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Leaving slums of Paris, two Muslim teens turn to waging jihad

PARIS -- The two teenage friends hardly seemed like Islamic radicals. They smoked marijuana, drank beer, listened to rap music, and wore jeans.

But the pair of French Muslims died insurgents in Iraq -- one a suicide car bomber, according to relatives who traced the young men's path from the slums of Paris through a religious school in Syria to the fight against the US-led coalition next door.

Like many young Muslims in France, Abdelhalim Badjoudj and Redouane el-Hakim did not have jobs, and relatives and friends say they grew more alienated in recent years, surrounded by secular Western culture and by what many Muslims see as a subtle bigotry among the French against Arabs.

Badjoudj, who would have turned 19 on Dec. 16, allegedly blew himself up Oct. 20 while driving a car filled with explosives near a US patrol on Baghdad's airport road, wounding two American soldiers and two Iraqi police officers. He is thought to be the second French citizen to have carried out a suicide attack in Iraq.

The body of Hakim, 19, reportedly was found July 17 after US troops bombed a suspected insurgent hide-out in Fallujah, the city west of Baghdad that was overrun this month by American and Iraqi troops.

French officials also confirmed the death of a third French insurgent, identified as Tarek W. In his 20s, he reportedly was killed Sept. 17 after operating for several months in the so-called Sunni Triangle in Iraq, where most foreign fighters are based. No other details were available.

Although the number of French-born fighters in Iraq seems small -- perhaps a dozen or more -- counterterrorism officials worry that some of the young men of mostly Tunisian and Algerian descent will return home with combat skills to wage jihad in France.

''They become like stars," Gilles Leclair, director of France's Anti-Terrorism Coordination Unit, said. Leclair confirmed the deaths of Hakim, Badjoudj, and Tarek W., and he suggested there are more young men like them in Iraq.

''We have intelligence information that some people are still present in Iraq," Leclair said. But he said ''it's too early to say we have 10, 15, 40."

Hakim and Badjoudj lived in the same northern Paris neighborhood. Both were unemployed and came from broken families.

''If he had work, this wouldn't have happened," said Badjoudj's uncle, Hicham. ''He saw no future for himself."

The uncle, who insisted that he be quoted only by his first name, said Badjoudj never knew his father, an Algerian who left his Tunisian mother when he was 3 and his brother Sabri was about 1. Badjoudj's mother -- Hicham's sister -- had five more children with her second husband, an Egyptian, and may be living in Syria or Egypt, he said.

Hicham said Sabri, 17, followed Badjoudj to Iraq a couple of months ago and may have recently moved to the northern city of Mosul after the US offensive in Fallujah.

The uncle is at a loss to explain why Badjoudj was willing to sacrifice his life in Iraq, when he could hardly speak Arabic or identify with that country's culture.

''Abdelhalim drank beer, he smoked hashish a lot," said Hicham, describing his nephew as extremely shy and quiet but ''super kind" and ''super polite."

But Hicham noted many Muslims in France and other Western countries have trouble relating to secular culture and often find it hard to make a living. Nearly a tenth of the 60 million people in France are Muslims, many of whom live in high-rise public housing slums that breed violence and crime.

''There's no work here. There's no caring father," said Hicham, 36. ''Life is tough."

Also, America's presence in Iraq and Israel's occupation of land inhabited by Palestinians are behind much of the anger among Muslim young people, including in Europe. Their anger and frustration are fanned by daily images on television of Palestinians being shot and killed by Israeli forces or Iraqi towns coming under US bombardment. Extremist and radical leaders use this anger and despair to recruit fighters for the holy war in Iraq.

Hakim, a Tunisian, was one of five children and was raised by his mother, Habiba, according to the newspaper Le Parisien. He reportedly dropped out of an apprenticeship at a neighborhood bakery and later started a sandwich shop that failed.

Hakim's family could not be reached for comment. According to the report in Le Parisien, friends and relatives described him as easygoing until he came under the influence of an older brother, Boubakr, said to be a more religious man who wore traditional Muslim clothing. Boubakr is in a Syrian jail, apparently for trying to cross into Iraq this year.

The Hakim brothers reportedly frequented the Iqra Mosque in the western Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret. Authorities closed the mosque in June and briefly arrested its members, including an Algerian cleric who is thought to have preached radical views and encouraged worshipers to pursue jihad, or holy war.

Hakim's radicalization was recent, his family said. ''He was smoking [marijuana] until six months ago," his sister, Khadija, told Le Parisien.

Hicham said Badjoudj and five or six other French Muslim friends -- all unemployed -- had gone to Syria last year and enrolled in a theology school in the capital, Damascus. All ended up in Iraq, he said.

Six months after leaving for Syria, Badjoudj returned to Paris for a visit, his uncle said. He married an 18-year-old sweetheart of Moroccan background but less than a month later went back to Syria. ''He said, 'Inshallah [God willing], I will be going to Iraq,' " Hicham recalled. ''He wanted to help the brothers, the Arabs. He wanted to be with them."

Hicham said he could not change his nephew's mind.

Leclair, of Anti-Terrorism Coordination Unit, said there is no organized network in France recruiting young Muslims to join the insurgency in Iraq. He said Islamic radicals look for recruits at places where young Muslims congregate, such as fast-food restaurants, cellphone shops, and cybercafes.

''They go to the mosque, discuss, they receive radical prayers, they hear a lot of things, and most of the time they are unemployed . . . And it's a kind of adventure," he said. ''They go because it's an honor to go."

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