Islamic teaching states that “paradise lies at the feet of your mother,” and a group of Western moms who lost their sons first to radicalization and then on the battlefields of the Middle East are trying to use the lesson to stop other young men from turning to terrorism.
Christianne Boudreau, a Canadian whose 22-year-old son Damien was killed last year while fighting with al-Nusrah, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, has joined forces with Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS), to form Mothers for Life. The organization functions as a support group for mothers whose children have become radicalized, as well as a podium to develop programs to counter ISIS’ slick recruitment propaganda.
“If I knew back then what I know now, I may have seen it before my son left,” Boudreau told FoxNews.com. “There are things that only a mother will notice. Maybe your child will disconnect and separate from their social group, or start saving money, whereas they never did before.
“If I knew back then what I know now, I may have seen it before my son left.”
- Christianne Boudreau
“It is only getting harder, as ISIS is encouraging recruits to hide their religion, so it is really important to pick up on other changes.”
Boudreau said her son felt for a long time like he was “wasting his life and had no direction” and that he always had compassion for the underdog, which is something terrorist scouts capitalize on over social media. For a while, Boudreau said, Damien – who was raised Christian but chose to convert to Islam several years ago – seemed to find a sense of peace and purpose in his new religion. But when news of his terrorist ties and battlefield death hit the press, Boudreau endured community backlash and a sudden stigma.
In another case, the close relative of a Syrian-American who was recently arrested on terrorism-centered charges told FoxNews.com that police put the entire family, including their young child, into protective custody for several days because they were receiving death threats.
“How can families reach out for help if they are afraid people will come after them?” Boudreau said. “That’s why something like Mothers for Life was needed. To show that parents aren’t always to blame, but that we need to do whatever we can to stop this. We need the politicians to start to listen. We need them to help with outreach and with prevention.”
Karolina Dam of Denmark, formerly of New Zealand, knows first-hand the pain of losing a son to the clutches of terrorists. Her son Lukas, who suffered from ADD, disappeared in May 2014. It wasn’t until December 29, 2014 that she learned from an online Facebook group that Lukas was a “martyr” who had been killed fighting for ISIS in Syria. She said her family is not Muslim, and said Lukas converted to Islam when he was 15.
“At the end of the day we can’t sit around and wait for the authorities to do the right thing, because they won’t,” said Dam, who is involved with Mothers for Life and has also launched a non-profit parent support network called Sons and Daughters of the World.
“Parents are alone in this,” Dam said. “They are forced to talk to ISIS members and other foreign fighters just to get information.”
She said trying to quash online recruitment is not enough, and that more action is needed.
“My son wasn’t recruited online. I know who his recruiter is, and we are aware that he is still in touch with ISIS and trafficking money.
“Why the hell is he still walking the streets?”
Mothers for Life also offers support to moms whose daughters have left their homes to become ISIS wives. Boudreau said one of them is pregnant and stays in contact with her distraught mother.
“Violent radicalization can happen to any family and it has nothing to do with background, education or faith,” Koehler said.
Mothers for Life hopes to produce more written and visual materials to build awareness. Only hours after the group, as well as GIRDS, posted an open letter on social media that used passages from the Koran to appeal for their children to come home, ISIS members tried to “dismiss” their campaign with online scorning.
Boudreau noted that the Canadian government is almost solely focused on a law enforcement response, but hopes to change this approach. She advocates working with authorities to open the avenue for foreign fighters to see their errors and return, to use them as intelligence resources and to confine them to some form of de-radicalization program, not a high-security prison.
But Rachel Ehrenfeld, founder and CEO of the American Center for Democracy and the Economic Warfare Institute, says de-radicalization programs for returning jihadis are a waste of money.
“Returning jihadists should be jailed in isolation so they don’t spread the disease,” Ehrenfeld said, though she agrees that Western governments should be more proactive in preventing radicalization.
According to the FBI, more than 200 Americans are estimated to have joined ISIS or at least tried to travel abroad to join a terrorist outfit, and many Muslim-Americans are trying to take matters into their own hands. One of them is Ahmed Mohamed; a Somali-born American who founded AverageMohamed.com, where he displays animated cartoons he’s created to “teach Muslim children how these terrorist groups are lying to them.”
“You can’t just tell them, there has to be a way to show them,” Mohamed said. “It is not just a responsibility of Muslims to stop terrorists, but it is our duty.”
Imam Taha Hassane, director of the prominent Islamic Center of San Diego, said “Government agencies are trying to do their best, but the immigrants need people from within our own faith and culture” to deter terrorist recruitment.
But Mothers for Life members say the signs aren’t always easy to detect. Jehad Serwan Mostafa, who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for allegedly decamping to Somalia to fight with the militant group al-Shabab, attended the San Diego center without suspicion.
“Jehad was often hanging around with the other young people. He used to play a lot of basketball outside,” Hassane recalled. “I was absolutely shocked to see his picture on the news connected to terrorism.”
Adnan Khan, former president of the California-based Council of Pakistan American Affairs (COPAA), says that’s why religious figureheads aren’t enough to dissuade potential recruits from joining terrorist groups. He said he’s tried to coordinate programs with federal agencies and has written countless times to the Department of Homeland Security over the past three years, with little response.
“Imams are not equipped on how to understand and really handle possible recruits,” Khan said. “There needs to be a set program. They are scholars of religion, but not scholars of violent extremism and psychology.”
(The current representative for COPAA stated that the views expressed are no longer representative of the council.) However, Khan said that as a leader of the Muslim community, he finds the lack of government response particularly frustrating, because “everyone points their finger at us when an attack happens….
“President Obama keeps talking about violent extremism, but nothing happens,” Khan said. “America is at risk. We are crying out for help with this but nobody is listening.”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay