“A disproportionate number of young second and third generation Muslims from Western Europe are involved in global terrorism related to jihadist insurgencies in Syria and Iraq. Many of them identify neither with European society nor their countries of origin, but find an identity in a transcendental ‘nation of Islam,’” explains Fernando Reinares, an expert with the Real Instituto Elcano think tank, in his analysis of How to Counter the Appeal of Jihadism among Muslims from Western Europe.
“Governments need to train community leaders to identify and to intervene with young people at risk, as well as to improve and coordinate the efforts to counter jihadist propaganda both online and at local community level,” he advises.
Anthropologist Scott Atran has interviewed people from all continents attracted by these terrorist groups and has investigated the causes. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on the role of young people in the fight against violent extremism and the promotion of peace, he pointed out that the foreign fighters in the so-called Islamic State (IS) “are the most potent extraterritorial fighting force since World War II”.
“Three out of four people who join Al-Qaeda or IS do so through friends; most of the rest through family or fellow travellers, in search of a meaningful path in life…it is rare that parents are even aware that their children desire to join the movement,” he warns.
“Unlike the quiet, even-tempered boy he used to be, my son started to become very agitated, arguing about anything and everything. He was constantly tense and nervous. He became very withdrawn, and much more structured in his view of life. He would hide away from his family – when talking on the telephone, for example. He would spend all his time with his new friends,” Canadian Christianne Boudreau told Equal Times.
Her son Damian joined IS at the start of the civil war in Syria, before the group had the media impact it has today. “It attracted a lot of foreigners who thought they were defending what was right, because ‘the West was doing nothing’. That is what happened to my son,” she reflects.
“In some cases, it can seem like [your child] is going through a depression, because he gives up his leisure pursuits, his circle of friends, becomes withdrawn. Parent have to listen to what their instinct tells them, that something is not right. Some parents are afraid they may be overreacting and do nothing to stop them. That’s why it’s important to find an outsider who can help the families, someone objective.”
A support network
In Mothers for Life, Boudreau provides other parents with the support she could not find. “The network was set up in 2014, following the death of my son. I spent a long time looking for support in Canada, but there was nowhere to turn, no type of therapy or help for my family. So I started looking on Internet for people who might have gone through something similar and I got in touch with Dominique Bons in Toulouse,” she explains.
The coming together of Bons and Boudreau was key to the creation of Mothers for Life. “I felt, for the first time, that someone understood my pain without judging me. When I felt like I could no longer cope, I would talk to her and I would realise that, yes, I could. Then we met in Berlin, with another two mothers. We came to the realisation that we needed to remember our sons for who they were and not for the mistakes they had made. We needed to be able to talk openly. So we decided to set up a mothers’ network to support us. Daniel Khoeler – director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Studies, GIRDS, helped us to shape it, and we launched it in February 2015.”
“It [Mothers for Life] is an international network for parents who lost their sons and daughters after they became ‘foreign fighters’ in Syria and Iraq or who are caught up in a violent process of jihadist radicalisation. It is operating in 11 countries (United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom and Norway). It is the only network of this kind in the world,” Khoeler tells Equal Times.
“At GIRDS, we have trained some of these parents to become counsellors, because they are a point of contact that inspires the most confidence in the families affected. Since then, many have set up their own local networks [Hayat Canada Family Support Foundation, in Canada, Save Belgium, in Belgium and Sons and Daughters of the World, in Denmark]. Our international network of experts first of all helps these families to help others and to connect with more specific de-radicalisation programmes,” he adds.
Boudreau explains how the training works. “We do case studies that put us in the situation that one of our loved ones is at risk of joining one of these organisations in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Nigeria (Al-Shabah, Boko Haram or other groups). We provide the families with training so that they can redirect them, stop them and disengage them from radical violence.”
“Mothers are usually aware of the process of change, even when they cannot say exactly what is wrong, their instinct tells them something is not right. They know their children better than anyone, and mothers also have a unique and fundamental role in Islam. This makes them an essential gateway for early deradicalisation,” points out Khoeler.
