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Members of the Forsane Alizza Islamist network hold a press conference in Paris in January. The group was broken up by French police following a series of killings by Mohamed Merah, below, in March. Fred Dufour / AFP
Members of the Forsane Alizza Islamist network hold a press conference in Paris in January. The group was broken up by French police following a series of killings by Mohamed Merah, below, in March. Fred Dufour / AFP
Mohamed Merah killed seven people, including three children, in two attacks before being killed by French police on March 22 after a siege of his apartment in Toulouse. France 2 / AFP
Mohamed Merah killed seven people, including three children, in two attacks before being killed by French police on March 22 after a siege of his apartment in Toulouse. France 2 / AFP

'My son wants to die a martyr'

For some Muslim immigrant families in France and other parts of Europe, the hope of a better future for their children turns into a nightmare when they fall prey to the teachings of religious extremist groups.

For some Muslim immigrant families in France and other parts of Europe, the hope of a better future for their children in their adopted country is turned into a nightmare when they fall prey to the teachings of religious extremist groups, Colin Randall writes...

Staring at the flickering video clips of Mohamed Merah, the small-time criminal who chose to kill and be killed after reinventing himself as a jihadist warrior in the unlikely battleground of southwestern france, the mother of another young French Muslim sees striking similarities.

Merah and her son, she says as she studies the features, could almost have been brothers.

Sadly, the resemblance ran deeper than physical appearance. Her son is five years younger than Merah but shares his fervent desire "to die a martyr".

Abdel (a pseudonym) is 18. He was one of a number of young men recruited for a branch of the Islamist network Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride), based in the eastern suburbs of Nice. The group was broken up by police raids in the aftermath of Merah's seven fatal shootings in Toulouse in March, though no direct link is suggested.

His mother, her own first name changed to Fatima, thinks back to when her son stopped being a shy teenager interested mostly in football and his PlayStation. She noticed his attempts, not very successful, to grow a beard and hoped it might be a sign he was developing a more masculine edge to his personality. When she realised other thoughts were on his mind, she was devastated.

"It was after Ramadan last summer," she told Nice-Matin, a newspaper circulating on the glitzy, sunny Cote d'Azur, far from the grim Parisian banlieues where radicalism is generally considered more likely to breed.

"Overnight, he changed and became reproachful of me for not being a good Muslim. Suddenly, everything was sinful. He stopped his young brother going to the cafe on the seafront in Menton, saying it was non-believers, the impure, who were serving him."

And then she found him packing kit for a "grand trip" to Afghanistan, intent with or without family approval to leave France for a "true Islamic land".

Fatima is just one more Muslim parent in the West whose life has been turned into a nightmare by dramatic changes in an offspring's demeanour, inspiring fears that a logical outcome may be violent death or a life wasted in jail. Her son was talking of joining about 30 other young Frenchmen of Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian origin to travel via Tunis to Libya. There, they would undergo combat training and "learn the true Islam, not that of imams corrupted by the West" before being "ready for Afghanistan".

Others have followed a similar route, a phenomenon now under intense scrutiny by the French authorities in the wake of the horror caused by Merah's series of shootings, and because of the apparent manner of his radicalisation in prison and on visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The stern response of the state runs parallel to the despair felt by Muslim parents struggling to bring up children in the hope they can break free from the trap of low-paid, dead-end employment or no employment at all.

Where they failed, as immigrants with few opportunities, they want their children, educated and raised in France, to succeed. And above all, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they want to prevent them falling under the influence of extremists capable of exploiting grievances fostered by routine discrimination in jobs and housing and the gnawing sense of alienation.

In a pleasant, middle-class suburb of the city of Narbonne, not so far from the scenes of Merah's killings of children, off-duty soldiers and a teacher, and his own death at the hands of a special police unit surrounding his Toulouse apartment, Aicha El Wafi yearns for contact with her younger son, Zacarias Moussaoui. He sits 8,000 kilometres away in a top-security US prison cell, serving life without prospect of parole as the only person convicted in relation to the attacks of September 11, 2001. And he professes to want nothing more to do with her.

