PARIS/LONDON/BEIRUT – About a dozen French adolescents have left for Syria to join jihadi groups or are trying to go, a phenomenon that is accelerating, France’s interior minister said Sunday.
The civil war to oust President Bashar Assad has attracted more French, and Westerners, than other battlegrounds such as Afghanistan ever did. Thousands of Europeans are fighting in Syria and nearly 700 French citizens or residents are in some way involved, Manual Valls said. But teenagers drawn to jihadi organizations fighting there is a “particular phenomenon.”
“The phenomenon has accelerated in recent weeks, since the end of 2013,” the minister said on iTele TV, adding that French intelligence services have just recently identified six minors showing a desire to go.
The minister suggested the young men were converted to the jihadi cause on the Internet, not in mosques. He said the pair are likely now in Turkey.
“We’re working with the families to recover them,” Valls said.
Asked on the talk show why Syria has become such an attraction for the young, Valls cited among other points Syria’s proximity to France, which makes it “relatively easy” to travel there. Unusually, he also cited the fight against the Assad regime, which the French and other Western governments have backed. That means that the “combat appears rather just.”
The minister said about 250 French citizens or legal residents are fighting in Syria, 150 have shown they want to and 99 are in transit. He said 21 have died on the Syrian battlefield.
The most worrisome of the grim statistics is those returning, he said, adding that 76 so far have done so.
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, an estimated 5 million.
In the United Kingdom, an al-Qaida defector said in an interview Monday with the Daily Telegraph newspaper that the terrorist group is also training hundreds of Britons fighting in Syria to become jihadists and urging them to carry out attacks when they return home.
The defector, known as Murad, from the hard-line Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said other recruits from Europe and the U.S. are also being trained to make car bombs before being sent home to form terrorist cells.
“They talked often about terrorist attacks,” he said of his former ISIL instructors. “The foreigners were proud of 9/11 and the London bombings. The British, French and American mujahedeen in the room started talking about places that they wanted to bomb or explode themselves in Europe and the United States. The American said he dreamed of blowing up the White House.”
The U.K.’s intelligence services estimate that around 500 British fighters are currently in Syria.
The report preceded peace talks this week between Assad’s delegation and Syrian opposition groups at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva.
The United Nations on Sunday invited Iran to attend an international meeting of foreign ministers ahead of the talks, the first direct peace talks between the warring Syrian sides.
Syria’s opposition coalition announced Monday that it would boycott the talks unless U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon withdraws the invitation to Iran.
Ban told reporters at U.N. headquarters that he had issued the invitation to Iran after lengthy talks in recent days with Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif.
Ban said that Zarif had assured him that Iran “understands that the basis of the talks” is the full implementation of the road map adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in Geneva in June 2012. That plan called for the creation of a transitional Syrian government with full executive powers.