Why are thousands of teenage writers fantasising about terrorists?
The novel reads like a classic love story, give or take some teenage slang: a beautiful woman, a handsome man, dreams of a wonderful future. “I will protect you. I will keep all the demons of the world away from you. When you get here, you’ll be amazed by this heavenly place,” Amar tells Nesrine.
Except that Amar is a jihadi, and Nesrine is a lonely schoolgirl that he meets on the internet and talks into joining him in Syria. Both are imaginary characters in a story written by Youssra, a teenager from Mantes la Jolie in the suburbs of Paris, and posted on the storytelling website Wattpad.
On the French version of this platform, several hundred young writers have posted love stories about jihadis, some of which have been read tens of thousands of times.
Wattpad is a kind of YouTube for books, with more than 60 million monthly users across the world. Any aspiring author can post their writing, chapter by chapter, and readers can make comments. The colloquial, spontaneous writing provides a rare window into its mostly teenaged writers’ thoughts and fantasies. Stories about jihadis are juxtaposed with tales about vampires, Harry Potter characters and One Direction.
To anyone that has seen the horrors caused by Isis in recent years, it appears disturbing that teens are portraying jihadis as brave, confident fighters and the heroes of love stories. These tales give us insight into the fantasies that lead some fragile young women to actually be swept us by Isis. But what’s reassuring is that the authors never glorify Isis, and the general message of the books is one of salvation: the main character seeks to bring an extremist back to reason.
As news of terrorist attacks and pictures of their perpetrators appear frequently in the media and on social networks, “young people that are already fragile can be tempted by [jihadism], fascinated by it” explains the psychologist Jean-Luc Aubert, who has worked with young people traumatized by the recent attacks.
“In some ways, the jihadi can seem like a prince charming that sweeps you off your feet and gives meaning to everything,” said Patricia Delahaie, a French psychoanalyst. He is attractive to teenagers because he is so different from their soul-searching selves.
“He knows who he is, and he knows who you should be, too.”
The jihadi is also a reincarnation of the “bad boy,” an object of desire for young women, and a recurring figure on Wattpad. Thugs, gangsters and drug dealers all have their own corners on this virtual library. According to Ms Delahaie, part of the attractiveness of bad boys is the idea of being the person that makes them good again, but it’s also a way for teenagers to explore ideas of good and evil. Sometimes teenagers “feel like they’re bad people because they’re in the process of separating themselves from their parents,” Ms. Delahaie added.
“They want to explore badness, as a way of finding the bad within themselves.”
In the case of these writers, fantasies don’t translate into action. The authors of jihadi romances may swoon over their characters, but they also denounce the horrors of ISIS. Some even write warnings to their readers. The anonymous author of “The Other Path,” the story of a girl that falls in love with a Syrian fighter over the internet, and pretends to be convinced by his ideology so as to go to Syria and bring him home, writes: “I do not in any way endorse the extremist ideology of these chronicles. They are a way for us to understand why young people join the jihad.” Her story has been read more than 90 000 times.
And yet for radicalization experts, this fascination is not so innocent: The same fantasy of a jihadi as a courageous, manly figure is one of the factors that has led some women to travel to Iraq and Syria, explained Fethi Benslama, who co-authored the book “Jihad of Women” about radicalized women in France.
Many of the women he studied “fantasized about an out-of-the-ordinary love story, and about being heroic themselves,” he noted. They found the answer in ISIS propaganda, which glorified the role women could play as wives and mothers of jihadi fighters.
Some male recruiters on the internet have played on these desires and seduced women to join them. They have sent photos of themselves holding weapons or sitting glamorously next to a swimming pool, Mr Benslama said. And it worked: In 2015, a third of the young French people who travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS were women, according to a confidential report by French intelligence and seen by the French press.
By writing about jihadism, these young women have managed to sublimate their fantasies into an artistic form, rather than going down a more destructive pathway. Some of them say they write about it as a way to deal with fears about terrorism. “I was very touched by everything happening in the world, the terrorist attacks and the wars, and I felt the need to talk about it, and not just to my family and friends,” wrote Mareva, one young author who agreed to be interviewed by email on condition that her full name wasn’t given.
Of course, writing a novel about jihadism goes beyond just discussing it with friends and family. It also enables you to rewrite reality, with a happier ending, explains Mr Aubert. Through their fiction, these girls get to talk to jihadis, and try to help them. “Have you thought of seeing a therapist?” Samira asks Aziz, in Sourya’s story, Love of a jihadi, after finding out that his extremist tendencies are due to his painful relationships with past girlfriends.
Over the past few years, the French have become accustomed to sporadic terror attacks of varying magnitude. Having your bag checked when you enter a building is now the norm. Soldiers patrol streets and train stations. Teenagers are growing up in this climate of anxiety, and writing is a way of regaining control over the situation, said Mr Aubert.
Although several of the authors were happy to discuss their work by email, they refused to meet in person, or even to talk on the phone. They come across as shy teenagers, far more comfortable speaking from behind the safety of their screens. They mention how they love writing, and love writing about love even more.
“The source they are inspired by is just an excuse for writing about love.”
Sebastien Patrick, a media sociologist who has studied fan fiction in France, observes that romantic relationships are often at the core of this genre of writing.
Through writing, they test out scenarios, and ask readers for confirmation that their daydreams aren’t insane. “It’s a way of interacting with readers, and asking them if they understand romantic relationships in the same way.”
And so in some ways, these stories really about jihadism at all. They’re about something that, to a teenager, seems just as scary: love and sexuality.
“I’ve not lived many love stories,” Sourya, the 15-year-old author of Love of a jihadi, admitted by email. “But I want to imagine scenarios that can make readers dream.”