The case file of the French homeboys who joined the Iraqi jihad contains a startling photo.
It’s the mug shot of Salah, the alleged point man in Damascus, Syria, who authorities say arranged for guns and safe passage into Iraq for extremists from Paris. Salah has a serious expression beneath a short Afro-style haircut. He looks as if he’s posing, reluctantly, for a middle school yearbook.
When Salah left for Damascus with the jihadis last summer, he was 13 years old.
“He’s just a little kid!” exclaimed Ousman Siddibe, a leader of Good Boys of Africa, an African-French community association in Paris’ Riquet neighborhood. “We have some husky guys around here, but he’s not one of them. And he’s got an innocent face.”
Salah, the son of African immigrants, remains a fugitive two months after police here broke up the alleged terrorist cell. His odyssey is a drastic example of a trend, investigators say: Not only are Islamic extremists in Western Europe radicalizing faster, they are also younger than ever.
“The trajectory is changing,” said Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania and a former CIA officer. “Extremism is now appealing to younger and younger people.”
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the thousands of militants from around the world who flocked to Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and to the wars in Chechnya and Bosnia-Herzegovina, were mostly in their 20s and 30s. In his book profiling 172 jihadis of that era, “Understanding Terror Networks,” Sageman found a median age of 26, as “most people joined the jihad well past adolescence.”
In the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the Iraq war, however, the process of radicalization has spread and speeded up. At an age when angry teens in Los Angeles drift into street gangs, some of their peers in Europe plunge into global networks that send them to train, fight and die in far-off lands.
“Iraq is the motor,” said a senior French anti-terrorism official, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “It’s making them all go crazy, want to be shaheed [martyrs]. The danger of suicide attacks in Europe and the United States increases as you have younger guys who are fervent and easily manipulated.”
Along with longtime resentment and alienation experienced by some in immigrant communities, technology such as computers and Arabic-language satellite TV plays a major role in molding militants earlier, European officials say. Internet sites and chat rooms have become a virtual sanctuary, widening access to propaganda and training materials for an emerging “second generation” of extremists.
“This generation of young kids are far more Internet-focused than guys who are only 10 years older,” Sageman said.
Last year, a group of young Internet enthusiasts was charged with unleashing terrorism in the Netherlands: the killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh and a plot to assassinate politicians. Police captured Jason Walters, 19, in a raid that left him and three officers wounded. His 17-year-old brother was also jailed.
Walters’ Internet chats reveal a casual, adolescent cold-bloodedness, according to excerpts published in the Dutch media. A spokesman for the AIVD intelligence service, the leading Dutch anti-terrorism agency, confirmed that the transcripts were authentic.
In an Internet conversation on Sept. 28, 2003, Walters joked about beheading the Dutch prime minister and bragged about a monthlong training session at an Afghan terrorism camp. The son of a Dutch mother and American father said he had fooled his family into thinking he was in Britain.
He urged his chat partner, “Galas03,” to join him on a future trip. “They will train you how to use guns,” Walters wrote, using the name “Mujaheed.” “I can assemble and dismantle a Kalashnikov blindfolded.”
“Is shooting difficult?” Galas03 asked.
“No way, man, it is not that hard,” Walters responded. “I even had to roll over with a pistol and then shoot and that went all right, praise Allah.”
Walters became radicalized at about 16, investigators say. Fellow suspect Samir Azzouz, 18, was equally precocious. Azzouz was first detained in 2002 in Ukraine en route to joining Muslim combatants in Chechnya, AIVD spokesman Vincent van Steen said.
Iraq has become the new Chechnya, a promised land of jihad, for many militants in Europe. The Iraq war played a central role in radicalizing Salah, the fugitive middle-schooler from Paris, and his homeboys, according to interviews with investigators, defense lawyers, youth counselors and friends.
Salah’s family declined to be interviewed for this article. French authorities have not made public his last name because of legal restrictions on identifying minors, particularly criminal suspects.
Salah was born in France to a large family of immigrants from Mali. He grew up in Riquet, a neighborhood that seems more hopeful and less grim than the concrete housing projects outside Paris that are bastions of extremist networks.
The family lives in a ground-floor apartment across the street from the north bank of the La Villette basin: an urban waterway alive with boats, bridges and bike paths. Gray-haired Frenchmen play boccie by a tree-lined promenade named for the actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.
Riquet is on the northeastern edge of Paris in the 19th arrondissement, or district, whose population runs the ethnic gamut: Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Asians, Orthodox Jews, Turks and a large concentration of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
The area is socioeconomically diverse as well. Crime and low-income housing abound, but gentrified sections attract the French equivalent of yuppies. Salah lived near a kosher pizzeria and a cafe/bike shop that offers bicycles and repairs as well as espresso and hot chocolate.
Salah’s Muslim family was attached to its religion and homeland. His older brothers would go back to Mali for extended stays. Salah was calm and focused and became very religious about the age of 12.
“After 9 p.m., you’d find him and his crew at the mosques, not on the street,” said Bakary Sakho, 25, a founder of Good Boys of Africa who knows Salah’s family well. “He didn’t have trouble with the police. He was a young, serious Muslim. He did his five prayers a day. He wore the traditional vestments at the mosque, but around the neighborhood he wore jeans and basketball shoes like everybody else.”
Salah told people he was determined to be an imam, friends and judicial sources say. When Salah and his longtime neighbor, Chiakhou Diakhabi, decided this year to study at a Koranic school in Syria, their parents were pleased. Diakhabi, a son of Senegalese immigrants, found religion after years of scrapes with the police.
Many African and Arab families in Riquet, and elsewhere in France, see rediscovering Islamic heritage as a calming, stabilizing experience that keeps kids off the street.
