The Clear Banner: "Update on the French Volunteers in Syria"

NOTE: For prior parts in the Clear Banner series you can view an archive of it all here.

Update on the French Volunteers in Syria
By Stéphane Mantoux
The phenomenon of French jihad in Syria began to get media exposure in 2013, two years after the beginning of the revolution, the civil war, and the intervention of foreign fighters alongside insurgents. For France, the magnitude of the phenomenon is unprecedented, far exceeding the Iraqi or Afghan experience. Departures are accelerating since the summer of 2013 and did not appear to have been hampered by the conflict between the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Persons involved in jihad have some commonalities, including radicalization via the Internet and social networks, but typical profile does not really exist for French jihadists: they are actually quite varied. With few exceptions, departures are not carried out by organized networks or veterans of radical Islam in France: they are often individual, spontaneous and so for the most unpredictable. The issue of the return of the French jihadists concerned authorities, and a first attempted attack on French soil has probably been thwarted in February 2014, being the fact this time of members of the baptized “Cannes-Torcy” cell. Faced with this painful problem, calls from families and concerns inside the population, the French government proposed, April 23, 2014, a plan to fight against departures in Syria that has not convinced many experts, answering probably to a need for communication on the subject. This is an update of my first article that will discusses the evolution of recruitment in France from February until early June 2014 : the building of a “family jihad“, the acceleration of recruitment with the formation of a French brigade in JN and probably within ISIS, and attempts by the French government to send signals more or less suitable for jihadists.

Family Jihad: women, children, but also girls in Syria

A new trend is linked to jihad in Syria phenomenon: the departure of girls. Anissa, 22, was converted under the influence of a friend of his school in Bordeaux. She married a young Muslim presented by an imam met on Skype and left a farewell letter to his mother. Dozens of French are affected by this phenomenon: Ly, 19, a student from Senegal, left with her baby of 15 months. She is accompanied by a schoolgirl, 17, of Epinay, who stole the credit card from her father to finance the trip1. At the same time, at the end of February 2014, a 14 year-old girl from Grenoble was arrested at the airport Lyon-Saint-Exupéry as she was about to fly to Istanbul. Placed in a home, she fled before being caught again the next day. This is the third minor at least trying to reach Syria in January 2014 after a 15 year old girl who managed to make it to Syria2. Nora, 16, has gone on January 23; her brother says she was manipulated by others and, in mid-March, she regrets her departure in Syria3. Her brother went once to bring her back in February4; he went to the Turkish border, he succeeded in a second attempt in April 2014 to go to Syria and to see his sister two times5. At the end of March, Barbara Marie Rigolaud, a French 35-year-old from Nanterre, was arrested by the PYD (Kurdish party that controls areas in north-northeast Syria) near Aleppo. She had joined JN after having belonged to ISIS. She arrived in Syria in May 2013 with her husband and four children6. Also in March 2014 the mother of Assia, the girl of 23 months led by his father since October 2013 in Syria, launched numerous calls for help. Sahra, a 17-year-old from Lézignan-Corbières (Aude, southwestern France), would have run away and joined Syria since March 11. She would be shipped to Marignane in a flight to Turkey. On March 14, she confirmed to her brother that she is in the Aleppo region. Sahra, who practiced Islam for at least one year, had apparently prepared her départure7. Along the same lines, a young schoolgirl, 16, with the dual French and Algerian nationalities, living in Troyes, is reported in Syria by his parents on April 8, 2014, radicalized only in few months. She would have received as Sahra a sum of money in cash by an intermediary to pay her travel8. She was stopped in Germany before she could reach Syria.

