an interview with nicola benyahia
Nicola is the mother of five children. In 2015 her only son, 19-year-old Rasheed, unexpectedly disappeared. The family soon learned that he had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. He died while fighting for ISIS in late 2015.
Rasheed was an adventurous boy who loved sports, free running, and was overall very energetic and good natured. Since the time of his death, Nicola has founded a chapter of Mothers for Life, called Families for Life in Birmingham England where she offers counseling services to families who are affected by radicalization.
Operation250: With Rasheed and his radicalization, his case is a bit different in the sense that he didn’t leave many signs or clues behind. Looking back, do you think that he showed some more obvious signs which may have not been apparent at the time?
Nicola: In hindsight, you have to remember that this was a year- year and a half period of him becoming radicalized. He was quite a normal teenage boy, he was very into free running (parkour). In that period, there were some bits that when I look back I realize may have been clues, but isolated incidents, at the time really had no extra meaning.
One of the first things he asked me to do was crop his trousers, he wanted them shortened, I remember asking him, “Why would you want me to do that,” and he replied, “Oh I just want them shortened.” But when I think about it now, some of the more orthodox Islamic teachings stipulate that trousers should fall above the ankle. At the time, all I could think to myself is ‘I just don’t want him looking like an idiot.’ I am somewhat more fashion conscious, and I just thought he was going through a scruffy teenage phase as he was growing out his hair in an odd way as well. He used to be quite stylish and he would straighten it this way and that way. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he just started growing it. He said, “I just want it to be a bit longer.” And it wasn’t until much later down the line that I understood there is a more orthodox teaching that stipulates having a more uniform hair style. We used to get into arguments about his hair, about his trousers, and things like that. You have to remember that this all happened over a long period of time, a year and a half. When I look back, joining the dots together it is much more meaningful. But at the time it wasn’t.
Religiously it seems like he was moving into a much stricter and orthodox pattern, was he doing anything in his personal life, in terms of his personality and behavior, that may have signaled he was taking on a more radical ideology?
Six months before he left, he appeared to have a few issues at work and as a consequence he was put on weekly supervision. However, he had a logical explanation for his problems. He said that he had become a little bored at work but was now happy with the weekly supervision as he felt he had more structure and work aims.
At the time, he had a logical explanation, but looking back, I think it was him beginning to be dismissive of authority and particularly so here because they were non-Muslim and he felt they didn’t understand or get him. I can’t be sure what his problems at work were, whether it was a clash of cultures or work values or not, but that is what I am guessing it could have been on reflection.
And at home around you, was your relationship still the same as it had always been? Were there any changes?
Part way through the year 2014, that was when Baghdadi declared the caliphate. That’s when it came out that he was very excited about it. We were watching the news on TV and he appeared excited and quite happy about the declaration. I said to him, “You know Rasheed, we have seen this before where someone proclaims they are the leader of a nation only for it to end in disaster and chaos.” We had a little bit of a confrontation about it, but nothing too huge. I gave him my point of view and my husband gave his. We said, “We don’t know who this person is and where he has come from.” Following these conversations, when Baghdadi or the caliphate would appear on the news, he was quiet about it. I thought to myself, 'that’s a relief he must have understood and realized the truth and reality of the situation,' but really, he hadn’t.
He was the type of person who was quite excitable and naive about people and situations, he wasn’t very worldly and would not always instantly think things through, and he was very reactive. He would just react to something and get very excitable, he was quite an adventurous boy, and it was easy to ignite that in him.
For example, he came home from work one day and he was telling me about some news that his friends had shared with him. He said “Basically you get these energy drinks okay? And you buy into this scheme and you pay so much a month to them, and what happens is you get a big return. People who do this have cars and houses….” He went on and on about it.
And I said, “Rasheed, I know I appear a bit long in the tooth and old, but take it from me that I have seen this before, it’s a pyramid scheme and it is a bit of a scam.”
