by Michael Birnbaum & Souad Mekhennet
FRANKFURT, Germany — For hours, she had been worrying about her 16-year-old son, Pero. He said he planned to attend a rally downtown, then sleep over at a friend’s house. But he had disappeared.
The next morning, his mother’s cellphone rang.
“Where are you?” she cried, angry but relieved to hear from him.
She burst into tears at the answer:
“I’m in Syria,” he said.
The previous evening, Pero and 22 others, including at least four teenagers, took a budget flight to the Turkish resort city of Antalya and continued by road to the border with Syria. The group was part of an increasing number of European Muslims seeking to fight in the Syrian civil war alongside extremist groups, some of them linked to al-Qaeda. And security officials worry that some of these volunteers will return radicalized and determined to strike in Europe.
But for members of one Frankfurt family, the secret departure of their teenager sparked an elemental obsession: how to snatch their baby-faced but troubled boy back from his chosen path of martyrdom.
The gawky late-bloomer, the darling of a close-knit Muslim family that immigrated to Germany from the Balkan nation of Macedonia before Pero was born, had grown pious and distant over the previous year.
The old Pero loved chess and Kermit the Frog, and he blushed when his Aunt Serce’s female friends pecked him on the cheek. The new Pero attended a conservative mosque, whispered prayers under his breath and raged at his father’s consumption of alcohol, puzzling a family that had a far more casual relationship with Islam.
As one week melted into the next, Pero’s parents stayed in touch with him via his cheap German prepaid cellphone, but they grew more and more fearful about ever seeing him again. They sent him and his superior at a militant training camp in Syria hundreds of euros’ worth of phone and Skype credit to maintain the contact. Every chat or text, no matter how short, sent waves of anxiety through the family in Frankfurt.
“They want to go to paradise,” Pero’s father said. “I wanted my son to go the way of God. It’s the best way. But not this.”
The family agreed to share its story because it thinks Germany is doing too little to keep its citizens from traveling to Syria to fight — and to get them back home when they do. Pero’s relatives spoke on the condition that they be identified only by the nicknames they use with one another because they fear for the teenager’s safety. This account is based on interviews with family members, German officials and a religious figure who met with Pero, as well as family videos and saved text messages.
To bring him back home, Pero’s parents tried to reason with him. They tried to play on his emotions. And then they tried something more drastic.
‘No idea how to handle it’
In ultraconservative mosques in cities across Europe, Syria has become the focus of a widening fury. Imams sermonize about atrocities committed by Syrian government forces and urge their young faithful to join the struggle there to topple President Bashar al-Assadand create an Islamic state. Bargain flights to Turkey abound, and the citizens of some countries, including Germany, need to show only a government identity card, not a passport, to enter, frustrating authorities’ attempts to restrict movement by confiscating travel documents. From Turkey, organized rings of smugglers sneak people over the border into Syria, where they are funneled into training camps.
Most of the 23 young aspiring fighters in Pero’s group were born in Germany, but their parents were immigrants, the top security official of the German state that includes Frankfurt said Friday. Half of these youths had criminal records and none had full-time jobs, said Boris Rhein, the interior minister of the state of Hesse.
Precisely how many Europeans have traveled to Syria is difficult to track, but counterterrorism officials in the European Union estimate the number at 800 to 900, principally from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. A small number of Americans also have fought in Syria.
“It’s a very tricky problem, because many of these 800-plus leaving Europe are not known by the police. They use valid documents. They use tourist routes,” E.U. counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said in an interview. “Some will get back better trained, better connected with those from all over the world, and more radical.”
“It’s not thousands and thousands,” he said. “But if you take only 1 percent of 800, it’s enough to mount a serious attack.”
Pero’s road to Syria started a year ago, shortly after his father, Mitko, returned to the Frankfurt area after an absence of seven years, some of that time spent in prison on a drug-distribution conviction. Father and son had a tough time getting used to each other, especially in the cramped Frankfurt apartment where Pero had to sleep on a cot in the corner of the living room while his two sisters shared a bedroom. He started hanging out with new friends at a local mosque.
First, Pero insisted on saying prayers, though Islam was more a heritage than a daily solace for his family. Then he started pounding the streets of Frankfurt to distribute Korans with his friends. Eventually, the talk turned to the civil war in Syria and the desire to establish an Islamic state.
“I had no idea how to handle it,” said Mitko, a muscular, compact man with a wisp of a beard. “I thought it would be enough to make sure my children weren’t lacking for money.”
On the day they left for Syria, Pero and his companions gathered with 700 others to listen to Pierre Vogel, a man who is described as a radical preacher by German and European security and intelligence officials.
Vogel is a 35-year-old former boxer and native-born German who converted to Islam in 2001. He exhorted the crowd, gathered on a plaza lined with luxury boutiques, to give money to the men wearing orange T-shirts that read “Donations for Syria.”
“Maybe the one euro that you donate will be the euro that helps the poor, oppressed people to keep going and through which this tyrant will be toppled,” Vogel said. “May Allah throw out this tyrant.”
Pero’s parents immediately notified German authorities that their son was in Syria.
“He hasn’t said a whole lot about life in Syria,” Mitko said, looking at the photos of his son scattered around his sister’s living room.
Pero told his family that he was living in a house filled with other single men, all German speakers, somewhere close to a camp. He wouldn’t talk about his training, but the family got some glimpses of his life. The surrounding town had shops that sold doener, a German-Turkish snack similar to gyros, and the group would occasionally slaughter a lamb for dinner. But Pero also complained about being hungry, and his parents worried that he wasn’t getting enough to eat.
