Mothers of Intervention

After recruiters lured their sons, grieving parents take to the front lines of anti-radicalism

After recruiters lured their sons, grieving parents take to the front lines of anti-radicalism
Above: Saliha Ben Ali’s 19-year-old-son Sabri was killed four months after traveling to Syria.

Sabri knew his mother would never let him enter the bloody chaos of Syria, so he invented a wedding to go to instead.

A 19-year-old from Vilvoorde, Belgium, he traveled first to Turkey in August 2013, then crossed the border with Syria to join his newfound “brothers”; he never elaborated on the group’s allegiance. By the time his mother, Saliha Ben Ali, discovered his room empty the morning of his departure, he was already on his way to joining the ranks of some 6,500 Europeans designated as foreign fighters in Syria. She subsequently found a wrinkled gray djellaba — the traditional robe he said he would wear at the wedding — hidden under his bed.

Sabri — who took the nom de guerre Abu Turab, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions — later told his mother that he had found his mission “taking care of the sick and children orphaned” by the civil war. Ben Ali, while acknowledging her son’s radicalization, hoped he wasn’t fighting for a group responsible for brutalizing swaths of the country.

His disappearance would lead his mother to her own mission: helping spearhead a national campaign aimed at deterring young men from violent ideologies — a journey that would see her feature in a French anti-radicalization video to be aired nationwide and sign what was called a mothers’ charter at a meeting in Vienna.

But before turning to the plight of others, her energies were devoted to saving her son. A long, painful conversation on Facebook between mother and son ensued over the course of six weeks, in which they exchanged more than 2,000 messages and she begged him to come home, often three times a day. “It was my way of getting through the day,” she said. “So I could continue to talk to him.” In October he asked for money. His parents’ refusal was the last message in the chain. Two months later, her husband received a phone call from an unknown acquaintance of their son in Syria: He had died as “a martyr,” the man said.

It took just 20 seconds to learn about his death, but understanding more about why he went to Syria would take a lifetime, she told Al Jazeera.

“My life project today is to try to understand why our children are obliged to go and die to feel useful,” she said. “That’s my life question.”

“I couldn’t accept the way he died. That was too unjust for me,” she said.

Top: Saliha Ben Ali’s living room at her home in Schaarbeek, a municipality in Brussels. Bottom left: A picture of her son, Sabri, who died in Syria, stands on a table next to her desk. He's waving in the frame, "as if he were saying goodbye already," Ben Ali said. Bottom right: Ben Ali holds up the djellaba Sabri said he would wear to a wedding. (Click to enlarge images)

So she joined Les Parents Concernés (The Affected Parents), a support group that meets weekly in a modestly furnished room in Molenbeek, a municipality of Brussels, where its members hold emotional and often guilt-ridden conversations about their sons’ departures.

Ostracized by their communities and feeling ignored by politicians, the group provides moral support to mothers and fathers who feel abandoned by friends and the government.

“Neighbors said we raised our children badly and that we didn’t teach them the principles of Islam,” Ben Ali said. “The group helped me because I could talk with people who suffered through the same things. I knew they wouldn’t judge me, because we were all in the same situation.”

The group was co-founded by Chantal Dubois — a pseudonym she asked to go by to hide her identity from her son. A convert to Islam, he left in 2012 to go to Syria, where he is believed to be today.

Started by Dubois and one other parent in 2013, Les Parents Concernés has since morphed into a larger movement of about 20 mothers and fathers who demand a voice in the fierce debate on how to fight extremism as well as request legal, financial and psychological support from the government to help their families cope with the trauma of their children leaving for Syria. It is one of many such groups that have sprung up in Europe, North America and other regions targeted by recruiters of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

“In the beginning you think it happened only to you, but when you talk to other families, you realize that it’s not your fault. It’s a recruiter, a system, networks. It’s a lot of things,” Ben Ali said. “It could happen to anyone.”

A mother’s digital lifeline to her son

Facebook provided the only means of contact between Saliha Ben Ali and her son, Sabri, after he left the family home in Belgium for Syria. Over the course of more than 2,000 messages, he provided scant details of his new life. But the posts allowed her to keep a channel open and convey her feelings to a son she felt had been taken from her.

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A picture of Sabri’s sister sent by Ben Ali elicits a response that she sees as Sabri drawing a line between his past and present beliefs. He has made it clear in his posts that he has no intention of returning home. The comment about the operation, which Sabri told his mother he had in Syria to remove a cyst on his back, gives a glimpse into his new life.

*Note: His comment referred to a cyst on his back that he told her was removed in Syria.

your princess
Yes I remember
Hamdoulah now we don't pray like we used to
I just bought some pure honey
I use it on the place where they operated on me.*

Ben Ali said that over the course of six weeks of online conversation, she often found it hard to put her feelings into words, filling the space of their online silence with emoticons instead.

