France’s Pied Piper of Jihad

,  The Daily Beast

Omar Diaby, a career criminal from Nice, has turned into France’s most potent recruiter for Syria’s jihad—and few of his acolytes come from Muslim homes.

In the shadow of a lower-income housing project called, ironically, Bon Voyage, Nadine woke up one day last year to discover her 16-year-old son, Bryan, missing. She found out, to her horror, that he’d bought a one-way ticket to Gazientep, Turkey and then took a bus into Syria, bringing only a small backpack.

“I can’t even talk about it,” she said about the disappearance of her son, a quiet boy from a non-Muslim family who had no interest in religion until he started watching jihadi propaganda videos on the Internet. He began refusing to touch his mother or let her kiss him. Now he’s in Syria and may nor may not be in one of the notorious “cub camps” the jihadists run to train child soldiers.

“I’m too devastated,” she said. “And it’s not going to bring Bryan back.”

Nadine, who asked that her last name not be published, is one of many traumatized French parents who blame former Nice career criminal Omar Diaby— now France’s most successful recruiter of young French fighters to Syria—for luring their children into a nightmarish war.  Diaby, also known as Omar Omsen, is best known for disseminating Hollywood-quality videos encouraging young people to join the jihad, which have gotten more than 165,000 YouTube views in the past two years. All the videos are in French.

Even Diaby’s uncle by marriage, Mamadou Amme, 57, who still lives in Bon Voyage, is grieving. His 25-year-old son, Diaby’s cousin, left abruptly for Syria last year with his 11-month-old baby boy. His son’s wife followed later. Diaby’s mother and other brothers and cousins eventually joined him. “They are stuck there, I’m afraid forever,” Amme told the Daily Beast. “We are still in deep shock and suffering. We don’t know if we’ll ever see any of them ever again.”

Diaby, in a video interview with The Daily Beast via Skype from what he said was the Syrian countryside, admitted he has encouraged many young people to come to Syria but he said they are all happy to be there.  Bryan, he claimed, is with his group of “combattants,” which he refused to detail but some experts say could be up to 70 fighters.

“He is smiling here every day,” Diaby said. “He is learning religion, not fighting. His mother knows he is happy. We don’t keep anyone against their will.  We have a code. We protect our people. If Bryan wanted to go home, he could go home. He wants to stay here.”

Furthermore, he said, Bryan and others his age are not considered children. “In real Islam, you are an adult from puberty onwards,” he said. “They are not kids.”

Diaby described his group as an independent unit fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad but said they’re allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al Qaeda in Syria and Lebanon. He is not connected to ISIS at the present time, he said. “There was a conflict between the groups,” he said. He added that his group is made up of serious fighters who believe that the entire world should be under fundamentalist Islamic law. “We’re not here to grow vegetables,” he said.

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