Years Of Syrian Violence Have Changed The Face Of The French Jihadi

In the past five years, the conflict in Syria has helped dramatically change the profile of a jihadi fighter: No longer are jihadi groups forced to meet in secret forums; instead, they're openly on Facebook, and the movement is democratizing.

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Some European Muslims have been heading to Syria to join the fight alongside jihadist who were trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict has been going on for more than three years and many Europeans are now fearful that those fighters may return to carry out attacks at home. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley tells us about that concern in France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The French government estimates between 700 and 800 French citizens have gone to fight or are now fighting alongside jihadists in Syria since the uprising began there three years ago. Forty-two-year-old Ibrahim's youngest sister is one of them. Sitting at a cafe beside the commuter train station in the Paris suburb where he and his family live, Ibrahim talks of the day their world turned upside-down. On April 28, his sister went to school and never came home. That evening, the family went to the police and contacted the 18-year-old's cell phone provider.

IBRAHIM: They give us one number in Turkey. She was calling in Turkey. So we call this number.

BEARDSLEY: Ibrahim says a man answered the phone and confirmed that he'd been in touch with his sister.

IBRAHIM: He confirmed my sister is coming in Turkey for Syria. It's very horrible. So we don't know what we can do.

BEARDSLEY: Ibrahim describes his family as middle-class, moderate French Muslims. He fears giving his last name or his sister's name could put her in more danger. Ibrahim says there are plenty of other families in the same situation. They often meet to support each other. Paris journalist David Thomson covered Libya and Tunisia, were he met many of the actors in today's militant movements. And he wrote a book called "The French Jihadists." Thomson says the profile of European jihadists is much broader than even five years ago. He says they're not just delinquents or outsiders anymore. Many have good jobs and come from regular families. They include non-Muslims, as well as women, who are recruited as brides for the fighters. Thomson says geography and the web have changed everything.

DAVID THOMSON: (French spoken, through translator). No place has ever attracted as many European jihadists as Syria because unlike Afghanistan or Mali, it's easy to get there. And getting in touch with Syrian jihadists is a cinch. They all have a Facebook page. Many speak European languages. And they can instruct recruits exactly how to come - down to what plane and bus to take and where to cross the border into Syria.

BEARDSLEY: One of the French government's top security concerns is a threat posed by returning jihadists. Loic Garnier is head of French antiterrorist operations. He says some recruits are training with al-Qaida in Syria specifically to carry out attacks in France. But he says even those with no violent plans for the home front are dangerous.

LOIC GARNIER: (French spoken, through translator). They come back with a degree of tolerance for violence that goes well beyond the norm for Western societies. For them, killing is completely banal - even normal. And many are psychologically destabilized and prone to violence.

BEARDSLEY: In April, France beefed up its already tough anti-terror measures. There's now a hotline to call for families who suspect a member is planning to leave for jihad. Garnier says French police have foiled many potential attacks, though he admits it's not possible to watch every returning jihadist 24/7. Mohammed Merah, the 2010 killer of French soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren in the southern city of Toulouse, was one that slipped through the cracks. Another was Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four people outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels last month. Nemmouche, who is French, came back to Europe through Germany and killed in Belgium. He's a perfect example of the difficulty in tracking European jihadists.

IBRAHIM: You can see this reportage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRENCH VIDEO)

BEARDSLEY: Back at the cafe, Ibrahim shows us cell phone video of the Syrian conflict. He is bitter. He believes the police could have easily spotted his sister at the Paris airport and stopped her from boarding that plane. Ibrahim says his family is especially desperate because his sister is mentally challenged. She met her French jihadist online. He wrote to her about Syria's suffering children. Ibrahim says his family never suspected a thing.

IBRAHIM: We can't think she is with terrorist with Facebook. For us, she was her friend boy, friend girl, friend in school. That's all. We see nothing.

BEARDSLEY: Ibrahim says the French jihadist called his father for permission to marry his sister. He says of course his father refused. Since then, they've had fewer text messages from her. Ibrahim thinks the jihadists are now on the move heading deep inside Syria to fight with his little sister in tow. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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