“He would just react to something and get very excitable, he was quite an adventurous boy, and it was easy to ignite that in him.”
And he says, “No mama, no mama it is legit I promise you!” He just got so excited about it. I told him again that it was a scam and he just went off. He was quite upset.
Three days later I picked him up from work in the car, and he came into the passenger seat and he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I looked at him and asked, “Oh what was that for?”
He said, “I am sorry mama you were right, after what you told me, I made more inquiries and realized it was a bit of a scam.”
That’s just how his personality was, he would get so so excited about these things then realize his mistake. Honestly the same thing happened when he went to Syria, when he went there and realized what it was like it started to dawn on him slightly that he had made a mistake. But it was too late.
Do you think he wanted to come back?
Right before he was killed, I think had he lived a little bit longer he would have more clearly voiced that to me. When I noticed the change the last week or two of his life (Nicola is referencing phone and texting conversations she had with Rasheed while he was in the Caliphate), he was very clingy with me and he told his sister, “If I am wrong about this, ask God to guide me away from this.” And we all know what they are like when they are in trenched in these ideologies, everything is so black and white with absolutely no grey. That showed me there was some doubt in his mind.
That’s very tough, because knowing that, even if he were interested in getting out and leaving Syria it is nearly impossible.
I know, it’s not easy. Actually, I agree, it’s basically impossible.
And now the worry is, that just because we don’t hear about people going to Syria, it does not mean that the problem has gone away, and radicalization has been reduced. If anything it is just happening on our own soil behind closed doors which is even harder to monitor. Because when people leave at least you can generally monitor how many, and who is going. Now that ISIS is calling for foreigner fighters to stay home, how do you begin to find all of these people? Where do you start really?
The other issue is that ISIS has been using videos with some very young children for their propaganda in the recent months, and that is a huge difficulty. These videos are of course made to attract youth, and they do so quite purposefully, because how are you supposed to wrap your head around the fact that a child could carry out an attack alone? It’s so dangerous and children are being radicalized at such a young age.
Their marketing is just getting made for younger and younger audiences. You see these videos with 12-year-olds in the caliphate doing horrible things, and you can imagine some younger children watching these videos could possibly be disillusioned by them.
Again, their strategy is that they know nobody is going to look at a child and be a bit suspicious at all. The danger is that they really are getting younger and younger. If we see a child acting odd in public, we are not necessarily going to become suspicious that a child could potentially carry out a terrorist attack. It’s also not something that as human beings we can necessarily contemplate. A child potentially carrying out any atrocity? Kids act odd a lot of the time, who would think a child’s odd behavior could be radicalization? For so long it has been such a far-fetched idea.
We have a very very long way to go, in terms of people simply openly talking about it and accepting that there is an issue. I still think many people believe that this is being made to be way bigger than what it is. They think it is just being blown out of proportion, they don’t realize the risk that is posed to all of our children.
I know a lot of people are big advocates for teaching children about ‘true’ Islam and countering any 'extreme thoughts' with counter ones straight from the teachings that are much more realistic or mild in nature. I don’t necessarily agree with this because you can get into a tit for tat with your child, and that really is not solving the issue. I did that exact same thing with Rasheed, he would say this and I would say that, and it would go on and on because they don’t want to lose the argument and it becomes a power thing. It does no one any good.
In actuality, it normally isn’t the ideology that has them worked up, it is something else going on behind it.
With Rasheed, around the time of his radicalization he was looking for another job. He really wanted to get this other job he was applying for because he was quite unhappy at his old one. I specifically remember getting a text with a sad emoji saying, “I did not get the job.” At the time, I had no real worries because he already had a job and he just wanted a better one. But really, I didn’t appreciate how important this was for him. If I had known what was going on and how much this was affecting him I would have put much more work into making sure he found a different job.
“I didn’t have the tools or the knowledge to help him or even to be aware of the fact that there was a huge issue.”
