Islamic State converts: Torment of a jihadi’s mother
Frenchwoman Marie has lived in fear since her son decamped to Syria
An Islamic State militant in Raqqa, Syria: French authorities say 1,132 French men and women, some younger than 18, are involved in the jihad. Photograph: Reuters
She believes there is no force on Earth more powerful than a mother’s love. If she could, she would pull him back through sheer force of will. Since her 22-year-old son Timothée travelled to Syria in September to join Islamic State, Marie (53) has lived on a precipice. She sends emails “into the void” every week. And she fears the irreparable; that Timothée could veer into barbarism, like the two Frenchmen his age who were shown participating in a mass beheading of Syrian pilots on an IS video. And that Timothée could die.
Marie is one of thousands of mothers confronted by the same nightmare. She asked that the family’s surname be withheld, because IS militants watch the internet closely and have reportedly punished volunteers whose families talked about them. And she is afraid of losing her job if her employers learn her son is a jihadi.
French authorities say 1,132 French men and women, some younger than 18, are involved in the Syrian jihad; one third are currently in the combat zone. Si Rien n’est Fait Agissons (“If nothing is done, let’s take action”), a support group founded by a woman who lost two sons in Syria, claims their real number is closer to 5,000, because many parents do not report their children’s disappearance. The group believes some 20,000 “internationals” have joined IS.
A recent IS video showing young Frenchmen burning their passports “was their way of saying the West is useless”, Marie says. “They’re saying, ‘You didn’t want to help us ([/fight Assad)/], so we’re doing it without you. And we’re stealing your children, draining your life force.’”
Marie and her husband, Francis (55), taught their two sons to be tolerant, open and humane. Timothée was baptised a Catholic. He read books on religion and philosophy. “He was looking for something,” Marie says. Two years ago, he chose Islam.
“He got down on his knees in front of us and said, ‘Papa and Mama, I have to tell you something’,” Marie recalls. “I wept. Not because it was Islam, but because I felt excluded. He did it on his own, in his little corner. That really hurt. When I started crying, Timothée cried too. He put his arms around us and he said, ‘Mama, it doesn’t matter. I’m still the same. It doesn’t change anything.’”
Marie sells advertising for a lifestyle magazine. Francis owns a small cosmetics company. Timothée was a happy, outgoing boy who loved sports, music and dancing. “But he couldn’t bear injustice, inequality and corruption,” Marie says. “He was disgusted by society. After he converted, he was more calm, meditative.”
Timothée’s girlfriend, Alison, hoped they could continue their relationship. “But when you’re in love with someone – and they were in love – after a while if you can’t touch the person or kiss them, it’s difficult,” Marie says.
Timothée dropped out of university, ate halal food, prayed five times a day and increasingly wore khamis, a long, Gulf Arab-style shirt. He refused to dine with the family if there was wine on the table. He did odd jobs, including selling khamis in an open-air market. He bought a suit and worked as a driver.
Marie shows me a photograph of Timothée in his driver’s suit. He is pale, with brown hair, green-brown eyes and a radiant smile. “That beard drove him crazy, because it wouldn’t grow longer,” she laughs. “They wear beards to show they are pious, and to resemble the Prophet. A long beard means you’re wise.”
In September, Timothée told his family he was travelling to Frankfurt to purchase a car for a client. There were several days of text messages before “the knife to the heart”. It said: “The network isn’t good here. I’m sorry to tell you this way, but I’d mentioned I was going to learn Arabic. I’ll be in a touch in a month.”
On October 20th, Timothée left a voice message with a Syrian dialling code, telling his parents not to worry. There was another month of silence, during which Islamic State released the decapitation video. “It was horrible, horrible,” Marie says. “They all resemble each other and you say to yourself, ‘That could be him.’”
On November 20th, Marie was on an RER commuter train when an email from Timothée appeared on her iPhone. She called her husband and Timothée’s older brother, Thomas, who immediately went on the internet for a “chat” – the family’s first direct contact with Timothée in two months.
Over three days, the family conversed with their prodigal son for several hours. “It’s almost as if he were on a school trip with friends,” Marie says. “They’re moved around in buses, except the buses get ambushed and bombed.”
“I miss you but there is no place for me in a country that fights Islam. I left to be able to live my religion. It is difficult to understand, but I wasn’t happy in France. The only thing that kept me there was you. I assure you I am happy. It is hard, but I am at peace.”
On November 22nd, Timothée telephoned Marie. “He told me he’s doing humanitarian work. I am convinced that he’s distributing food and clothing,” she insists. “The people who are beheaded are people who are fighting against us,” he told her. “It’s war. I know that in France they say we are terrorists, but I promise you that what I see and hear, the civilians, the bombardments – it is we who are the victims.”
French police have repeatedly questioned Timothée’s family. “They searched our computers. For them, our home is a crime scene and we are accessories to the crime,” Marie says. “They snoop into your friendships, your work.”
France recently passed a law punishing returning jihadis with prison. Right-wing parliamentarians propose stripping them of their citizenship, and establishing a Guantánamo-style prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana.
Marie criticises the absence of psychological support for families, and the state’s failure to shut down extremist websites or repatriate the bodies of at least 49 French citizens who have died in Syria.
Most of all, Marie faults the treatment of returnees. “I can’t come back. It would mean prison if I did,” Timothée told her.
In Denmark, the government has set up special centres to rehabilitate returnees. “In France, they’re thrown in prison with ordinary criminals. If they’re locked up with criminals, they’ll become criminals. . . Stop seeing them as criminals,” Marie pleads.