I love you
Don't let go of islamization

Sabri gave few details of his day-to-day existence in Syria and was evasive when his mother asked when she would see him again. Ben Ali said “Mamanayo” is a term of endearment her children used for her.

* Note: Maghrib is the penultimate prayer of the day.

What do you do during the day?
Nothing, I go to the city to the market.
I can't come to you?
Inshallah, one day.
But now I need to go there. Maghrib.*
Soon I hope to see you just one single day.
All right. Goodbye.
Goodbye. Kiss. Mamanayo
I love you.
And I even more.

The Facebook posts have been translated from the original French.

The group has campaigned for months, joined demonstrations, lectured at schools and implored politicians to take their appeal seriously. On May 27 a “first victory for us parents,” was achieved, Ben Ali said. The Flemish Parliament adopted a resolution with various recommendations the group put forward — including establishing a hotline staffed by parents and others for social workers, parents and teachers to ask for help or signal worrisome behavior and having group members speak at schools as a cornerstone of the government’s prevention program. The resolution also recommends offering psychological support to relatives of fighters, rehabilitating those who have returned (both in prison and outside) and establishing a program to train new imams who speak Dutch and French, as the lack of those language skills has rendered many powerless against the more sophisticated online messages of recruiters. While the resolution is nonbinding, the major parties endorsed its findings, increasing its chances of implementation by the government.

“It’s the first time that politicians gave us the floor, listened to us and accepted many of the things we asked them to adopt,” Ben Ali said.

“Our testimonials are like the points of arrows that will pierce your heart. If we go and talk to youth, we know what we talk about, because we live it in our flesh,” she added.

Martine, who also asked that her real name not be disclosed, is one of the mothers deployed to schools to talk to students in a bid to deter others from following the route her son took. In February 2015, she received a text message saying that her son was killed in an attack on the airport of Deir Ez-Zor in Syria. He reportedly joined ISIL about a year before.

She, along with Ben Ali, channels her grief during classroom talks at primary and secondary schools in and around Brussels. There she answers questions from students ages 11 to 18. “What’s jihad?” they ask. And “Why didn’t you stop your son from leaving?”

Martine, a member of Les Parents Concernés, lost her son in Syria in February last year. (Click to enlarge images)

Martine said she is driven by a desire to “discourage youth and explain to them the difference between the discourse that’s coming from the recruiters and the truth.”

She characterized the typical ISIL recruiters’ spiel as a tale spun on promises of jobs and glory, to which teenagers looking to flee unemployment can fall prey, only to become “cannon fodder” on the front lines.

“They’re not telling them that they’re going to die — that they never tell you,” she said.

In an attempt to counter ISIL’s allure, Martine’s message centers on trying to instill a sense of self-worth in vulnerable teens, encouraging them to finish their studies to improve their chances of employment. Youth unemployment in Belgium is currently about 16.7 percent. About a quarter of unemployed people in the country are the children of immigrants, according to government statistics. A February survey found that 2 in 3 temp agencies discriminate against immigrants.

Martine’s son, an 18-year-old high school dropout who told his mother his Arab surname did not appeal to employers, was lured by recruiters from radical groups who said they did not care about his lackluster resume.

“We push them a bit, saying, ‘Finish your studies and you’ll get a job,’” Martine said she tells students. It’s true that you’ll have to prove yourself twice as hard as the ‘100 percent’ Belgians, but you’ll have the same value as them. That’s the message.”

Since last summer, no new recruits have left Vilvoorde to fight, according to Fatima Lamarti, a city official who has worked closely with Ben Ali and other parents on prevention. The trend appears in line with a slowdown in the flow of recruits from Belgium. No other Western European country counts as many fighters per capita in Syria.

Per capita, Vilvoorde, where Sabri grew up, supplied more foreign fighters than any other municipality in Belgium. (Click to enlarge images)

Ben Ali recalled how sharing her story helped one mother become aware of the telltale signs her son was slowly disengaging from his family, including turning off music while driving, removing photos from his walls, hanging out with new friends, dropping out of school and changing the way he dressed. While these could have signaled many troubles, such as depression or drug or alcohol abuse, in his case and in Sabri’s, they were indications that the young men were radicalizing. With Sabri (whose surname has been withheld at his mother’s request), other indicators of what she described as his “indoctrination” included a newfound dedication to physical training sessions at night and more time spent on social media with friends in Syria.

With help, the mother was able to steer her son away from that path and toward college, Ben Ali said.

But recruiters continue to be successful elsewhere. About 40 people have left for Syria from Belgium since February, according to Pieter Van Ostaeyen, an independent Belgian researcher who closely tracks recruits’ movements on social media.

Dubois said she has counseled about 20 people about their children over the past two years. She fields phone calls from worried parents and social workers from her hospital bed in Brussels, where she is recuperating from a knee injury in a shared room with an intermittent Internet connection. She is growing exhausted and desperate for news of her son. Nearly three years after he left Brussels, she longs to know whether he is still alive.