During this whole thing, it turns out he was in the process of radicalization, I think for him it wasn’t so much the ideology, it actually turned out he was quite unhappy, he was seeking more ambition, and I had no idea that was going on behind the scenes. I didn’t have the tools or the knowledge to help him or even to be aware of the fact that there was a huge issue. Had I had known I could have helped him. Unfortunately for me, the recruiters were far ahead of me, they were giving him the answers he needed.
So you definitely agree with the sentiment, that especially in regards to children, radicalization is usually far more emotionally driven than it is driven by the ideology itself?
Definitely, I don’t really always agree with these organizations that try to convince us as parents that we need to know more about our religion and the teachings so that we can have the answers for our children. I think yes, it is important to have a foundational understanding, but with a child it really isn’t the ideology that is the issue, the young person is usually seeking to fill some sort of void, and generally it is an emotional one.
Saying all of this, it seems like in Rasheed’s case that he may have been predisposed or in a position that would have made him more susceptible to radicalization. He seemed very adventurous and excited, do you think as a counselor and CVE expert that generally most children who become radicalized are predisposed to be?
I think that ISIS has done a very good job of studying the different types of people, they know how to hone in on the vulnerabilities of different personality types. I am guessing that with my son they manipulated his yearning for adventure, and maybe they will find a loner who is looking for a lot of friends and a sense of belonging and identity. My son wasn’t like that at all, he had many friends of all ages, he was a very popular boy. They [ISIS] hone in very well on each personality type and they match their tactics to the needs that they see in the child. I think there are certain types of people and they know exactly what to give them depending on their circumstances.
“They [ISIS] hone in very well on each personality type and they match their tactics to the needs that they see in the child.”
And in terms of profiling, or guessing who might be vulnerable I think you really have to be careful with that. Because when you start profiling you miss this complete cohort of other people who may be equally just as vulnerable, they just don’t have the usual signs. And when we forget about them, ISIS certainly won’t. They will not forget them.
Backtracking a little bit, were the police ever able to figure out exactly how Rasheed was radicalized or is it still unknown?
No, they were never really able to figure out exactly how it happened. I think it was a combination of people he met in person and the internet. I think that some people can only be radicalized on the internet but many really need that human to human contact. For some they really need to make that connection with another person to really go through the process. I think for Rasheed it was a combination of both. I think he was certainly introduced to it by somebody…. And then when it got started and he acquired more of an interest I believe he was pointed towards the websites, and all of those other things that are out there [on the internet].
“When you start profiling, you miss this complete cohort of other people who may be equally just as vulnerable, they just don’t have the usual signs. And when we forget about them, ISIS certainly won’t. They will not forgot them.”
When he left they [the police] took his computer, and we were really hoping that we could get some answers from what he may have left behind on it, like the user history, generally they can start to piece it together. But they came back later and said his hard drive was missing and that he had taken it out.
We were talking to him about it while he was in Syria and we said, ‘you know the police came and they said your hard drive was missing.’ He said he actually had two hard drives and he took them both out.
Two weeks before he went to Syria my daughter suspected something was up with him so she looked through his computer and found nothing. The reason being that he never left the hard drive in, well he left one in and took the other out since he had two.
Potentially you could have caught him then?
Yes, my daughter thought there was something wrong but didn’t actually know what, which is why she checked his computer, he had two hard drives so we couldn’t see his history and what he was really up to, but again he would have been instructed to ensure to cover his tracks.
Often you don’t hear of youth covering up their tracks that well, could Rasheed have been covering up for a group of people who were also planning to travel?
Absolutely. Rasheed never lied, and he really wasn’t sneaky. He was never deceitful. He was actually always quite nervous about travelling. In fact, a few weeks before [he left] he was asking his sister how trains work and ‘how do you catch a train?’ He claimed he was going to London to visit a friend but he was so nervous about just traveling on a train. He wasn’t very street wise, I think they [the recruiters] very much instructed him in what to do and how to cover his tracks.
