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People Are Fleeing a Small Town in the South of France to Join the Islamic State

At least five men from Lunel, France, have been killed fighting in Iraq and Syria in recent months, and as many as 30 people may have left to join the Islamic State.
December 11, 2014, 9:45am
Imagen vía Flickr

Two families in the French town of Lunel received confirmation this weekend that two of their relatives were killed waging jihad along the Syria-Iraq border.

The families of the deceased men confirmed the news, which was first published Tuesday by French daily Midi LibreSome family members had reportedly travelled to Syria with the men who were killed.

Encore deux jeunes de — Midi Libre (@Midilibre)9 Décembre 2014

The circumstances surrounding the deaths remain somewhat unclear, with conflicting reports over where the men died. In a statement released December 9, Lunel mayor Claude Arnaud said the men were killed in Iraq.

But according to David Thomson, a reporter for French radio station RFI, the two men died in Syria during clashes between Islamic State militants and Bashar al-Assad's army at the Deir ez-Zor airport in eastern Syria. According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, the Syrian army recently wrestled back control of the airport following a deadly battle.

Deux jihadistes français de l'— David Thomson (@_DavidThomson)7 Décembre 2014

The town of Lunel, which has a population of around 27,000, has often found itself in French headlines lately.

In October, Midi Libre reported that four men from Lunel were killed close to the border with Lebanon in a bombing by the Syrian army. Three of the deaths have since been confirmed, but there is speculation over the fate of the fourth man, who may only have been wounded in the attack.

A group of 15 to 30 people, including women and children, reportedly left Lunel for Syria over the past several months. Some of them grew up in Muslim households, while others had recently converted to Islam.

Karim, 28, and Hamza, 19, are Lunel's latest martyrs. Nicknamed "the Chinaman," Karim owned a hookah lounge in Lunel, and Midi Libre described him as someone who liked to party. At some point, he may have joined a circus troupe, but reportedly became radicalized about one year before his departure. His pregnant wife accompanied him to Syria. Hamza, characterized as a mild-mannered young man with a passion for sports, came from a devout Muslim family. His father was the former president of the Lunel mosque.

Despite the recent wave of residents departing for Syria to join the Islamic State, French intelligence officials reportedly claim that Lunel is not suspected of harboring an organized jihadist network. Philippe Moissonier, a member of the city council, responded to Tuesday's news by saying that his town was "not a hotbed of jihadists."

Lunel is an economically depressed town, where the unemployment rate is 20 percent higher than the national average. In a statement released Tuesday, Lunel mayor Claude Arnaud said that locals "rightly feel a strong sense of injustice over the fact that their town is being stigmatized."

"The flight and the death of these young men is a problem that affects the country and the international community as a whole," he said. "It's a problem that requires a global response." Arnaud called for prompt action by the French government.

Following the first four deaths in October, the local mosque had released a statement, denying "all assumptions and rumors that the Lunel mosque has initiated or is encouraging a network of jihadis planning to fight in the Syrian conflict or in any other conflict."

Follow Etienne Rouillon on Twitter @rouillonetienne

Photo via Flickr