Ongoing recruitment in early 2014

France Info interviews in February 2014, two French who have gone to fight in Syria, Abu Chaak, 24, and Abu Dahuk, 26. They say they are from the Paris region, fighting in the Aleppo region and belong to ISIS. Dahuk is among the first French arrived in Syria at the beginning of 2013 ; he plans not to return to France to carry out attacks but to die as a “martyr” on Syrian soil9. In March, Seif al-Qalam, a young man of 27 who also comes from the Paris region, who fought for ISIS before joining JN (he arrived on site in July 2013 with his wife and children), claiming that the latter group includes a brigade composed entirely of French (a hundred men?) which he is part. That would be the French who have imposed this solution for reasons of linguistic understanding. These men want to fight in Syria and did take the fight to France if it had operations against them10. Mid-February, Bilel, a man with a degree in economics and volunteer firefighter in Grenoble, was killed in fighting in Homs. He had gone to Syria in July 2013 with his brother and several others French volunteers for jihad ; he was clearly radicalized after a breakup. There, he joined JN and takes the « nom de guerre » of Abu Al-Siddiq Tounsi11. 22 March 2014 a French national, Sylvain Decker, was arrested by Moroccan police in Rabat. He was part of a network of recruitment for jihad, particularly in Syria, who worked in both Spain and Morocco12. A draft of a terrorist attack due to a veteran Syrian Jihad is probably foiled in south-eastern France. The DCRI had discovered on 17 February 2014 900 grams of explosives in a building near Cannes, drop point for a member of the Cannes-Torcy cell arrested a few days earlier. The young man, Ibrahim B., had gone to Syria in September 2012, with two others, thus escaping the dragnet of the DCRI for the cell. Abdelkader T., one of the companions of Ibrahim, was arrested in Italy January 16, 2014. Ibrahim B. would have returned the same time in France, having fought as others in JN. On 11 February, he was arrested in the building where the explosives were discovered later13. At the end of April 2014 a young man in his twenties, claiming to be a former French soldier in a regiment of infantry paratroopers, is seen in a video posted on Youtube14. On April 30, the Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve indicates that 285 French are currently in Syria, and is concerned about an increase of 75% of the total in a few months. One hundred jihadists have returned to France and 5 were killed15. The next day, a 37 year old Algerian, regular resident in France, was expelled on suspicion of recruiting in France for jihad in Syria. He was arrested by Turkey on board a bus taking a group of French to Syria. He was close to two other men living in Savoie, like him, known to have participated in routing volunteers to Afghanistan and sentenced in February 201116.

The plan of the French government: a communication operation?

April 23, 2014, the French government unveiled a plan to fight against the departure of young people in Syria, including an attempt to ensure early detection of potential candidates for jihad. Finally, the plan provides a hotline of crisis for parents welcomed by professionals, and consider the reintroduction of the authorization to leave the country for minors (measure eventually discarded). Human intelligence and cyber security will be leveraged to identify individuals likely to radicalize17. However, for Wassim Nasr, a journalist specializing in jihadists, these measures come ten years too late. He does not believe in the effectiveness of the alert platform for parents. He also calls to treat the phenomenon as a criminal problem; and indeed, the profiles are varied, too many to be reduced to this assumption, especially since as he points out, all candidates initially do not necessarily have to return to France to carry out attacks. The problem is political, and linked to the position of the French State in Syrian conflict18. David Thomson, RFI journalist and author of a book on French jihadists published in March 201419, confirms that the profiles are very different. If the initial motivations are just as varied, jihad in Syria is unprecedented in modern history, for France, because of the access to the battlefield and the easy use of social networks. He explains how the first contingent of twenty French arrived from late 2011 and 2012, carried an air call via social networks and led to the mass influx that we see in particular in the past year. It also confirms that there is a brigade of French in JN. The link of the jihadists to social networks and different ways from those of previous jihad are the difficulty of preventing the phenomenon and even following it when the jihadists are returning on French soil. The only red line not to cross, according to him, is the threat of attacks on the national territory. At that time, the government intervenes, but prefers to otherwise monitor these social networks, or forums, because they are also intelligence sources. Besides the net of jihadists, who go through many social networks, is almost impossible to control. The only positive effect he sees in the government’s plan is the creation of a plan for parents, but a bit too late20. The government’s plan would therefore mainly be reported as a communication strategy after it has underestimated the problem in 2011 and may have preferred to see young volunteers fighting in Syria rather than to carry out attacks on French soil21. According to RTL, the platform for reporting jihad’s candidates registered 24 reportings, in ten days, in 16 departments: 8 women and 16 men, aged 14 to 34. 5 of these 16 people are actually going to Syria22.