How crucial do you think the internet is in the radicalization process?
Very. In order to be radicalized fully you need to have that input constantly, you can’t just have one person on the ground be your only relationship. It’s almost as if it needs to be present and happening 24/7. They need those images and rhetoric accessible at any time and to be fully brain washed it’s almost as if they immerse themselves in it.
You have mentioned before that when you have spoken to certain children about violent extremism they will say things to shock or to get a reaction out of you. How would you best suggest someone go about speaking to a child about violent extremism, particularly if the child can be very excitable about the topic?
Kids like to shock anyways, they like to see the reaction of the adult. It is important when speaking to them to remain very calm, and not be reactive. Ask them not intrusive questions about their thinking but more what about what is going on with them as a person. If you react you might just fuel them and the situation.
You need to have a sense of them as an individual, and know them, what they are about, less about what the specific words are that they say.
How would you suggest to start that conversation with a child? How can parents, in your opinion, get that ball rolling?
Trust is a big issue with young people. They want to know that you trust them and that you respect their thoughts. Particularly do not be dismissive about what they are saying because a lot of young people feel like their views aren’t heard and their thoughts don’t count because ‘adults know better.’ I think that’s really important to listen to what they are saying and value it.
I wouldn’t say try to be their friend because honestly, they already have friends and they just want respect and guidance from an adult and to know that someone cares about them and wants to listen to what they have to say.
Especially when they have problems they feel quite invisible and they can feel quite valueless.
Trust between a child and parent is very crucial. Sometimes it is the openness of that relationship that can prevent a child from doing something that is unsafe. Often it seems like parents have a hard time with striking a balance between showing their child that they trust them but simultaneously monitoring their behavior, particularly online. How do you suggest parents try to strike that balance?
I have run into this with all of my kids while they were growing up. What I usually say is that I trust you, but I don’t trust other people who may be out there. So, I am not telling them that I don’t trust them or their views, or what they could be doing, but rather I don’t trust those who may come and try to manipulate them.
Choosing to be completely naïve and deciding to not look at anything is no good. When one of my children was 15, it turned out she was having a conversation with someone that she did not realize was a much older man. This person was almost trying to groom her. She couldn’t really tell, but me and my husband could look past it and underneath at what was really going on.
We had to then open this dialogue with her and start a conversation to teach her about how people would try and manipulate her.
What would you tell a parent who may have caught their child in the early stages of grooming or radicalization?
I think that keeping it within you is not a good option. If you know that you have a problem that is really bigger than yourself, then you should share it with somebody. You need to speak to other people who have experienced it as well because they can guide you and give you that insight.
It’s also important to speak to other parents. I have younger daughter who is still a teenager, and her generation and how they use technology is so different from my older children. I am honestly still trying to adapt to how she uses social media. If you share information with another parent you trust and who knows what you’re going through (someone from a network like Mothers for Life) then they can give you their thoughts and tell you you’re not alone which is very important.
What are your thoughts on having children who are radicalized/ groomed working with counselors who don’t have expertise in the area? Should parents try to stay within known radicalization networks if possible or can a more local counselor be helpful as well?
I really think that in order to successful, especially if the child is entrenched in the ideology, then you really need someone who has expertise and knows how to handle these cases.
If this isn’t possible, I think it would be better that the child do go see a counselor and maybe work out some of the issues emotionally that may have attracted them towards the radicalization. But you have to be careful because some counselors might be quite reactive if they hear that your case is about radicalization. My family had a poor experience with one after Rasheed had died and the situation ended up causing us quite a lot of distress.
Operation250 would like to thank Nicola for taking the time to speak with us and offer forward her expertise.
Nicola’s organization, Families for Life, is committed to supporting and empowering families to combat radicalization through counselling support, and better awareness through community outreach work.
If your child or someone you know could be going through radicalization, please do not hesitate to reach out to Families for Life for guidance: http://www.familiesforlife.org.uk/mission-statement.html