2 May 2016
through photos on her mobile phone, Saliha Ben Ali stops at a picture of her
son, Sabri, as a three-year-old sitting on Father Christmas’s lap. Santa’s
white-gloved hands envelope Sabri’s small torso and that of the little boy
sitting to his right. Both lads stare straight ahead, looking slightly
bewildered. “To think, they were the only guys who were scared of Santa Claus
that day,” Ben Ali recalls. “Now both of them are dead.”
in Syria aged 19, fighting for Isis, sometime between August 2013 and 8
December that year, when an unknown man telephoned Ben Ali’s husband to tell
them he had been killed. She is still haunted by the 10-second phone call in
which the man said “congratulations, your son is a martyr”.
boy with whom Sabri shared Santa’s lap as a toddler and later went to school
with him in Brussels, died in Paris on 13 November 2015. He was the Jihadi who
detonated a suicide bomb outside the Stade de France football stadium during
the murderous night of attacks.
stunned when Sabri did what he did,” Ben Ali says. “I saw the signs before he
went that something was wrong, that he was being manipulated, but there was
nobody to help me. Then when I saw what Bilal did, I simply could not believe
mother, Fatima Hadfi, has described her 20-year-old son as having had the
temperament of “a ticking time bomb” in the weeks before he blew himself up.
But she was as unsure as Ben Ali as to where she might turn for help.
she knew of what her son had done was when she saw his image on her television
screen two days after the attack,” Ben Ali says.
44-year-old Belgian social worker – “even with a job like that I couldn’t save
him”, she says – is sitting in a workshop on family-based intervention in
Berlin, which is an introduction to her becoming a family counsellor to help
others whose relatives have been drawn into the jihadi radicalisation process,
to try to win them back.
is a very underestimated part of counter-terrorism,” says Daniel Köhler, who is
running the course. One of just a handful of experts in the field anywhere in
the world, he founded and directs the German Institute on Radicalisation and
Deradicalisation Studies (Girds) in Berlin. “Family counselling is one of the
most effective tools … nothing is a stronger source for creating a living counter-narrative
to radical ideals than the deep attachments and emotions harnessed in a family.
Even jihadi recruiters are unable to touch that.”
pioneering approach, built on years of experience working on countering
far-right extremism in Germany, is often described as a soft method. How
favourably it is viewed by policymakers at any given time depends on current
events, Köhler says. After high-profile attacks, such as those in Paris and
Brussels, accusations abound that deradicalisation programmes do not work and
governments and the public move towards more repressive measures, he explains.
there is no concrete way of measuring the success of his approach but he knows
first-hand just how much call for the methods there is.
helped establish a nationwide counselling programme in the Netherlands, and was
struck by the demand there was for the network even before it was up and
running. “Even as it was being set up, the team was dealing with very relevant
high-security cases, there was just no time to waste,” he says.
describes his organisation as a bridge between families at risk and a whole
network of social workers, teachers and security agencies, “a neutral, reliable
agent that the family can contact at any time, that can give them the tools to
recognise radicalisation and react to it, without feeling they’re in the role
of snitches”. He says he will inform security services in high-risk cases,
often when the family requests it, but believes prevention and intervention
have a vital role to play in counter-terrorism.
workshop in a communist-era prefab in Berlin, Ben Ali shares her experiences
with two other mothers.
Boudreau’s son Damian Clairmont, 22, left his native Canada for Syria to fight
alongside Isis in late 2012. She heard of his death via Twitter in January
2014. Karolina Dam, a New Zealand-born Danish citizen, lost her 18-year-old son
Lukas a year ago when he was killed in the Syrian border town of Kobani during
a US-led coalition airstrike.
who formed Mothers for Life, a network of mothers who have lost their children
to Jihadi battle groups, now counsel other families who want help to bring
their relatives back from the brink, adamant that no other parent should go
through what they have.
outlines the importance of taking a tailor-made approach to each case,
invariably involving a young person who is in the process of being recruited by
a Jihadi group. He has repeatedly seen how such groups try to create conflict
within a family of someone they are targeting.
He gives an
example of a family he helped, where the son, a convert to Islam, was showing
increasing signs that he was being radicalised and repeatedly sought to provoke
his family and create conflict. “The son came home one day to find his mum
drinking a glass of wine and listening to Mozart. Concerned about her chances
of entering paradise, he told her she’d burn in hell for that,” Köhler recalls.
went back to the jihadi group and recounted the incident, to be told that his
mother was an infidel who would never understand his faith. “Suddenly, the
mother drinking wine, in the context of the jihadi struggle for good versus
evil, is put on a par with the US bombing Iraq, and over time the group managed
to distance the son completely from his family.”
Ben Ali can
immediately relate to his account. “This is exactly what they did with us,” she
tells the group. “They used the fact that I am Shia to drive a wedge between
us. My son would say to me: ‘Please, Mum, don’t pray like that anymore.’ I’d
say: ‘Like what?’ ‘Like Shia.’ When he went to Syria the first call I got from
him was him saying: ‘Mama, please don’t stay Shia. They are not proper Muslim.’
I assured him I would find my own way to Jannah [paradise], but that I would stay
talks of the importance of families looking for a mediator, such as an Imam
within the community to whom they can turn. But in a poignant moment, Ben Ali
speaks out. “It’s easy to say, but it’s not easy to do. I looked for an Imam in
Belgium who would mediate between me and my son, but they just said to me:
‘What are you worried about? He wants to go and help his Muslim brothers. He’s
practising Islam like we all should be doing.’”
If she knew
then what she knows now, she would have “locked him in a room to keep him
safe”, she says.
In cases of
people who have left to join jihadis in Syria or elsewhere, the chances of
getting them back are slim, Köhler says. “Maybe 5%.” So the key is to stop them
going in the first place. He recalls “night-time conversations with mothers and
sisters calling to say a son is on Skype from Syria, his father is talking to
him in the next room, and our job is to try to keep him chatting”. Köhler says
the longer the dialogue can be kept up – talking about the family pet, fond
memories of family life – the higher the chance is to save them.
Köhler’s work is done on a pro bono basis, with the counselling often done
online, mainly from his Berlin bedsit, at all hours of the day and night.
Funding is tight and he is constantly being asked by government agencies from
the UK to the US, who invite him to outline his methods, to justify the value
of what he does.
plain to me that the key to a lot of counter-terrorism lies within the circle
of family and friends,” he says. To back this up he cites recent research
showing that even in cases of terrorists who are believed to have carried out
operations alone, family and friends were in the know about their intentions to
commit the act almost three-quarters of the time.
Ben Ali is
still not convinced she could have stopped her son, but she does feel empowered
by the idea that she may be able to help prevent someone else’s family from
being torn apart. “That’s so important to me,” she says, glancing on her phone
screen at a black and white portrait of herself and Sabri. “Although I’m not
naive enough to think we’re not going to lose lots more of our boys and girls.”