PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — It started out as a father-and-son trip to Kosovo's western mountains in July. It turned into a months-long ordeal for an 8-year-old boy who was taken to war-torn Syria by his jihadi father and only returned following a shadowy operation involving Kosovo's spy agency.
"I thought they were going on a holiday for a couple of days," his mother, Pranvera Zena Abazi, 30, told The Associated Press in an interview late Thursday. "Three days later I got an SMS from his father, Arben, saying they were in Syria."
She was reunited with her son Erion late Wednesday after what Kosovo officials said was a "delicate and dangerous" operation that involved security and intelligence agents.
"It was a moment that I have no words to describe," Zena Abazi said, adding that authorities gave her only an hour's notice before she saw her only child again.
Extremists in Syria are apparently encouraging jihadis traveling to join them to bring children, intent upon proving they can establish an Islamic caliphate, compete with devout families. In addition to the fighters who sometimes bring their children, teenage girls and young women from Europe and elsewhere have been targeted for jihad and ultimately enlisted to help in babysitting, according to interviews with security officials and families.
Erion's case received wide attention in Kosovo after his mother made a public appeal for her son's return. A Facebook page was opened in support of Zena Abazi and she made media appearances in Kosovo and Albania, from where a growing number of youths have joined Islamist radicals in Iraq and Syria.
Details about Erion's return remain murky. Kosovo media suggested the boy was brought back by another Kosovo jihadi in return for a pardon from authorities for joining a terrorist group, an illegal act in Kosovo. Officials declined to comment on the reports.
An Associated Press reporter saw the boy ushered into a room in Pristina's International Airport Wednesday night by two men in civilian clothes, apparently agents of Kosovo's Intelligence Agency who had flown into the Kosovo capital from Turkey.
The boy's father, Arben Zena, is believed to be now in Iraq, according to Kosovo authorities who are monitoring his contacts with other suspected radicals. Abazi Zena says she has not heard from him.
It's not the first case of jihadi parents taking their children to war-torn areas.
Moroccan authorities on Wednesday detained a man traveling with his 2- and 4-year-old daughters to join the Islamic State group, the government said. The mother of the girls, who like them is French, was not with them, the government statement said.
In testimony to a French government-sponsored center against Islamic radicalization, Ilham Tarbouni, mother of 3-year-old Jana, said her ex-husband took their daughter for jihad during an unsupervised custody visit in August, although he had seen the girl only three times in her life. She said she has had no news of the girl since Aug. 29.
"I want to tell Jana that I miss her. That I was obligated to give her to her father and did it against my better judgment," she said in a video interview released last week.
In September, just a few days after Jana's disappearance, a French toddler taken to Syria by her father was returned to France after protracted negotiations.
The child's mother, Meriam Rhaiem, had publicly appealed to the French government to help her retrieve Assia and had maintained some contact with the girl's father. The 28-month-old child was released Sept. 2 and returned to France after being away for 11 months, bundled in a blanket in her mother's arms aboard a plane from Turkey with France's top security official alongside her.
There are also cases of mothers taking their children to jihad. On Friday, Munich prosecutors said two German citizens — a 20-year-old man and a 33-year-old woman, had taken the woman's 8-year-old son with them when they traveled to Syria in August to fight.
The boy was taken into care by authorities in Austria who arrested the couple last weekend.
Zena Abazi said she has not spoken to her son about his months in Syria, which has been ravaged for years by civil war.
"I want him to go back the life he had. I'm not dealing with what went on there," she said. "He wants to play football, he always did. And I would like to make that wish come true. I want to fulfil his every wish."
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.