thought he would act this way for a while and one day it would pass. They told me at the Grand Mosque in Paris, ‘He’s on the edge, but he’ll get over it’. But he didn’t get over it. He left five months later.”

Roy urges other parents to call the “Stop-Djihadisme” hotline the moment they suspect radicalisation. “It can prevent a youth from dying before the age of 25. Once he’s in Syria or Iraq, it’s too late. You can no longer deradicalise him because he’s steeped in ideology and under surveillance. His desertion would threaten the group.”

Suicide attack

Roy kept a diary after Quentin left in September 2014. Her book about her struggle to pull him back from the clutches of Islamic State, also known as Isis, will be published next February.

“I wanted to leave a record, to rehabilitate the memory of Quentin,” she says. “And I wanted to tell people not to judge too quickly . . . It’s important for us, for our family tree, to say this child existed. He was happy. We were happy. At some point, it derailed. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m afraid I’ll forget my child’s face. I’m afraid he’ll become a mirage.”

Two people approached Roy at a coffee break at a recent meeting of book sellers and distributors to say that youths in their families had converted and appeared to be radicalising.

“We were in the well-off milieu of publishing, not the banlieue, and they had been hit by it and they felt helpless,” she says. “These days, just about everyone knows of someone who has been radicalised or been touched by an attack.” 

Roy suspects her son was killed in a suicide attack, because “they tell them if they die that way, they can bring their parents to paradise with them”.

Islamic State keeps a register of family members to be notified in the event of death. “Cruel” is Roy’s word for the WhatsApp message she received in January. “The State is built on the blood of the martyrs,” it said.

“This stranger told us to rejoice, because Quentin was ‘in the paradise of green birds,’ that ‘one should weep only for the Prophet’ and we should read the Koran, because it would make us feel better,” she says.

There is the tiniest possibility that Quentin is still alive, Roy says. “Of course, my husband and I ask ourselves. But we have no evidence . . . You cannot hang on to something so small. We suffered so much and we are still suffering. We reached the point where we agreed, with our eldest son, that accepting Quentin’s death or the idea of his death would diminish our suffering.”

‘Preachers of hatred’

Roy reserves her anger for the “preachers of hatred” but is also very critical of what she sees as laxness on the part of French officials. Fourteen young men have left Sevran, the town of 50,000 north of Paris where the Roy family live, for Syria. Between eight and 10 have been killed.

Sevran has been dubbed “little Molenbeek” after the Brussels suburb that was home to the jihadis who killed 130 people in Paris in the Bataclan attacks on November 13th, 2015. The town’s mayor, Stéphane Gatignon, resents the sobriquet and called the deaths and departures “anecdotal” in a television programme.

Shortly after the Bataclan attacks, the Roys learned by chance that a young man called Ilyès, who had played football with Quentin, had been arrested for recruiting young Muslims.

He allegedly received €10,000-€15,000 for every youth he dispatched to Syria and is in prison awaiting trial. Ilyès remained free after he was fired from a government-subsidised emploi d’avenir (“job for the future”) for proselytising in a local school.

Parents of dead jihadis recently met families of victims of the Bataclan. “They said to us, ‘You are victims like us. Except that they are recognised as victims by society, and we are not. We’re always seen as parents of jihadis and terrorists. People always ask if we were good parents.”

Roy refuses to feel guilty. “Guilty of what? Our son was loved and loving. He got a good education. The recruiters are predators who must be stopped. They are the guilty ones.”

Happiness is now her “crutch”, Roy says. “We’re not going to be dragged down. It wouldn’t help us or Quentin . . . Our elder son tells us, ‘Papa, maman, if you’re all right, so am I’. We’re destroyed inside, but we still listen to music, we dance, we laugh, we go to shows. Life goes on . . . Quentin’s absence is terrible, but we don’t want to forget him . . . If I break down, it’s a victory for those who radicalised him, and I don’t want that. Life is the remedy.”