It’s a double tragedy for parents of ISIL recruits

Researchers who study the phenomenon of young Muslims falling for Islamist propaganda, and heading for action or support roles in Syria and Iraq, say ISIL has made plausible threats to kill anyone seeking to flee. AP Photo via a militant website
Researchers who study the phenomenon of young Muslims falling for Islamist propaganda, and heading for action or support roles in Syria and Iraq, say ISIL has made plausible threats to kill anyone seeking to flee. AP Photo via a militant website

Every time an individual case leaps to prominence among the thousands of European Muslims recruited for combat by ISIL and similar groups, the media mentions the parents left behind, whether on a Welsh housing estate or in a provincial French town or Belgian city.

This is wholly predictable. Short of hard information, beyond some graphic online photographs or menacing, hate-filled tweets, reporters will have descended on family homes in search of more.

And often, distressed, uncomprehending relatives are willing to talk, to share their shock, misery and even anger. Needless to say, a parent would be less ready to speak out if they took pride in a son or daughter’s involvement in a movement that beheads prisoners of war and civilian hostages and generally sees undisciplined savagery as a legitimate military tactic.

But it is with the innocents, people who may not have been model parents but are not to blame for their children’s conversion to extremism, that our thoughts should rest. The impact on such families is doubtless similar whatever their background, except in the case of misfit parents.

Given the access Islamist fighters have to modern communications, the radicalised young people inevitably see, read or hear about the abject grief they are causing to loved ones. However brainwashed into placing a distorted vision of Islam above human emotion or family duty, there must surely be at least some passing sense of remorse or shame, especially if family life has been loving and stable.

Sadly, such sentiments cannot be strong enough to persuade many of them to return to face the music, assuming they are somehow able to get away and would be welcomed home. There is also a significant problem linked to one of these assumptions. Only the most courageous or desperate of disillusioned recruits would attempt to escape. Researchers who study the phenomenon of young Muslims falling for Islamist propaganda, and heading for action or support roles in Syria and Iraq, say ISIL has made plausible threats to kill anyone seeking to flee.

Some individuals are fortunate. As we have seen in The National’s account of Jejoen Bontinck’s safe return to the Belgian city of Antwerp, this young man has a determined, even daredevil father to thank. Dimitri Bontinck, honoured by his country and the UN for services as a soldier in Bosnia in the 1990s, went into Syria three times before succeeding in bringing his son across the border to Turkey. Jejoen, now, 19, will not know until the new year whether he must pay for his escapade with a prison sentence – he insists his aims were humanitarian but is being tried as a suspected member of the militant Sharia4Belgium group – but at least he is out of the conflict zone. If he has truly turned his back on extremism, jail may be a price worth paying for deliverance from the path of evil and back into the family bosom.

In the Netherlands, another teenager, identified only as Aicha, also faces tough questions after reportedly being rescued from ISIL by her mother, Monique. Aicha left for the Middle East in February and married Omar Yilmaz, a Dutch-Turkish fighter who was once a Dutch serviceman. They separated and eventually her mother was able, at the second attempt, to bring her daughter out of Syria.

Aicha is now back in the Netherlands and is being held in solitary confinement, after appearing in court accused of joining a terrorist organisation. If convicted she theoretically faces up to 30 years in jail but she is, at least, safely out of the war zone.

For each of these cases, there are hundreds of others around Europe where parents are not so resourceful or their sons and daughters less willing to abandon the cause they have espoused.

Think of Khalida and Muzaffar Mahmood, who built prosperous, apparently settled lives in Glasgow after emigrating from Pakistan. Now they must endure stories, many based on what their daughter Aqsa, 20, volunteers on social media, about the unyielding, vengeful woman she has become, urging those who “cannot make it to the battlefield” to carry out atrocities on the streets of western cities. Her Islam is not theirs, and nor is it that of the vast majority of practising Muslims in the UK and neighbouring countries. But, in the eyes of their privately educated daughter, their belief in moderation meant nothing. They love her and want her home; she appears to have no intention of returning.

“If our daughter, who had all the chances and freedom in life, could become a bedroom radical,” the Mahmoods said in an anguished statement after news spread of Aqsa’s activities, “then it is possible for this to happen to any family.”

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National

Published: November 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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