It is a case complicated by the fact that Moussaoui was not even at liberty on the day hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers and the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field. He was in a US jail for breaches of immigration law. What role, if any, he played in plotting the events of September 11 remains unclear six years after his trial. He owes his predicament in large part to a rambling series of confessions - or, rather, boasts - about plans to carry out attacks on US soil. The jury concluded he knew something about the 9/11 plot and, by keeping quiet, contributed to the slaughter.

Mrs El Waifa, who arrived in France from Morocco as a teenage bride, opposes extremism to the extent that she has gone into French schools to lecture Muslim teenagers on the virtues of tolerance. She invited me into her spacious, neatly furnished bungalow last year, soon after the 10th anniversary of September 11 had reopened wounds for so many. Her natural ebullience frequently gave way to signs of a mother's distress as she explained her fierce belief in her son's innocence, a belief she has clung to even as he has proclaimed his guilt.

Just as she was sure her son's exposure to prejudice when young hardened him as he approached adulthood, she wondered whether she also bore some blame. Family life had been turbulent. Had she failed in some way as a mother, making him more susceptible to the influence of Islamists he later met while studying in London?

"His last words to me were to go away and forget him, never to speak to a lawyer or journalist again," she told me. "But I simply cannot see how any parents can turn their back on a child. I will not rest until I see him free, or repatriated to prison in France."

These are the high-profile cases. There are others from around France and neighbouring countries. In Paris, the story is still told of the young woman with a bright law career who suddenly abandoned her job at the Palais de Justice on the banks of the Seine and departed for Cairo. She told her mother she intended to study, but also that her heroine was Muriel Degauque, the so-called "Belgian baker" who, after marrying a Moroccan with militant views, blew herself up in an attack on US troops in Iraq.

And how many British Muslim mothers have agonised over sons who ended up in Guantanamo Bay or UK prison cells?

These women's experiences show how mothers can be dragged into the front line of the struggle between fundamentalism and authority. And the actions of their disenchanted, radicalised children can inspire still deeper suspicion in the countries where they have made their lives, and even have been born.

When events as terrible as the killings at a Jewish school in Toulouse occur, and blame is attached to one person or more purporting to act in the name of Islam, many people react in knee-jerk fashion. The pleadings of moderate community leaders, who argue with some force that the bulk of France's five million to seven million Muslims wish only to live in peace, much as they crave greater respect for their religion and a good deal more social justice, are too often overlooked.

"Someone told me recently: 'Go back to your own country'," Amina, a student wearing a headscarf, told a French reporter while attending France's biggest annual gathering of Muslims on the outskirts of Paris in April. "Yet my mother is a native of Le Mans. I'm French!"

Mathieu Guidère, professor of Islamic studies at Toulouse II-Mirail University, offers the reassuring thought that few French Muslims go as far as to follow the route taken by Merah and Moussaoui. Tougher laws made organised cells less likely than individual gestures, usually stopping short of active engagement. But even this translates as 10 or so going each year from one area, the Midi-Pyrénées, on "jihadist" journeys to Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

"Some have grown up in fairly comfortable conditions in France," Guidère told La Dépêche newspaper in Toulouse. "But the more gentrified they are, the better indoctrination works. It is more rewarding being in Afghanistan with a Kalashnikov than doing nothing in Toulouse on benefits."

Down on the French Riviera, Fatima is grateful that the arrest of a Senegalese man suspected of heading the Forsane Alizza branch has disrupted her son's planned odyssey in search of his "true" Islam. However, she fears he will see his mentor's detention as a setback but remain determined to see his project through.

"In the state he's in," his mother says, "we will be unable to keep him here. He doesn't stop telling us he wants to die a martyr. But it is those who have put him in this state of mind who are the true enemies of Islam."

* The National

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