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Trail of Terror: Paris to Iraq

The journey from France to Iraq for one French teenager

Producer Steve McCarthy traveled throughout the Middle East for NBC's Lisa Myers documentary, Trail of Terror: Jihad in Iraq.  Witness this fascinating look into a world rarely seen and barely understood in the West.  Here is Part 3 of 3:  Inside Paris

We rushed over to the housing project the Cherif's lived in. It wasn't like the projects I've been to in Brooklyn, New Orleans or Chicago. It was institutional but clean, painted and litter free.

We arrived in her apartment and quickly set up, fearing she would change her mind again. We started the interview. Nancy translated. For someone who was nervous about doing the interview, she really opened up and spoke to us for more than two hours.

She told us her story. She emigrated from Morocco as a young girl. Her father fought with the French Army in World War II and received a medal. Peter's father had died in a car accident when Peter was young so Peter really looked up to her father. He wanted to join the military when he graduated high school.

Madame Cherif said Peter was a typical Parisian teenager. He went to the movies, went dancing with his girlfriend, and drank beer. When he left for the military he said he wanted to become a peacekeeper. But while in a parachute exercise, right near the end of his training, he was severely injured in a jump. He injured his back and legs and came home in bad shape.

She told us how his girlfriend encouraged him to look for work and he did odd jobs like pizza delivery for a year or two. Madame Cherif really liked his girlfriend. (We would interview her the following day.) 

Peter then began to ask his mother about her religious beliefs. He said young men from the neighborhood were asking him whether he was a Muslim, telling him he should fast during Ramadan etc. His mother thought exploring spirituality might be a good thing for him.

The next thing she noticed was a change in his dress and his pulling away from his girlfriend. He then would study all hours of the night at the Mosque and the hostel around the corner. He was exhausted. She says she became worried.

In the summer of 2004 Peter announced he was going to Syria to study Islam. He said Farid Benneyatou had encouraged him to go and gave him the name of a school to attend.

Madame Cherif says she had a bad feeling about Peter going to Syria. But he told her it was simply to study and that he would stay in touch. She claims that he saved money from his disability check and left in July. He was very good about contacting her on line and calling often - for the first few months. Then she noticed the calls were less frequent and he often seemed distracted - like someone was listening to their conversation. Soon, there was no contact at all.

Madame Cherif took to the streets looking for any of Peter's friends. She says she ran into Bennyattou one day but he avoided her. She went to the police. Nothing.

Then in the fall Peter's girlfriend got a cell phone message from Peter saying he was all right - tell my mother not to worry. The girlfriend looked at the country code where the call came from and checked the internet and found it was Iraq.

Peter's girlfriend was interesting. I interviewed her the following day in Buttes Chaumont Park. She did not want us to reveal her name or show her face. She is Jewish and her parents do not know she went out with Peter Cherif. She also had cold feet when we are all set up in the Park. Karim talked to her and convinced her to do it.

She said that their relationship was "a symbol of peace." She was kind of emotional and clearly still in love with this guy. She told the story of a confused man who even though he was probably forbidden to go out with her, he couldn't completely break off with her.

'Karim began to tell Bruce about his two sisters who lived in the USA. He said they and their kids are assimilated - they've become Americans. He then began to tell Bruce about how he scored very well on his school boards, but could not get a job. Distorting his face and practically in a rage, he told Bruce "this face will never be French - I was always be a Muslim man."'

— Producer Steve McCarthy
After Madame Cherif and Peter’s girlfriend both realized he was in Iraq, they did not hear from Peter for several months. Madam Cherif was paid a visit by the French National Police sometime in January of 2005. They informed her that Peter had been captured by American forces in Falluja. He was stopped at a checkpoint and taken into custody unarmed, according to Madame Cherif. He was first taken to Camp Bucca, then eventually to Abu Ghraib.

Bennyattou was arrested by French Authorities. He was charged with helping several men, including Peter Cherif, go to Jihad. His lawyer told our producer, Nancy Ing, that he denies any wrongdoing.

We had our story in Paris, thanks to Nancy and the young men she hired as our guides, Karim and Mehdi. We may have learned more from those two guys, however, than any experts we interviewed about young Muslims in France. At one point Mehdi and I went to shoot something and left Bruce and Karim in the van. Karim began to tell Bruce about his two sisters who lived in the USA. He said they and their kids are assimilated - they've become Americans. He then began to tell Bruce about how he scored very well on his school boards, but could not get a job. Distorting his face and practically in a rage, he told Bruce "this face will never be French - I was always be a Muslim man."

We took them out to lunch to say goodbye and they told us how they enjoyed working with us. Mehdi said they very first thing you said to us was “Thank you for helping us out with our story.” They told us that they worked for French TV for more than a month and one person said that to them at the very end of the project. No one would eat with them in the cafeteria. No one bought them coffee.

We hugged them goodbye. A few weeks later Paris began to burn. I watched the pictures on the news and thought about Karim and Mehdi. 

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