For David Thomson, the French jihadists are leaving to assume a defensive jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also because they believe in the Muslim prophecies of the end times, the Apocalypse, to be held in Syria (land of Sham). There is no portrait type of French jihadist even if some are from disadvantaged neighborhoods of large cities, others come from the countryside and have never met a Muslim. Many are offenders, but not all, some being fully inserted into the social fabric. The only common denominator is the role of the Internet and social networks. These helped to streamline the message of jihad and extend it to a wider younger audience. Most of the jihadists become self-taught via the net23. The first French who have left in 2011-2012 went through the Maghreb, especially Tunisia, at a time when there was still no “network” organized. Today the route is more direct, via a flight to Turkey and supported at the border by the rebels, without necessarily routing of organized networks. There they find the French, as they are often recent converts, and can integrate, for example, the French brigade in JN where there are several important figures of the jihad media on social networks. The French who go seek above all to live in a land of “authentic” Islam or to die as a martyr. But some disappointed can leave, as it happened for two teenagers in Toulouse in January 2014. Women go for the same reasons, they do not fight even if they learn to use weapons like AK-47 to defend themselves. These women may marry a jihadist aspirant before leaving, are going in family if they are married long with one of them, or get a promise of marriage in Syria. Contrary to many rumors circulating on the web, there is no “sexual jihad” but a matrimonial jihad. For David Thomson, there is a difference between the French fighting with JN, which would favor for the moment the fight against the Syrian regime and a martyr’s death, and those of ISIS, considering for attacks on French soil24. For Gilles Keppel, this Salafism in France in some cities, such as Roubaix and other cities, reflects a “jihad of the poor“, with people often marked by the confusion between virtual world and real world. Often, family or local environment Salafi trend predates imprisonment. Finally, the cause of the Syrian jihad attracts to it a much wider audience, sometimes beyond the Muslim group, as also said David Thomson25.

13 May 2014, 6 jihadists returning from Syria were arrested in the neighborhood of Meinau, Strasbourg (one of the prominent places of the Syrian jihad recruitment and historical place of jihad in France) by DGSI with the support of RAID and GIPN. These arrests are aimed at young people of North African or Turkish origin who pretended to go on holiday to Dubai, via Germany, when in reality they joined training camps in southern Turkey26. This is probably a signal given by the French authorities to the jihadists, and according to an intelligence and terrorism specialist, it aims to discourage apprentice-radicalized jihadist vocations, and probably also to update the information available and identify patterns. These people were part of a group of a dozen who have gone to Syria in December 2013. Two brothers died in place27. In late May 2014, the French press revealed that Souad Merah, sister of Mohamed Merah, flew to Turkey with her four children to join her companion28.

At the beginning of June 2014, François Hollande announced that more than 30 French who have left to fight in Syria were killed29. Also in early June, the death of Chaquir Maaroufi30, alias Abu Shaheeed, a young French, 30, was announced and was a member of ISIS. He comes from Pyrenees-Atlantiques (southwestern France, near Pau). He went to Syria in the second half of 2013, probably via Morocco, where he had gone in 2011 after being convicted in France for criminal activities. Abu Shaheed was a figure of recruitment for the Syrian jihad on social networks.

Summary table of the official estimates provided by the French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, then Bernard Cazeneuve (his successor) about French people who left in Syria (May 2013-May 2014).

Total since 2011

Still in Syria

Returned in France


In Transit

Those who want to leave France to Syria

May 2013





September 2013






October 2013




December 2013






January 2014






April 2014






19 David THOMSON, Les Français jihadistes, Paris, Editions des Arènes, 2014.