Generation Jihad

Rootless and restive, young Muslims in Europe are increasingly turning to religious extremism. An inside look at the threat of homegrown militants

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The last time Myriam Cherif saw her son Peter, 23, was in May 2004, when the two of them stood at the elevator on the fifth floor of the gritty public-housing project where they lived, just north of Paris. Myriam, 48, was born in Tunisia, moved to France when she was 8 and became a French citizen. Peter's father, who died when the boy was 14, was a Catholic from the French Antilles in the Caribbean. But Peter took a different path. In 2003 he converted to Islam and became a devout Muslim. He took to wearing loose trousers and a long tunic instead of blue jeans and repeatedly told Myriam that she should wear the traditional Muslim head scarf. And then one day last spring, Peter told his mother he was heading off to Syria to study Arabic and the Koran.

At first, Peter e-mailed his mother every couple of days, sending her snapshots and news of his studies in Damascus. Last July he told her he was headed for a "spiritual retreat" and would be out of touch for a while. She heard nothing until December, when she received a brief phone call from a French government official who told her that Peter had been captured by U.S. soldiers in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

Today Peter, one of five French citizens captured by U.S. forces in Iraq, is being held at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, family members say. More than a year since she last heard from her son, Myriam Cherif is still trying to understand how, in the streets and cafés of Paris, Peter and other young Muslims like him were lured into giving up their lives in the West and pursuing jihad. "They saw aggressive, violent images on the Internet and asked questions about why Muslims were suffering abroad while European countries were doing nothing," she says. "It's like they set off a bomb in their heads."

Since 9/11, the Bush Administration has argued that the best way to prevent further attacks by al-Qaeda and its sympathizers is to fight Islamic extremists on their turf, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, before they make it to the West. But among Europeans, the suicide bombings in London on July 7 of this year, which were carried out by four British citizens, shattered any lingering illusions that the threat can be kept from their shores. In a videotaped message released last week on al-Jazeera, Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, claimed responsibility for the London attacks--the first public acknowledgment that the bombers may have received support and assistance from al- Qaeda operatives. In Europe the message was a chilling reminder that the enemy is within. Jihadist networks are increasingly drawing on a pool of young Muslims living in cities all over Europe--including many who were born and raised in the affluence and openness of the West, products of the very democracies they are determined to attack.

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