‘My heart says he's not dead’: Mother of ISIS recruit holding out hopeComments
"My son is not a terrorist; those who brainwashed my son, those who set up ISIS, who gave him weapons, are terrorists."
They are the words of one mother in France who lost her son to the so-called Islamic State.
Gulay has lived for the last three decades in the Parisian suburb of Creteil, a ripe recruiting ground for ISIS over the years.
The Turkish expatriate told Euronews her son, Burak, then 19, left the house one morning in February 2014 to study with friends.
The next day, he told her and father Osman that he'd reached Syria.
"I came here for you," he said.
Up to 1,700 French fighters
According to experts, people who rally ISIS's cause tend to be violent, have a track record with law enforcement and think that they're being discriminated against.
Burak, Gulay said, never fitted this profile. The youngest of three brothers, he had plans to attend university after completing high school.
He had a low-key social life — "home to school, home from school" — and was the most attentive members of the "not really religious" family at prayer time.
But suddenly his social life picked up to the delight of Gulay and Osman who believed their son was hanging out with friends. He left for Syria three months later.
According to the International Center for Counter-Terrorism data, about 900 people from France went to Syria and Iraq to join radical groups such as ISIS and Al Nusra. Figures differ, however, with the French government officially putting the number below at 698 and the Soufan group closer to 1,700.
'I will take you all to heaven'
Osman believes his son's radicalisation process started at the local mosque.
The mosque in Creteil is administered in collaboration with French authorities so in theory, it would be difficult for terror groups to recruit in them. But reports suggested recruiters scouted for potential fighters at prayer.
Osman travelled to Syria a week after his son and met with him in a small border village, then under the control of the Al Nusra group, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria. The four hours they spent together were not enough to persuade the young man to return.
He stayed in the area for another six months and was in fairly regular contact with his parents. His mother would end each call by asking him not to kill anyone.
The two parents travel to Syria once more after Burak called to inform them he'd soon be moving to Raqqa. According to the elderly man who took them to meet their son, the hotels in the Turkish border province of Reyhanli were then filled with parents trying to reunite with their children.
This time, the family only got to spend 30 minutes together and Gulay's pleading and tears fail to give them the outcome they'd wished for.
"I will take you all to heaven," Burak says instead.
'Forward to my family if I die'
The family remained in regular contact until 2017 when ISIS besieged Kobani, a city in Aleppo province.
A man from the neighbourhood who had gone to Syria with Burak called one day to deliver the dreaded news: Burak had been killed. He then sent them a letter Burak had written with the instruction "forward to my family if I die".
Gulay doesn't believe the news and neither does Osman. He wants proof and so after ISIS is expulsed from Kobani, he returned to Syria once more.
He combs through pictures of prisoners and corpses, rifles through lost passports but finds no trace of his son. He's told by local officials that the terror group had put bombs under some of the bodies left behind and that if Burak was among them, they would be nothing left to identify.
Three years later, Gulay continues to believe Burak is alive.
She told Euronews: "If he is dead, show us something, some proof. Nothing. They said only Burak is dead but I do not believe that Burak is dead.
"My heart says he's not dead, says he’s alive, says he’s somewhere else. I hope he is in the hands of good people. I hope one day he comes out from somewhere. İf he comes, I want him to stay in Turkey and never come to France."