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Europe's Boys of Jihad

At 13, Salah left Paris for Syria, allegedly to aid insurgents in Iraq. He and others like him represent radical Islam's newer, younger face.

April 02, 2005|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — 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.

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