NICE, France — 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Nadine, who asked that her last name not be published, is one of many traumatized French parents who blame former Nice career criminal Omar Diaby— now France’s most successful recruiter of young French fighters to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.
The Senegalese-born Diaby, 39, moved to Nice, to what must be the prettiest ghetto (or cité) in the world, at age 7 with his family. He lived in Bon Voyage and the more notorious Ariane, drug-ridden stretches of non-descript housing towers that ring the northeast corner of this mythic resort town, better known for its glossy beachside hotels and restaurants. The town center is less than a 15-minute ride away on a new tramway and some of the cité apartments have views of the Mediterranean and Alpine foothills.
Diaby was well known to Nice police since the age of 20 for a rap sheet that included hitting and killing a pedestrian with a stolen car, jewelry store robberies in Monaco, and drug trafficking. He was in and out of jail but was apparently radicalized after a five-year stint that ended with his release in 2009. He began preaching locally as the charismatic “Brother Omsen” and showing up at local mosques, according to Otmane Aissaou, an imam at the Ariane mosque.
“He didn’t even have any real knowledge of the Koran but he criticized how we were doing things,” Assaoui told the Daily Beast. “He was a thug who changed for the worse after being in prison. He knows very little about Islam.”
Diaby vehemently denies Assaoui’s take on him and says all the imams in France lie about him and say he was radicalized in prison. He says he began to study Islam after leaving jail, while running a pizza parlor. His true talent, according to both Nice locals who know him as well as terrorism experts, was as a Pied Piper for the jihad.
“God asked the faithful to fight,” Diaby explained in the first video to reveal his face, released in late November. “So we are encouraging them, and we’re letting them know that ‘hijra’ is compulsory for them, and that living in western countries is forbidden. The prophet is clear on that subject. A Muslim can’t live among the infidels.”
Assaoui said Diaby offers French youth a tantalizing mix of “action and excitement.”
“These kids are bored and they feel disenfranchised,” Assaoui said. “They don’t see a future and they’re looking for a way out. Omar is selling something right out of PlayStation and they’re falling for it.”
Diaby came to the attention of French intelligence as a result of his involvement with Forsane Alizza, the same French Islamist group that spawned Mohammed Merah, who killed seven people, including four Jews, in Toulouse in March 2012. In 2011, authorities detained Diaby at the Nice train station and later intercepted about 30 young people who were planning to take off for Afghanistan at Diaby’s behest and another relative accused him of taking three of her young children to Syria on what he called a “Grand Voyage.” But police didn’t have enough on him to hold him & Diaby left for Senegal and then traveled to Syria.
His elaborately-produced films, a toxic brew of apocalyptic conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and radical Islamic teachings set to swelling music, continue to seduce young French people. A French group that tries to prevent youth from going to Syria, the Centre de Prévention Contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l‘Islam, calls Diaby’s videos, produced under the rubric “19HH,” the most potent piece of propaganda used by jihadists.
The films, one of which is two hours long and titled “The Story of Humanity,” are made by “OmsFirdaws Production.” That name is a variation of Diaby’s name in Senegalese but it’s unclear how a high school dropout and petty criminal could possibly produce such a film. French terrorism experts say they have no idea where or by whom the videos are actually being made.
His family says they don’t know either. “We have no information about what he’s doing over there,” said Amme. “All I can say is I’ve known him all his life and now I’m very angry with him. He’s destroyed so many families.”
Diaby told The Daily Beast he narrates the films and others on his “team” produce them.
John Robb, author of Brave New War, who worked in counter-terrorism with the U.S. Special Operations Command, calls people like Diaby “the most dangerous guys in the jihad.”
“It’s always the people doing the recruiting that cause the most harm,” Robb said. “They’re selling religious heroin to naive and vulnerable young people who see all this as a way to have a meaningful life. Like drugs, it appeals across all ethnic lines.”
It’s not easy to find out what awaits kids like Bryan who have been seduced by Diaby to travel to Syria. His mother has been able to talk to him occasionally via Skype but she said there is always someone right near him during the call who speaks perfect French and won’t allow him to say much.
Jean-Charles Brisard, chairman of the Paris-based Center for Analysis of Terrorism, said the reality for young people recruited by Diaby to go to Syria can be quite bleak.
“They’re not well treated,” Brisard said. “They’re learning religion most of the time but they’re beaten if they quote the Koran wrong or if they handle a gun wrong. The ones who have escaped and returned to France are traumatized. they’ve witnessed incredible atrocities.”
Paris-based Tunisian-French lawyer Samia Maktouf represents 20 families (only one of which is Muslim) who have lost children to the Syrian jihad. She is suing the French government on behalf of Bryan and his mother for what she says is negligence on the part of airport and border officials.
“This was a 16-year-old boy with just a backpack and an identity card, not even a passport,” said Maktouf. “He bough a one-way ticket to Turkey and nobody noticed? Nobody said anything? France is just giving these young children to Syria, letting them walk into the doorway of a war. I represent women in the middle of divorces and they get stopped at the airports all the time with their kids. But a child traveling alone to Turkey is not even questioned?”
Maktouf said none of the parents she represents fit any clichés about the kind of families who might fall prey to Islamic fundamentalism.
“Bryan’s mother stayed at home and took very good care of her kids,” Maktouf said. “There were no obvious problems. They were from a Christian background but not especially religious. What happened to Bryan could happen to anyone. He was brainwashed.”
France is known as the biggest supplier of fighters to the civil war in Syria. The CIA estimates that there are anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria who come from a total of 80 countries.
Diaby indicated at the end of the interview that American Muslims are his next target. “The Muslims there need to know that they cannot stay in the number one enemy country,” he said. “We are calling on all American Muslims to join us as quickly as possible.”