Born in Holland, with dual Turkish nationality, Omar Yilmaz had served with the Dutch army. But about four years ago he failed to be selected for the special forces. And, with the civil war in Syria gathering pace, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the West and moved there – driven, perhaps, by his Turkish family connections.
Harriet Alexander, The Telegraph
She was a blonde, blue eyed Catholic girl whose family was a pillar of the community in the Dutch city of Maastricht. He was a smiling, bicycle-riding Dutch former soldier – a man considered such an asset to his country that he was encouraged to try out for its elite special forces.
And yet the marriage of Sterlina Petalo and Omar Yilmaz was, for their families, anything but a cause for celebration.
Yilmaz, 26, was one of the most high-profile Europeans to become a jihadist, travelling to Syria to live in the self-declared Islamic State and fight on behalf of the extremists. He gloried in the teenage fantasy of war – posting a series of Instagram photographs of himself pouting at the camera on a motorcycle, amid bombed-out buildings in his combat fatigues, AK47 slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. Ms. Petalo was a recent convert to Islam, who fell in love with Yilmaz after seeing him on television, picturing him as a Robin Hood figure.
Last week their story took a remarkable twist when it was revealed that 19-year-old Ms. Petalo had returned to her home town – after her mother travelled to the Turkish-Syrian border to bring her home from the jihadist-held city of Raqqa.
She rang me and said, ‘Take me home.’ But she could not leave Raqqa without help
“Sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” said her mother, Monique Verbert. “She rang me and said, ’Take me home.’ But she could not leave Raqqa without help.”
The pair arrived back in Holland on Wednesday, said Annemarie Kemp, from the public prosecutor’s office. Clad in a niqqab, with only her eyes showing, the teenager – who has changed her name to Aicha – was photographed being driven through the town on her way to custody.
“Upon her arrival, Aicha was detained at once on suspicion of crimes threatening state security,” said Ms. Kemp
Last night, Ms. Petalo was being held in a police cell after the prosecutor, Roger Bos, ruled on Friday that she should be detained for questioning for three more days.
Ms. Verbert, 49, an administrator for BP, argued that her daughter’s flight to Syria was little more than teenage infatuation. A court will decide whether to press charges.
But the mother’s mission to bring her teenage daughter home has captivated the Dutch public and shed light on how young Europeans are being lured to join what they see as a righteous fight for Islam.
The story began early this year when Ms. Petalo saw Yilmaz on television.
Born in Holland, with dual Turkish nationality, he had served with the Dutch army – photographs on social media show a photogenic, chisel-jawed recruit standing tall in his beret. But about four years ago he failed to be selected for the special forces. And, with the civil war in Syria gathering pace, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the West and moved there – driven, perhaps, by his Turkish family connections. His uncle owns a shop in Turkey – which was later raided by the authorities.
“It’s extremely easy to get here,” Yilmaz, who like many Dutch speaks flawless English, told Sky News in a Skype interview from Syria earlier this year. “People go on holiday, they end up in Syria.”
Speaking from Idlib province in northern Syria, he described how part of his job was using his military expertise to train recruits from Britain, some of whom were teenagers as young as 16.
“We see this jihad in Syria as something holy. I’m helping in my own way,” he said.
Last month he told CBS News: “I would fight anybody. Even if it was my own father that was bombing these people, I would fight him and kill him myself. So I felt the need as a person, as a human, and, of course, as a Muslim. Because it was the Muslims that were getting crushed in Syria, that I had to stand up and do stuff.”
His words struck a chord with the teenager at home in Maastricht – the quiet, affluent Dutch city where the euro was born, and where cyclists zip through the cobbled streets.
Ms. Petalo had previously sought solace in the Bible, but then turned to the Koran.
“Suddenly she was standing in front of me in a niqqab – that was a shock,” her mother told the Dutch television program EenVandaag. “I thought, ’Girl, what are you doing?’ That went too far for me.”
Ms. Verbert had separated from her husband, Joseph “Jappie” Petalo, a tile factory worker well known for organizing local carnival celebrations, about five years previously. The couple had two daughters – Sterlina, named after her paternal aunt, who ran a nail bar in the town, and Esmerelda, 26.
As Ms. Petalo’s commitment grew, so too did her attachment to Yilmaz, by then enjoying semi-celebrity thanks to his good looks and numerous postings online.
“She was showing me photos of him, saying, ’Isn’t it good what he’s doing?’” her mother recalled. “She saw him as a sort of Robin Hood.”
Friends of the teenager grew concerned, and reported her to the authorities – which reacted by taking away her passport. But that could not stop her.
About 130 Dutch jihadists have gone to fight in Syria, with 30 already having returned and 14 others killed in the fighting, according to the latest statistics from the Dutch intelligence services.
And in February, Miss Petalo fled – using her ID card to cross Europe by train, rather than flying.
When she arrived in Raqqa, the heartland of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, she telephoned her mother. Then she broke off contact.