Abderakaz Cherif, from Nice on the French Riviera, told RFI how his two sons, aged 16 and 23, ended up in Syria as part of an al-Qaeda brigade fighting in Syria.
After six months of searching, he finally got a response from his youngest son on social media.
Cherif told RFI that he managed to convince his son that the war in Syria had nothing to do with religion, and that he should get out as soon as he could.
“From the moment he left I knew that I would not be able to survive this life without my son,” he told RFI’s David Thompson. “I had to get him home safely.”
“People use religion to persuade youngsters to fight,” he explained on RFI. “I did the same thing. I told him repeatedly that what was going on in Syria had nothing to do with him and absolutely nothing to do with Islam.”
“Islam is a religion of peace,” he added. “The fighters in Syria are devils who are tearing each other apart. I believe this is the message that made him decide to come home.”
Unemployed Cherif recounted how he arranged with his son, to leave his group in the dead of night and make for the Turkish border. He made the crossing last week.
“I found a hotel that was near the frontier about ten kilometres from where his group was based,” he said. “He slipped away and ran across the border on foot.”
“Words cannot describe it,” he said of the moment when he saw his young son. “From the way he looked at me, I could tell he felt like he was waking up from a nightmare. The poor boy was totally naive to the situation. He had genuinely believed he was off to protect ordinary Syrians.”
On their return to Nice the boy, who has not been named, was arrested for associating with a terrorist group and on suspicion of murder while he was fighting.
But Cherif insists his son, now 17, is innocent and needs to be rehabilitated, not punished,
for his youthful naiveté.
“He is a child who has been traumatised by war,” he said. “He needs help, he managed to get out and come back to France openly and with his father. No terrorist would have done that.”
He also hopes that his eldest son will find a way of escaping the clutches of the Islamist fighters and make his way home. But the elder son knows will face the same suspicion from the French authorities, and is reluctant to jump from the frying pan into the fire.
“He said he will come home if it works out for his brother,” said Cherif, who said the same dilemma existed for the many French citizens who left for Syria – perhaps naively – to fight for a cause and found themselves inextricably caught up in a brutal civil war led by religious extremists.
“We all have to ask ourselves the very serious question: are these French youngsters who went to Syria killers, or are they victims?”