Another Frankfurt teenager who ran away at the same time as Pero told his family that the young Germans hoped to join Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most powerful and well-organized fighting groups among the Syrian rebels, Pero’s father learned. Jabhat al-Nusra has allied itself with al-Qaeda, and the U.S. government has designated the group a terrorist organization.
When Pero’s family called him during the day, his phone was always turned off — he wasn’t allowed to take it to training. He was reachable by 9 at night, usually through a Turkish superior at the camp who had once lived in Frankfurt, the parents said.
Mitko said Pero’s superior told him that the most helpful thing the family could do was to buy their son an AK-47 assault rifle or a bulletproof vest.
Frustrations mounted. Mitko yelled at his son on the telephone and told him to return home. Two days passed without a word from Pero.
“Now he only talks to his mother,” Mitko said.
Pero told her that he would pledge allegiance to a fighting group shortly after Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, which this year fell in the middle of October.
Pero’s family feared that he was about to vanish into the war.
At the end of their rope
Mitko arranged to meet with a conservative imam named Hesham Shashaa who has gained prominence for his efforts to fight radicalization within Germany’s Islamic community.
The gray-bearded imam, sitting in a white robe at a wooden table in the apartment of Pero’s aunt, asked how he could help.
“What should I do?” Mitko responded.
Shashaa offered several options: reason with Pero, telling him that the Koran puts family obligations first and condemns violence. Or convince him that his mother is sick and that he needs to come home, or at least visit her on the Turkish side of the Syrian border.
“It’s not going to be as easy as, ‘Oh, habibi,’ and falling into each other’s arms and then leaving,” said Shashaa, using the Arabic word for “darling.”
Mitko and his wife had already promised Pero a new beginning if he came home. He was unmoved. Mitko also tried telling Pero that his mother was deathly sick. That didn’t work either.
There was another option, Shashaa suggested.
Five days after Mitko met with the imam, Pero agreed, over Skype, to meet his mother and his aunt in Turkey near the border. It was to be a chance to kiss his family members goodbye and get their blessing before he headed out to fight. He asked them to bring warm socks, his leather jacket and T-shirts, as well as penicillin and other antibiotics.
“Maybe this is our last chance,” Pero’s mother, Bagica, told a reporter one evening in her family’s cramped apartment.
“He looked very tired,” Bagica said of her son after they spoke on Skype that morning. “He was wearing a T-shirt. And he wasn’t alone in the room.”
“He might not come alone,” Pero’s father said. “It might be a bit dangerous, but I can’t stand here and watch as I lose my son.”
An emotional reunion
A Turkish police officer who is a family friend put Pero’s parents in touch with counterterrorism officials in the border region. Pero’s father flew that night. His mother and aunt followed the next day.
It was a long journey — first to Istanbul, then a puddle-jumper flight to the southern city of Adana, then a dusty ride in a rented van to Antakya, a Turkish town just 15 miles from the Syrian border. On a Monday, the trio had breakfast with Turkish anti-terrorism police and told them to be ready to take Pero into custody the next day.
The following morning, Pero’s aunt, Serce, texted him. “Where are you?” the message said. The family members planned to meet Pero at their hotel, the Buyuk Antakya, one of the largest in the region, whose balconies overlook the mountains that press in on the city. The streets of Antakya, normally bustling, were deserted because of the Eid holiday.
“He wrote back and said he was coming at 3 p.m.,” Serce said.
As the hour drew near, six plainclothes police officers posted themselves in cars parked at the front and rear exits of the hotel. Serce was waiting in the hotel lobby. Mitko was keeping a lookout from one of the cars.
At 3 p.m., a text message: “Where are you, Mama? . . . I’m coming.”
Pero arrived by bus. When he stepped off, he was alone.
His father gave the signal. The police officers got out of the car, took Pero by the arms and led him into the hotel. He wasn’t armed. He didn’t fight back, his aunt said.
“When the mother saw the son and the son saw the mother, they fell into each other’s arms,” Serce said. “They were crying.”
Mitko stroked his son’s arm as Pero embraced his mother. Mitko was crying, too, the first time that Serce could remember seeing him weep.
“The little one was a bit shocked that he had been captured,” she added.
Eventually, after praying at the hotel, Pero got into a car with his family.
In a cellphone video of the drive to the airport, Pero sits in the back seat on the driver’s side of the car, staring out the window, looking dazed. A Turkish police officer sits in the front passenger seat. He turns around to speak to Pero.
“If you had stayed longer there and you had taken the next step, you would have understood that you were on the wrong path,” the officer says. “Be grateful to Allah that you got out now.”
Pero didn’t respond.
“Who has the right to call for jihad? It’s not so easy just to call for it. There are rules,” the officer says. “What is important is the family. Never leave them behind the way you did.”
“I thought it was the right path,” Pero said.
Back home in Frankfurt
When the family members landed in Frankfurt, Pero was taken into custody and driven to the central police station with his mother. (Pero’s father had stayed behind in Istanbul because his papers to return to Germany were not in order.) The family declined to let a reporter talk directly with Pero, fearing that he would be in danger if he spoke publicly about his experiences.
Frankfurt’s police department is headquartered in a six-story, hulking building with a smooth black facade. On a cold bench in the empty lobby, Pero’s aunt, grandmother and sister sat and waited. An hour passed, and then the family’s attorney emerged. Pero wasn’t being charged with a crime, the lawyer said — just warned that intelligence sources thought he may be in danger in Frankfurt because some people would feel that he abandoned the cause and was a turncoat.
Pero and his mother came out into the lobby. It was the first time in weeks that he had seen his sister or grandmother. He gave them long hugs. Then his mother began to sob. Pero threw his arms around her and, towering over her, kissed her on the top of the head.
They walked out the door and went home.