“We are an umbrella for families, whether they are trying to progress towards their recovery or carrying out prevention and intervention tasks. Daniel [Khoeler] contributes his methodology and knowledge and I offer emotional support. We are working with the mothers, fathers and brothers and sisters of 150 families in 11 countries,” says Boudreau.
“Some parents don’t want to talk, but they do want to be in touch with others, and we help them with this process. Others have lost loved ones who have been recruited by one of these organisations. We share tools, ideas, methods of prevention, but, above all, support,” she insists.
“There is no standard radicalisation tool”
Boudreau, a mother and an activist, talks about the stigma, the shame felt by the parents of foreign fighters, of how they want to keep it a secret. Based on her own experience, she is calling for prevention at local level. “Prevention is better than intervention. Just as they talk about sex in schools so that the kids make the right decisions, so that they think critically and responsibly, they should take the same approach to extremism and radical violence.”
But what form does the process of recruitment and radicalisation take?
“There isn’t a standard approach for everyone, it depends on the ‘individual makeup’ of each person. And this is a mix of negative elements (frustration, intimidation, family troubles, racism) and positive elements (the pursuit of honour, freedom, justice and glory). These elements are brought into play through a specific ideology and personal contacts,” says Khoeler.
“In the majority of cases, the parents do not recognise the process of change: it appears in psychological waves, accompanied by high energy peaks followed by troughs close to depression,” he adds. “They try to convert others to Islam, they become more intolerant and strict, talk more about the injustice of what is happening in Syria, about the discrimination against Muslims in the West, etc. It takes a well-trained expert to translate and interpret the specific signs and to turn them into a personalised assistance plan,” insists the GIRDS director.
Reducing the recruitment capacity of these groups to the frustration and disenchantment many young Westerners feel with the societies they live in “tells us nothing about the psychological implications behind the radicalisation process, and oversimplifies it”, explains Khoeler.
“It is true that some young people join because they are frustrated and disillusioned with Western society. But there are millions who feel the same kind of frustration but they do not end up in IS. Many of the families I have worked with, whose children have enrolled with IS, come from well-integrated environments.
“Many have jobs, families of their own and a solid position in society, and were recruited by IS because of their own moral values, because they wanted to put an end to the suffering of women and children in Syria, for example, or to fight the injustice of the Assad regime. In many cases, the recruiters used Western education, based on freedom, integrity and high moral standards. Once again, you have to look at it case by case to understand the process. There is not one explanation that fits all,” adds the expert.
Wanted: emotionally vulnerable young people
For Boudreau, “the recruiters are really brilliant at their work. They seek out the most emotionally vulnerable youngsters who are prepared not to argue or question anything…Then they take their time to cultivate the relationship with them. Because the action [the armed conflict] is taking place oversees, the impact of the violence is not as powerful. The recruiters can use whatever propaganda they want to lure them. [The recruits] have no evidence, until they get there and they see what things are really like,” she explains.
“I don’t think it is extremism in general that attracts the young people that are joining the IS, but the type displayed in the media. IS has a very powerful impact and is very difficult to understand,” adds the Canadian.
With regards to the future, Khoeler thinks that “without a specialised strategy to counter violent extremism (CVE), police and military solutions will only aggravate the problem. If you put pressure on extremist groups without providing a safety valve, you will do nothing but increase the risk,” he explains.
“IS expects and even welcomes that kind of reaction. It is what they want. They have even said that we can defeat them physically on the ground, but we can’t destroy their brand with this strategy. Only CVE can do that,” he concludes.
“I understand that there needs to be security, protection, intervention by security forces, but we are not getting to the root of the problem. We need more prevention and emotional support,” says Boudreau.
“The hope is there that these youngsters can be saved from the clutches of violent extremism, but to achieve this, strong connections and emotional support networks have to be built within their closest social circles.”
For this mother, the key is to “connect” with the “social circle, and the especially the family” of the young man or woman in the process of being recruited, to “find out what the emotional drivers are behind the move towards such groups, so that they can be steered in a different direction.”