“The parents thought it was a good idea,” Sakho said. “Being an imam, that means discipline. For these families, a Koranic school in Syria was a big deal Â— like a university.”
The 19-year-old Diakhabi had a strong influence on Salah. Their fathers are close friends, and the families live in the same apartment complex.
In France and other European countries, adolescents from Muslim families increasingly turn to rigorous practice of Islam, often a badge of cultural identity for second- and third-generation youths from immigrant families who feel marooned in Western society. Youth counselors and friends didn’t think Salah had become an aggressive extremist.
Nonetheless, it was unusual for the boy to spend so much time with youths in their late teens and early 20s.
“There are other kids his age who become very religious, boys and girls,” Sakho said. “But not to the point of leaving school and going to a foreign country.”
Salah and Diakhabi became followers of Farid Benyettou, an Algerian-French street preacher. He was a fixture at the Addawa Mosque on narrow Tanger Street in an area dominated by drab high-rises and industrial compounds.
A weather-beaten building without a minaret or ornamentation, the mosque is one of the largest in Paris, attracting as many as 1,500 worshipers on Fridays. Its leaders have not been linked to the alleged extremists.
In other terrorism cases around Europe, accused ringleaders were in their 30s or 40s. They were exiled ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood from Syria or Egypt, battle-scarred North African veterans of Afghanistan, Bosnia or Chechnya.
Benyettou was 23 when he was arrested here in January. His look was more ragged Rasta than mean mujahedin: thick glasses, unruly long curls spilling out of his turban, high-top gym shoes beneath his robes. His main street credential was having a brother-in-law who was arrested for extremist activity here in 1998.
Benyettou allegedly formed an autonomous cell, bringing together friends from high school and soccer fields. He taught religion and Arabic at his apartment about five blocks from Salah’s middle school, using the classes to screen and groom about 20 disciples. In 2003, the group participated in protests against the Iraq war and last year protested a French law banning Muslim head scarves in public schools.
Their behavior at the antiwar marches drew the interest of the intelligence division of the national police, whose agents snapped surveillance photos as a dozen youths knelt behind Benyettou in sidewalk prayer sessions.
As the group evolved, the youths spurned girlfriends and adopted rigorous Islamic lifestyles and ideas. Prosecutors allege that the youths discussed potential violence in France; defense lawyers see little evidence of that. Both sides agree they were obsessed with Iraq.
“Benyettou would talk to them about Abu Ghraib [prison], the abuse of Muslims, and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ” said Dominique Many, a lawyer for a suspected jihadi. “He was like a little guru who claimed to know the sacred texts. And he convinced them that the texts said it was their duty to go to Iraq to fight for the cause.”
Last spring and summer, at least eight members of the group departed for Damascus, the Syrian capital. Several enrolled at a Koranic school there.
Syria is popular with young European Muslims hoping to study religion or Arabic, because it is cheaper to live there than in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Syria is also a hub of smugglers and operatives of the Iraq insurgency: a gateway to jihad. Koranic schools in Damascus have become steppingstones and cover stories for Iraq-bound militants.
The circumstances of Salah’s departure are murky. It’s not clear if his intended destination was Iraq. Investigators and friends say his parents gave him permission to travel to Damascus and study there. Salah went to Syria in July with neighbor Mohammed Ayouni, 22, whose whereabouts are also unknown.
“Somebody had to manipulate Salah, had to influence and help him,” said Siddibe of Good Boys of Africa, which tries to steer teenagers away from crime, drugs and extremism. “A little guy like that is going to be a lot more vulnerable.”
There have been reports that Salah tried to enter Iraq and was turned back by Syrian border authorities. But French law enforcement officials could not confirm that.
By the time he turned 14 in October, Salah had become streetwise in Damascus, say police, who describe his role in the cell as handling logistics for jihadis passing through from Paris.
Some think the authorities have exaggerated Salah’s role.
“To call him an intermediary in Syria, and to call this a network, is to exaggerate what was a crude, improvised group with little structure or connections,” said Vincent Ollivier, a defense lawyer.
But after French police arrested Thamer Bouchnak, a 22-year-old from Riquet, in January on the eve of a flight to Syria, he identified Salah as the operative expected to meet him at the Damascus airport and arrange for lodging, guns and passage to Iraq. Bouchnak spent three weeks at the Koranic school last summer and apparently had met Salah there.
“The kid was the one who knew where to find the smugglers to cross them into Iraq,” said Many, Bouchnak’s lawyer. “He was the one who was going to help them buy AK-47s.”
Unlike five Dutch suspects in the Van Gogh case who allegedly trained at secret Pakistani and Afghan camps, the preparation in Paris was minimal: exercise sessions in the wooded Buttes-Chaumont Park, perfunctory consultation of weapons manuals.
“No training,” said a senior French intelligence official, whose agency does not permit him to be quoted by name. “These are guys who go to get themselves blown up. Once they arrive at the destination in Iraq, they are very quickly prepared because the insurgents need fighters.”
The network may have been crude, but several recruits attained their goal. One 19-year-old Riquet homeboy died in a suicide car bombing in Iraq last summer.
Two others, ages 19 and 24, were killed in combat in the Sunni Triangle west and north of Baghdad. During the battle to retake Fallouja in November, U.S. troops captured Diakhabi, Salah’s longtime neighbor, and a 22-year-old from the neighborhood. Another member of the group is in a Syrian jail.
And Salah? His trail stops at the Koranic school in Damascus. He is wanted in France on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity.
The jihadi homeboys have become the talk of the streets here. Not a good sign, Sakho said, at a time when global conflicts stir youthful imaginations, when kids grow up faster than ever.
“There are kids in this neighborhood who admire them for making a name for themselves,” he said. “We don’t want them to become heroes.”