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France unveils plan to stop youths joining jihad

Wednesday - 4/23/2014, 1:53pm  ET

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, left, and French president Francois Hollande leave at the end of the Cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris Wednesday, April . 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

ELAINE GANLEY
Associated Press

PARIS (AP) -- France wants to deter youths from joining the ranks of Islamist militants in Syria's civil war, and is planning a series of tough-love measures that answer the pleas of parents and seek to protect the nation from battle-hardened returnees.

The measures announced Wednesday include a system for allowing suspicious parents, and perhaps teachers, to tip off authorities. Those suspected of wanting to become a foreign fighter will have their passport withdrawn and their name put in a European security data base.

France believes it has more of its young people joining the Syria fighting than any other European nation. But the problem -- and the potential risk that those returning home could import terrorist skills and use them against the homeland -- is continental in scope.

The government said Wednesday that nearly 300 French people are currently in Syria, 130 are in transit and 130 others have returned home after one or more tours in Syria, where a 3-year-old civil war has left 150,000 dead and forced millions to flee their homes.

Another 25 French citizens or residents have died on the battlefield. In total, 740 people have been identified as belonging to Syrian networks.

Youths as young as 15, including girls, have left home to fight. Some have been retrieved by their parents and brought home to be criminally charged and jailed.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the plans include preventive measures and "repressive elements aimed at dismantling networks that expose our country to risks."

Speaking after a Cabinet meeting that approved the plans, Cazeneuve said France had "the will to use all means to identify recruiters and suppliers of hatred on the Internet, and dismantle the networks."

France plans to create an alert system for parents who fear their children are at risk of taking up jihad. Parents would contact the Interior Ministry, which would mobilize social services and the educational system.

Cazeneuve did not elaborate. It wasn't clear whether teachers and parents would, ultimately, be spying on their students and children.

Parents have been pleading with the government to take action to keep their children from becoming terrorists. Some have asked the government to offer clemency to teenagers lured to Syria by Internet propaganda. However, Cazeneuve said those caught on their return must face the courts.

A criminologist, Alain Bauer, scoffed at the notion that France's 5 million Muslims -- the largest Muslim population in Western Europe -- might feel stigmatized by the measures, as they did when France passed laws banning head scarves in schools and face-covering veils in public places.

"When you are protecting a country, you take care of reality," Bauer told The Associated Press.

Bauer compared the new proposals to providing medical care for a drug-addicted child. "Prevention is like a medical act. ... It's taking care of someone who's in trouble," he said.

While Bauer praised the prevention elements of the plan, he expressed reservations about the rest, particularly the widely-shared belief that returning fighters could pose a terror threat at home.

Cazeneuve said France would pass a law permitting the confiscation of passports to stop people suspected of wanting to travel to Syria. Another proposed law would permit foreign residents to be immediately deported if linked by police to terrorism overseas.

France, in conjunction with European partners, also plans to increase its monitoring of Web sites that post videos and other messages inciting jihadi activities. Cazeneuve said he has already discussed France's initiatives with his counterparts in Germany and Austria and planned to work with Britain next.

Several other European countries have been dealing to varying degrees with the phenomenon of citizen jihadis. Belgium is hosting an international conference on homegrown Syrian fighters May 8.

Belgium says about 150 of its citizens are in Syria. The country has set up programs in sensitive towns to improve cooperation among authorities and designated a "prevention specialist" in 29 towns. A national prevention cell brings together police, experts and social workers in an outreach similar to France's proposals.

The Netherlands' annual intelligence report, released Wednesday, put the number of Dutch in Syria last year at more than 100, with 10 dead, including a suicide bomber. About 30 have returned and are being monitored, it said.

Germany recently opened three outreach centers, and in Britain counter-terrorism police say they are consulting the public over possible measures to deter youths from traveling to Syria.

Bauer, a security adviser for former President Nicolas Sarkozy, said those heading to Syria are not a perfect fit with society's stereotype of jihadis.

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