Disenchanted French jihadis have been contacting their attorneys for advice on how to come home, following their brief stints fighting among the ranks of the Islamic State.
Sickened by what they have experienced during months of combat alongside the extremist militants in Syria, a number of recruits have begun to plan their safe passage back to France, according to French daily Le Figaro, which published a series of messages sent by radicalized French youths to their families and attorneys Sunday.
One French fighter wrote: "I'm sick of it. My iPod doesn't work out here. I need to come back!"
Another said: "Winter is coming. It's starting to get tough."
A third jihadi asked about the legal implications of his change of heart. "If I come back to France, what will happen to me?" He asked. "Is there any way I can avoid prison? What will I have to do in exchange?"
Paris-based attorney Martin Pradel told VICE News that any potential return is complicated by the fact that the plans must be hidden from Islamic State recruiters and the journey back is often "a lethal cat and mouse game" with militants.
"You have to understand that they can't just leave," said Pradel. "They are not free to go."
Pradel, who specializes in terrorism cases, says he is often contacted by former jihadis seeking legal representation. He also works with French families attempting to persuade their radicalized children to stop waging jihad and come home. Lately, he has received an influx of calls from French jihadis seeking advice on how to leave the caliphate.
"I don't ask them for their name. They just say, 'I'm in Syria. I want to come home. I don't know what to do'," said Pradel. "I don't ask any questions, I just try and advise them on how to plan their return. They are morally exhausted — they see no way out, no alternative."
A video released by Al Jazeera on Sunday shows recruiters from al Nusra Front —a branch of al Qaeda operating in Syria and Lebanon — threatening French nationals wanting to leave the organization.
Another video released by the Islamic State's main media outlet, Al Hayat, in November, shows French fighters burning their passports. The practice of seizing or destroying recruits' passports is the first major hurdle in planning a return, Pradel said.
As for why the men left France for Syria in the first place, Pradel explained: "For most of them, it was a spur of the moment decision. We're talking about radical conversions, followed by an immediate departure. It isn't planned, or even well thought out."
Pradel says many jihadis' fear being tortured by French intelligence agents upon their return — a myth undoubtedly encouraged by Islamic State officers. The men also worry about receiving a life prison sentence, he said, adding that most of them have no criminal record, and have never had to deal with French police.
"These aren't necessarily troubled young people," Pradel said of the recruits. "They don't come from troubled backgrounds."
The first step Pradel takes is to inform the militants of their rights, and the reality of legal proceedings that await them at home. They must understand that, "any return implies full cooperation with the French authorities," he added.
Returning jihadis are often forced to leave Islamic State-controlled territory the way they entered it: through Turkey. Leaving through Lebanon is much more risky, because it requires passing through Syrian-army controlled areas, Pradel said.
But, "You can't just leave Turkey on a plane without having your identity checked," he added. "Any return has to be organized via the French authorities, if only to be issued a pass."
Since there is no official framework or policy yet for dealing with returning fighters, French authorities have released very little information on this "pass." For now, returns are considered on a case-by-case basis, and anyone issued with a pass is automatically brought in for questioning upon their return. According to Le Figaro, there are currently 100 returned jihadis in France: 76 in detention, and the rest released on probation.
After returning to France, former fighters are subject to criminal proceedings, and face charges of "criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking," Pradel explains. Authorities will then determine whether or not militants took part in human rights atrocities during their time fighting with the Islamic State. Defendants are also asked to submit proof that they were proactive in planning their return and distancing themselves from the militant organization.
Pradel discounted any possibility that returning fighters could be planning to return to carry out attacks in France. Instead, he noted that terrorists like Mohammed Merah, who gunned down seven people in the south of France in 2012, and Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in May 2014, both returned to Europe secretly.
According to a June report by the Soufan Group, an intelligence agency based in New York, there are more French recruits fighting with the Islamic State than from any other Western nation.
Follow Etienne Rouillon on Twitter: @rouillonetienne