SHAFAQNA – The French girl knew him as “Tony Toxiko” — an Islamic State recruiter who first used Facebook to cajole her into joining him in Syria, then brusquely called to force the issue: Come to me or risk damnation. She was 14.
The recruiter promised to marry Amelia and teach her to fight, but first she had to get to the war zone and needed an adult’s help. The middleman, Riad Ben Cheikh, went on trial in Paris on Friday on charges of criminal association with the preparation of a terrorist act, and aiding a runaway.
Amelia has since become pregnant and is believed to be in Syria, the prosecutor and defense lawyers said Friday.
The trial offered a rare glimpse into the world of Islamic State recruitment of girls, a growing concern for many Western governments. Britain recently was shaken by the news of three teenage girls leaving their families with apparent intent to join a friend with extremists in Syria. In many cases, families have little warning and Europe’s open borders and travel rules make the trip easy, even for adolescents.
Amelia’s Internet quest to learn more about Islam ended up with her pledging her hand in marriage to an unknown jihadi twice her age. Her last name was not made public because she is a minor.
Judicial documents say Amelia used her savings to buy a one-way ticket from Lyon to Turkey, with the aim of reaching Syria. Riad Ben Cheikh is accused of booking her a hotel room the night of Feb. 24, 2014 in the Lyon area, and paying her train fare to the Lyon airport.
The girl was detained as she lined up for her flight to Istanbul. Her parents, who discovered a paper trail for her one-way ticket the day before, had flagged her to police. Ben Cheikh has said he believed he was only helping her rejoin her husband in Syria.
The prosecutor requested a sentence of three years in prison with one year suspended. Ben Cheikh’s lawyer said his client “never had the intention to go to Syria, as could be seen from the phone taps and surveillance of his Facebook conversations.”
“I just want to add that I’m not a terrorist and I regret this situation,” Ben Cheikh said. A ruling is expected to come next Tuesday.
Amelia told investigators that Ben Cheikh bought her a full face- and body-covering veil, and told her to destroy her phone SIM card to avoid detection. In court Friday, Ben Cheikh denied that.
Ben Cheikh has been jailed for 10 months, and complained in court Friday that he spends most of his time in isolation. French authorities are concerned about proselytizing by Islamic radicals in prison, particularly after attacks in January by French radicals with criminal backgrounds against newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market that left 20 dead.
About 100 girls and young women from France are believed to be in Syria, most drawn there after making contact online with recruiters for jihadi groups.
Jean-Francois Gayraud, deputy chief of France’s Counter-Terrorism Coordination Unit, said information surfacing from a hotline established for parents worried that their child may be radicalizing, or headed to a war zone, shows there is not just one profile of French youth looking to live their dreams via jihad.
“We are (seeing) nearly all social categories, all origins,” Gayraud told the press at a terrorism conference on Friday.
But there are “mental archetypes” for boys and for girls, he said.