Right now, in a conference room in Tunisia, an organization called FATE is trying to work out how to prevent the radicalization of young Muslims. FATE—Families Against Terrorism and Extremism—is not a military operation, nor an arm of the intelligence service, but a collection of small activist groups, made up mostly of the mothers, sisters, fathers, and brothers of young people who have been radicalized by ISIS.
With an estimated 30,000 foreign fighters having traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS since 2011, there is a sense of desperate urgency among proceedings.
Alongside the families of radicalized people coming together to both share their grief and try to figure out a way to fight back against recruiters, the conference's networking events and workshops host academics, figures from NGOs, and even those who've lost loved ones in terror attacks. Instead of laying blame on the families of radicalized young people, these groups want to enter a dialogue with them, to figure out what signs of extremism could have been picked up earlier. The aim is not justice, but preventing young people from running off to Syria by getting to them before recruiters do.
Karolina Dam is one of the moms who will be attending the conference. After losing her son, Lukas, to ISIS recruitment in 2014, she has rededicated her life to helping parents going through the same ordeal. When I call her at her home in Copenhagen, her passion for what FATE does is tinged with desperation. "Every time I hear another parent's story, I cry," she says. "We don't want our kids to blow up. We want them home, sleeping in their own beds. But this is our lives, this is what happened to us, this is what we're going through, and no parent should have to go through it alone."
Growing up in Denmark with Karolina, Lukas converted to Islam at 13 after making friends with some Muslim guys at work. He was autistic, Karolina says, and was diagnosed with ADD and Asperger syndrome. Islam seemed like a good fit for him: "It was structured. It gave him the same things to do every day."
Karolina says Islam showed Lukas how to be empathetic, but it also provided him with a community away from his family. Over time, Lukas fell in with more extreme organizations, joining one group with links to terrorism. When he was 18, he told her he was going to the Turkish border. Karolina didn't know exactly where he was, but she'd send him pictures of the cat in a bid to tempt him home.
In December 2014, a friend of Lukas's sent Karolina a link to a private Facebook message. "It was a link to an ISIS supporters' Facebook group," she says. It was then that she realized her son wasn't in Turkey, but in Syria, fighting with ISIS. There was a photo of Lukas with an AK-47, and the comments suggested he was dead. "I didn't know my son was radicalized until after he was dead," she explains. She still doesn't know the full story: Authorities will not release any files on his radicalization until he has an official death certificate, which is difficult to organize.
After she lost her son, a grief-stricken Karolina started Sons and Daughters of the World, an organization that aims to raise awareness about counteracting extremism, to create a secure forum where families affected by radicalization can talk without being watched. "It provides other parents with everything I would have needed when my son ran off," says Karolina. They have even helped other mothers with missing sons by searching for their boys in ISIS videos and photos in an attempt to try to identify them.
Sons and Daughters sits under FATE, which is essentially a hub for organizations like Karolina's—42 of them, to be precise, from across Africa and North Europe. I ask Karolina what FATE actually do. "We make campaign videos," she says, "to get a message out to young kids that we are tomorrow and Daesh is the past."
I've watched the videos—they're low budget and quite heavily stylized. I'm not sure they're quite rhetorical enough to counter extremist messaging, but Karolina firmly believes in them: "These campaigns are literally going to save our kids' lives," she says. "If we didn't think this, we wouldn't do it. It's very important."
The whole point of FATE, really, she says, is to pick up where authorities are failing. She tells me about another woman in Denmark who got in touch with her through the organization, with concerns from her son's behavior that he was becoming radicalized. "She reached out to the authorities and they pushed her away and said there's no problem," says Karolina. "You don't talk to a mother like that! It was very brave of her to call at all. Families are usually afraid of the authorities—afraid that they'll take their kids away. She might not call again. This is what smaller organizations and NGOs can help with."
When I ask what kind of solutions there are for kids who are becoming radicalized, Karolina suggests calling on Muslim teachings. "Most of these kids haven't even read the Quran; they don't know what's good and bad," she says. "The only thing they know is what they have been told. There are lots of things in the Qur'an I could have used for my kid—without trashing him, but to use his religion to keep him on track."
The aim is not just to help individuals dealing with extremism, but change the culture of blame that paints vulnerable young people as evil. She says it's time to stop treating them simply as terrorists, but recognize that they're sick and that they need treatment. Mothers too have been demonized for aiding ISIS—but "mothers do not send money for guns and bullets," says Karolina when I bring this up. "They send money for their kids to have something to eat."
Of course these people should be punished, she says, but she'd like to see a focus of resources shift onto capturing recruiters: "We know who they are. They help these kids cross over to Syria, and they're still walking the streets. They have our kids' blood on their hands."
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