“Do you know how much it hurts to raise someone and watch them grow and suddenly they’re just gone?” says Ahmed Muthana, 57, a retired electronics engineer in Wales whose two sons Nasser, 20, and Aseel, 17, have gone to fight for Islamic State.
Like any father of faraway children, he can easily slip into a reverie, talking about the studious older son who was accepted into medical school and his more rambunctious and athletic younger brother.
“The little one (Aseel) wanted to be an Olympic swimmer and an English teacher. Nasser liked science and wanted to be a doctor,” said their father. “Nasser was always primarily concerned with his studies and Aseel liked to play around.”
Then, without notice, the young men vanished.
“Nasser told us he was going to Birmingham, and the next thing we know, he is in Syria,” he says. “Aseel said he had a test and suddenly he’s in Cyprus.”
The Muthana family were thrust into the spotlight this week when Ahmed Muthana told journalists he believed Nasser was one of the Islamic State fighters in a video showing beheadings.
Camera crews camped outside the small white semi-detached house near the centre of the Welsh capital Cardiff. The father now says he was initially mistaken: although his sons are fighting with Islamic State, they were not among the men shown in the video beheading Syrian soldiers.
That was enough to persuade the camera crews to leave. But it has not relieved his sorrow or altered his verdict on his sons, who are dead to him.
“They committed suicide when they did what they did.”
Hundreds of young men from Western countries are believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State fighters who have seized swathes of those two countries, carrying out mass killings that have shocked the world. They leave behind families like the Muthanas, struggling to understand.
In France, journalists descended on Tuesday on the Normandy village of Bosc-Roger-en-Roumois, population 3,000, to film the house with the well-manicured lawn, where Maxime Hauchard, 22, grew up a stone’s throw from the local church.
His uncle, Pascal Hauchard, an unemployed truck driver, said the family were suffering. His grandmother was in shock.
“He had an ordinary childhood in an ordinary household,” his uncle told Le Parisien daily. “What was it that pushed my nephew into this barbaric madness?”
French police believe Hauchard, a Normandy native who converted to Islam as a teen, is one of the militants in the beheading video. They are at a loss to explain how he changed in the space of a few years from an adolescent described by neighbours as “friendly and easygoing” to the grimly determined radical Islamist in military fatigues.
In a Skype interview he gave to French television from the Syrian town of Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital, in July, Hauchard explained that he became a Muslim on his own after immersing himself from the age of 17 in radical Islamist material on the Internet.
He was currently preparing to take part in a mission: “We look forward to death with joy”, he said.
French officials say they have had an eye on him since 2011 when he started frequenting radical Islamist circles in the city of Rouen, 130 km northwest of Paris. Before leaving for Syria in August 2013, Hauchard had travelled twice to Mauritania in western Africa for Koran instruction.
“He came back from Mauritania disappointed, considering that the teachings were not radical enough for him,” Paris public prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference in the French capital on Monday. He told friends and relatives he was going to Syria for humanitarian work, but that was a cover for plans to join the fighters, Molins said.
Back in Wales, Ahmed Muthana still wears the traditional jelabiya robe and red keffiyah headscarf of his native Yemen and remains passionate about the Middle East. He speaks animatedly about the corruption and harsh governments that made life difficult there.
His British-born boys were religious — Aseel memorised the entire Koran as a youth, learning eight pages a day — but showed no sign of interest in war until the day they disappeared.
Did they have any “jihadi inclinations”? Their father just laughs. The only war they saw was in video games.
“The only inclinations they exhibited were Xbox and Playstation inclinations. They exhibited Super Mario inclinations, I can tell you that.”
If he could see them now, what would be the one thing he would tell them?
“If you have a father and a mother you do jihad for them, not this,” he says.