(WOMENSENEWS)–Will members of the Islamic State read this story? It would be fair to think so, says the father of a French female teen who joined the terrorist group in June 2014.
He says his young daughter–let’s call her Iman–told him that members of the Islamic State, also known as Islamic State in Syria or ISIS, religiously scan all press coverage about them.
The father, who we call K, spoke on the phone in early March and April from France. He talked reluctantly, since his daughter had warned him of press monitoring by the Islamic State. He feared that her captors might "torture or punish" his daughter if they found out he had spoken to journalists.
The teen daughter’s fate in Syria is one of considerable consternation for her family, who has managed to maintain contact through Facebook and instant-messaging phone applications such as Viber and WhatsApp. But they haven’t heard from her since Feb. 25.
"They must have taken her cell phone away," K said, adding that recently she had been talkative and expressed a desire to come back home.
There have been other silent periods. For three months, between September and December 2014, the family didn’t hear from Iman at all. "We thought she was dead," K said. In early 2015, she got back in touch and they had regular exchanges until this recent cutoff.
Women’s eNews has not had direct contact with Iman and cannot verify the accuracy of any of her family’s representations about her.
So far, 1,432 French citizens have left for Syria and Iraq since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to a report published April 1 by the French Senate. Among them, 413 are being reported to be in conflict zones, including 119 women among whom are "a considerable proportion of minors" found the report, which does not include a precise number for minors.
Iman, who is believed to still be in Syria, is one of several minors who have left France to join ISIS.
Unable to Intervene
At the moment, France is unable to intervene on behalf of such underage girls and boys who now regret their decision. "Syria is today in chaos," Romain Nadal, spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a phone interview. "We cannot have a serious plan in a country where all parties are fighting each other."
France no longer has an embassy or a consulate in Syria. But Nadal said that a French citizen who manages to enter any of the neighboring countries — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan — "will be welcomed and accompanied."
Nadal said the French have no military plans in Syria. "It is not at all in line with France‘s policy . . . There will be no French intervention in Syria; neither on the ground, nor in the air," Nadal told Women’s eNews.
When Women’s eNews last interviewed Iman’s family, in September 2014 at their house in a wealthy suburb of Paris, Iman assured them she was happy to be in Syria. Today, she wants to return home, said her father.
K said Iman is now detained against her will. She was crying on the phone the last few times he talked with her, he said, but "I don’t know how she is going to get out of there."
"She is too scared to try anything," said K, who thinks his daughter is too young and vulnerable to try to escape. "And how would she reach the Turkish border, located hundreds of kilometers from where she is being detained?" K questioned.
When asked why Iman changed her mind and wants now to return home, her father said it is her awareness of the violence committed by ISIS. He cannot confirm whether his daughter witnessed any of the executions performed by the group but she told him "they are cutting heads" when he asked her what has changed.
K said he believed Iman is being held in a house with about six other women of different ages, most from France and Morocco. "She does chores and cooks," he said.
K said his daughter, along with other women, are also being asked to serve food to an English-speaking man, detained next to their house. The daughter said they are feeding the man, that he is kind and being treated well. The father could not provide information on the identity of this other hostage and Women’s eNews is not able to verify the existence of such a hostage.
Difficulties Since Departure
K said life has been hard since Iman left. His wife cannot stop crying. French authorities have warned him not to attempt to travel to Syria to bring back Iman. "It will be a one-way trip, they told me," K said.
In the family’s most recent contact with Iman, she wanted to see photos of her room, cat and siblings. K said she talked about resuming school upon her return.
"She was talking to me like something is soon going to happen. She was talking about registering at school like she will soon be here," said K, who keeps doubting his daughter would dare to attempt an escape. "She is just a child, very shy and easily scared."
But what if she does manage to come home, what happens to her, legally speaking, then?
Marc Trevidic, a French magistrate specializing in fighting terrorism, said it’s hard to know. "No generalization can be made. It will be on a case-by-case basis."
For minors, Trevidic sees two possible scenarios: either they are considered victims of indoctrination or members of a criminal association to commit terrorism.
While men and boys often join ISIS with the intention to fight, women and girls often leave with the intention to marry a fighter. "They don’t leave to fight," Trevidic said, adding that it makes the case more sensitive because the definition of "belonging to a criminal association to commit terrorism" can be widely interpreted.
"Some consider that the simple fact of cooking for the group is enough to be considered a member of the terrorist group, while others consider that these women were indoctrinated," Trevidic said.
Back in France, an underage woman would be taken into custody for questioning about her motivations for joining the terrorist group and how and why she returned and what she is intending to do next. "Yet, it does not mean that charges will be pressed against the young woman," said Trevidic.
Ten years of imprisonment is the maximum sentence in France for belonging to a terrorist organization, even if no crime is committed. Fifteen years can be imposed for any intention to harm citizens. In France, minors can be jailed after the age of 13, yet most minors up to age 16 are sentenced far more lightly than adults.
Iman, like several other minors in France, didn’t need a parent’s permission to leave the country despite her young age. Since 2013, a memo issued by the French Ministry of Interior allows minors to leave the country and travel across European borders with a simple identification document.
K and the relatives of other minors who talked to Women’s eNews this past summer criticized the memo for creating a loophole in the border security system.
One French woman is suing the government because she holds French authorities responsible for not preventing her 16-year-old son’s departure when he boarded a plane for Turkey in 2013. The teenager has never returned.
Benjamin Menard, press adviser to the Minister of Interior, defends the new policy as efficient and says border authorities exercise discretion. When they suspect minors are leaving for conflict zones at the airport, they call the parents to verify and to inform them. "We have been able to stop a lot of minors at airports by doing so . . . It is an efficient measure," Menard said.
Menard admitted that not all French minors have been prevented from going to conflict zones. He could not provide figures on the number of minors stopped at the border since they no longer need a parent’s permission to travel.
The National Office of the Border Police confirmed that parents are being called when minors are traveling alone to destinations such as Turkey.
Border police were also unable to provide the number of minors who have been stopped from leaving France to go to conflict zones. A press officer for the Department of Information and Information of the National Police, who asked that her name not be used for safety reasons, said the control system was strengthened last year in response to the increasing number of French citizens leaving for Syria.
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