TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - When Dominique Bons’ timid son stopped smoking overnight and started praying frequently at his home in the southern French city of Toulouse, she alerted the authorities.
They did nothing because Nicolas was not suspected of any crime. One day last year he disappeared. Then Bons was sent a text message saying the 30-year-old had been “martyred” on December 22 driving a truck bomb in the Syrian city of Homs.
He grew up in a middle class suburb to atheist parents but converted to Islam in 2009. Like his younger half-brother who died in Syria months earlier, he joined the al Qaeda splinter group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
They are among a growing number of people, an estimated 2,000 so far, who have left Europeans states to fight alongside Islamist rebels in Syria to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Europe’s authorities are struggling to stem the flow.
Bons is angry that her efforts to alert the government to a potential problem were ignored and is also convinced that the strategy of France and other European countries of jailing those caught trying to get to Syria makes the situation worse.
“It’s crazy,” said Bons, a retired military secretary who has set up a support group for parents of children who have been radicalized. “In jail they will be reinforced in their desire to go back to Syria... It seems like they (the government) are doing whatever they can to ensure that this continues.”
In March, three men aged 21 to 26 were arrested at an airport in eastern France for sentenced to between two and six years for conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.
The population of French prisons is estimated to be up to 70 percent Muslim. Moderate preachers employed by the state are lacking, so a void is filled by untrained imams who preach a Salafist or hardline form of Islam and hatred of the West.
Radical Islamist Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people in and around Toulouse in 2012, is thought to have sharpened some of his ideas during a stint in jail.
For Europeans, travelling to Syria is a cheap flight to Turkey and a quick trip over the border, so the problem is one faced by many countries.
A 41-year-old Briton from south east England, Abdul Waheed Majid, is suspected of having driven a lorry into a prison in Aleppo and detonated a bomb, allowing prisoners to escape.
British police have already arrested 16 people on suspicion of terrorism offences this year related to Syria, some as young as 17, compared to 24 such arrests in all of 2013. Among those is Moazzam Begg who spent nearly three years in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of being an al-Qaeda member.
Germany has said it faces an increased threat of attack due to around a dozen German militants who have returned from the conflict in Syria with knowledge of weapons and bomb-making. Around 300 German citizens are thought to have joined the rebels.
Belgium said in January that some 200 Belgians who had fought in Syria were being monitored in case they returned to the country. Around 20 had already been killed fighting for Islamist groups.
Most Europeans fighting in Syria join the Nusra Front or ISIL, the two militant opposition groups that are closest to al Qaeda and considered most dangerous by the West.
French volunteers have formed a fighting brigade within the Nusra Front, radio station RFI reported, made up of more than one hundred soldiers with the main rallying point the fact they can communicate in French and not in Arabic.
Between 600 and 700 French nationals or residents are believed to have volunteered for fighting or were involved in recruitment for Syria.
As in France, many European governments take a tough line, sending suspects to jail or making it more difficult to come home. Britain has said it would consider stripping the citizenship of dual nationals who tried to return after fighting in Syria.
Bons wants to see softer touches involving therapy to stop them becoming radicalized but this is rare.
“The problem is that the government thinks all these kids are potential Merahs,” Bons said. “What’s needed is some way to treat them in advance, to do preventative work with the help of psychiatrists and experts in the problem.”
France has said it will set up a hotline for families to alert local authorities if they detect signs their children are becoming radical.
A French judge said last month when the first wave of volunteers returns home they step up recruitment and that is partly why the numbers are growing.
Bons does not know who persuaded her sons to go and fight but suspects it was through someone Nicolas met in Les Izards, the suburb where Merah spent much of his childhood, an overwhelmingly immigrant area unlike where they grew up.
Toulouse, as well as Nice, Strasbourg and Paris, are thought to be fertile recruiting grounds. Two teenagers from the city were placed under formal investigation for conspiracy to commit terrorism in late January for trying to get to Syria, and several others have been arrested.
Bons said her son, who had a high school level degree in sales but was struggling to find a job, was a “nice boy” who had been manipulated.
A month after Nicolas first disappeared, with another man, he called to say he had given someone a letter explaining his reasons for leaving but it was never sent.
She was still in contact with him by phone and Skype when he appeared clutching a Koran and Kalashnikov rifle in a Youtube video in July 2013, calling on President Francois Hollande to convert to Islam and urging others to join the fight.
After the video was published Bons instantly became the face of jihadism in France. He and his brother were on the front page of several newspapers. Dominique said her son looked like a different person in the video “like someone possessed”, whereas before he had been timid.
Bons said despite alerting the authorities of her concerns, she has had very little help from the state.
After Nicolas left for Syria in early 2013, Bons wrote to Hollande asking for help to bring him home. The presidency told her it had transferred her request to the interior and justice ministries, but no action was taken.
She has a contact at the DCRI internal security service, but has never been formally debriefed by authorities.
“At this point, as a parent, you are totally on your own, you have no idea where to turn,” she said.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said in January that the government planned to set up a hotline for families.
“Families must be on alert for certain behaviors,” he told parliament in January. “We’ll need to come up with ways involving local officials and mayors for these families to alert our services.”
For Bons the worst part is that it is proving difficult to bring the body back for burial in France. She says the French authorities have been unsympathetic and the situation is complex because France has broken off diplomatic relations with Syria.
A few other parents have reached out but most are ashamed. In the absence of support from the authorities, Bons and others parents have set up support groups. Hers is called “Syrien ne bouge, agissons” a play on the word “Syrian” in French which translates to “If nothing is changing, let’s act”.
In Belgium the “Concerned Parents Collective” aims to stop teens leaving the country. In the eastern French town of Strasbourg a loose-knit group of moderate Muslim associations protested in January under the banner “Hands off our children”.
As part of its counter-terrorism strategy, Britain runs a program called “Channel”, which is designed to provide support to “individuals vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists”, involving police, schools, social workers and other figures from local communities.
Other non-governmental community organizations, such as London-based Active Change Foundation, also run projects to deal with violent extremism and terrorist recruitment.
Bons said she had been contacted by other parents of young jihadis, including a mother in Nice and the group in Belgium. They agree that European governments needed to find better ways to fight radicalism of their children.
“The mothers are on the front line,” Bons said. “There are fathers, too, of course. But mothers will stop at nothing.”
Additional reporting by Michael Holden in London; Editing by Anna Willard