France says some 950 French nationals are involved in jihad
Experts say there are many reasons why they choose to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight
Nicolas Bons, 30, was killed in "an explosives operation" in Syria; his half-brother also died
His mother wants others to be aware of the dangers posed by Islamist extremists
The scrapbook is filled with photographs and tributes: they show Dominique Bons’ son Nicolas growing from a teenager into a young man.
Offering brief glimpses of past holidays and family moments, clues to his passions and personality, the book is one of Bons’ few souvenirs of her son’s short life.
Nicolas, from Toulouse, converted to Islam four years ago, gradually becoming more and more devout.
Bons, who is a former French soldier, says Nicolas had never spoken to her about wanting to join a religious war, but last year the 30-year-old announced he and his half-brother were going on vacation together.
Three weeks later he called to say they were in Syria – two of the more than 900 French citizens the government believes are involved in the jihad there and in Iraq.
Within days, his half-brother was killed, and shortly afterward he spoke to his mother for the last time, telling her she would be notified if anything happened to him.
In late December, Bons received a text message explaining that Nicolas has been killed in “an explosives operation” – that’s all she knows.
“The body? There is no body… I don’t have a body,” she says. “If he was killed in a truck filled with explosives, the body… boom!”
Because no body has been recovered, there is also no death certificate, meaning that –officially at least, in France – Nicolas is still alive.
For his mother, he always will be. In her grief, she has written a poem – added to the treasured scrapbook – telling her son: “You will exist in my heart eternally. I love you.”
Unlike Bons, one anonymous French bus driver knows his daughter is still alive in Syria – but he is desperately worried that may not be the case for much longer.
The man – who asked not to be identified out of concern for his daughter’s safety – says the 23-year-old converted to Islam and married a Tunisian man before moving to Syria with the couple’s two children.
The couple said they were going there to do humanitarian work; they are now believed to be in Raqqa, and safe – for the moment at least – but the city, an ISIS stronghold, is a target of coalition forces.
And both father and daughter fear she could be arrested if she comes back to France.
He has a warning for other parents: “Pay attention… it could happen to you before you even know it.”
David Thomson, author of “The French Jihadists,” believes there are many reasons why so many French Muslims are becoming radicalized and heading to Iraq and Syria to join militant groups.
“Religious frustrations, material frustrations, perhaps a feeling that it would be a sin to stay back in France, a desire to experience this historic moment and die fighting the coalition,” he explains.
Concerned at the growing threat of radicalization, French authorities have introduced new regulations in an effort to stem the tide of citizens traveling to the Middle East to join the fight.
“We had to change our rules in different ways,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius explained to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour recently.
“First we decided that the government, the administration, would be able to suspend not only passports but also ID for people whose intention is to go to Syria.”
The second step is to encourage families concerned at the path their children appear to be taking to contact the authorities and report their fears.
“Because we have many cases where families do not agree with the youngster and at the moment they are aware that the young people want to leave and therefore they have to get in touch with us in order to have a reaction,” he said.
“We have to be very, very strict and to explain to these young people, especially the young girls – 13, 14 years old – that if they are going there, some of them think that it will be a new life, [but] in fact they are prostitutes, they are sexual slaves.
“The young people are utilized and many of them are killed.”
Fouad El Bathy has spent the past nine months trying to bring his teenage sister safely home from Syria before it is too late.
Nora, 16, was recruited and given a plane ticket to join the fight in Syria, according to French intelligence.
Fouad is convinced she is being held against her will, and took the risky step of trying to find her and get her back – he was even taken captive at one point.
But when he finally tracked her down, he couldn’t convince her to leave.
“I told her to come back with me but she cried and beat her head against the wall and she said I can’t I can’t.”
Later he was told the leader of the group wanted to marry her.
Since Nora is a minor, El Bathy’s lawyer hopes that if she does make it back he can persuade French officials to treat her as a victim not a combatant.
Like El Bathy and Bons, the relatives of many of those caught up in the jihadists’ web say they feel powerless to protect their children and siblings.
Bons has set up an organization aimed at publicizing what has happened to some of those who have made the trip to Iraq and Syria.
She hopes that by spreading the news through schools and social media, she can convince others of the dangers posed by Islamist extremists – though for her son, it is too late.