“I dream only of that, of going online and him telling me he’s fine. That’s all I hope,” she said.

Her involvement in the formation of Les Parents Concernés came as she grew ever more frustrated trying to get answers from state officials, who she said blamed her for being a bad mother.

Disaffection because of what parents see as a lack of state assistance in finding information about children who have left to fight resonates in neighboring countries and those further afield.

Fighters in Syria originating from Western Europe

Country Estimated number of fighters Per 1 million residents
France 1,200 18
Germany 500–600 7.5
United Kingdom 500–600 9.5
Finland 50–70 13
Spain 50–100 2
Netherlands 200–250 14.5
Sweden 150–180 19
Austria 100–150 17
Denmark 100–150 27
Belgium 482 40
Italy 80 1.5
Norway 60 12
Switzerland 40 5
Ireland 30 7

In France, from which more than 1,200 youths have left for Syria, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, Dominique Bons founded Syrien Ne Bouge … Agissons, (a “si rien” wordplay to mean “if nothing moves … let’s act”) to confront what she says is the French government’s inability to stop the flow of recruits. Both her son and his half-brother were killed in Syria in combat in 2013.

In Canada some 100 people are believed to have left to joined ISIL and similarly ideologically driven groups, according to the center.

Christianne Boudreau, the mother of Damian Clairmont, who was killed in Syria in January last year after joining ISIL, partnered with the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, based in Berlin, to form Hayat Canada, a family counseling and outreach program that, like Les Parents Concernés, offers support to the relatives of departed youths and works on prevention strategies.

“If families know to go for help, then it’s easier to do an intervention if you have that assistance,” she said. “If our kids are aware that these ideologies are wrong before radicalization starts, they themselves will be able to make the decision to pull away before they even go down that path.”

In March, Boudreau, Ben Ali, Dubois and Martine, along with nine other mothers, from countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom and Germany, were invited by the nonprofit Women Without Borders in Vienna to formulate demands to politicians in a mothers’ charter. The document calls for mothers’ inclusion in security policy meetings, the establishment of mentorship programs for vulnerable youths and tailored training on how to prevent sons from leaving.

“The more numerous we are, the more weight we have internationally,” Martine said. “If we each stay in our corners, we won’t have influence except on the national level.”

While the problem is relatively new in Europe, the fight against radicalization is an ongoing one, and others who have had to contend with the problem in conflicts closer to home are sharing their experience on the issue with their European counterparts.

Chantal Dubois, a co-founder of Les Parents Concernés, says her son left for Syria three years ago. (Click to enlarge images)

Mossarat Qadeem, an expert on nonviolent conflict resolution and the founder of the nonprofit Paiman Trust, has been training mothers since 2007 near Pakistan’s volatile border with Afghanistan on strategies to prevent their sons from joining the Taliban. She shared best practices in January at a Dutch nonprofit in Rotterdam, from which dozens of recruits have left for Syria. Mothers are key partners in the fight against extremism, she said, since they are often the first to know when something is wrong with their children.

“The international community in the beginning was skeptical,” she said. “It’s a soft power that she’s using to convince her own son not to become an extremist.”

“When she knows something wrong is happening with her son, she should be in a position to have an impact psychologically on her child,” she added. “You need to have a counternarrative to convince your son that the path they have chosen is wrong.”

Boudreau and about a dozen other mothers internationally have adopted that tactic by publishing an open letter on social media on June 3 to their sons and daughters, asking them to return from Syria and Iraq and respect their mothers’ wishes, based on writings from the Quran.

“Even if you think death will give you that ‘better’ life, remember that even the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘Paradise lies at the feet of your mother,’” the group, Mothers for Life, wrote on Facebook.

“By leaving us against our will to give up your own life and take those of others, you have put our struggle, pain and honor under your feet and walked over it.”

We mothers from seven countries who have lost their children wrote an open letter to those in Syria and Iraq, to other...

Posted by Mothers for Life on Wednesday, June 3, 2015

At a Flemish Parliament hearing in March, about two months before it adopted the resolution against violent radicalization, Ben Ali raised another issue, which she warned would present itself to European policymakers as the Syrian war rages on: the children of recruits.

“Kids are born over there. If they would come to Belgium one day, will the grandparents have the right to take them in here, in our country?” she asked.

Left without a chance to say goodbye to their sons, Martine, Ben Ali and Bons made a trip in May to Kilis, a town in Turkey on the border with Syria, where their sons crossed into war-torn territory.

“I don’t have a photo, no body. It’s a way for me to start mourning,” Martine said.

Ben Ali took a suitcase with her, packed with her son’s clothing, which she donated to Syrian refugees.

But left out of the bag of castoffs were clothes she could not part with: her son’s favorite Adidas sweater and a striped jersey, which she now sleeps in. Also left at home was the gray djellaba she found hidden under his bed.

“When you’re pregnant, you have pain, and afterward you have a baby that’s there. But when your baby dies, you have pain, but you don’t have anything,” she said.

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