Mothers key to preventing radicalisation

Belgian mother of a slain extremist narrates her story at Dhaka event; she now works on de-radicalisation

The Daily Star, Bangladesh/February 15, 2017

A Belgian mother, whose son was killed in 2013 while fighting for Islamic State in Syria, has called for awareness building among mothers to counter radicalism and extremism.

“I think it is important to focus on the families and mothers. Because mothers are the first and the last persons that the children, the youths, stay in touch with,” said Saliha Ben Ali, a Belgian citizen of Tunisian origin, during a programme at the Dhaka University Senate Bhaban yesterday.

The second of her four children, 19-year-old Sabri was radicalised by an extremist group in Belgium in just two months, all beyond the knowledge of the family.

Sabri fled to Syria in August 2013.

Three months later, Saliha learnt from an anonymous phone call that her son had died.

After Sabri's death, she founded a non-profit organisation, Society Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) Belgium, whose goal is to fight all forms of violent radicalisation.

As part of her worldwide awareness campaigns on de-radicalisation and counterterrorism, she is now on a four-day Bangladesh visit ending tomorrow.

She will attend events at different schools, colleges and universities and talk to law enforcement agencies as well as families of some slain militants, organisers said.

“I have to transform my tragedy into something positive and I need to help those like me just by speaking,” Saliha said at yesterday's programme titled “Campaign to Counter Violent Extremism: Learning from the Society Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) Belgium”, organised by Innovation for Wellbeing Foundation and supported by The American Centre, Dhaka.

Radicalisation of Sabri 

Once a happy and music-loving boy, Sabri became isolated and started skipping school as he was frustrated over the discrimination for being an immigrant Belgian.

He tried to join the army and firefighting force but was refused.

Then he started turning more religious and went to mosque to learn more about religion but the imam rejected him due to the language barrier. Imam couldn't speak Dutch or French while Sabri didn't understand Arabic.

After this, Sabri met some preachers, basically members of an extremist group. They told him that he needed to go on hijrah (migration) to be a good Muslim. The mother came to know this after his departure. 

“He was feeling useless and trying to find a sense of his life, and I think this is why he chose to join this group,” said Saliha.

Expressing concern over what was happening in Syria and Palestine, he often used to ask questions like “Why nobody reacts and takes action?” and “What can I do for them?”

Gradually, he stopped playing games, listening to music and watching TV. He started saying that vote and democracy are prohibited in Islam.

Then he left for the war-torn country.

“Mom, please don't be mad with me … I'm in Syria” and “Mom, please forgive me … I'm now in the Sham… I came here to help the Syrian people” -- these were two of the messages from Sabri to his mother in social media.

Around 500 Belgians have left for Syria since the civil war erupted in the West African country six years ago, The Washington Times reported, citing the findings of the Netherlands-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism on May 8, 2016.

From Bangladesh too, around 20 went to Iraq and Syria to join IS. Some of them have already been killed and a few have returned, a top counterterrorism official told The Daily Star recently.

According to Saliha, she is one of the first Muslim European women who agreed to speak to the media to make families aware of signs of radicalisation. 

“We the affected families didn't have the right to speak out; we just had the right to be silent at home and shut the doors and windows just to remain isolated,” Saliha said.

In the keynote address titled “Countering violent extremism in Bangladesh”, senior journalist Julfikar Ali Manik said combating religious extremism and terrorism in Bangladesh largely depends on law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.

Arrests are not enough, he said, adding that prisons should have de-radicalisation programmes with proper training and monitoring so that the arrested militants don't get the chance to radicalise others and they themselves get reform opportunities.

Apart from legal and security measures, there should be effective socio-political and cultural programmes to create awareness among all sections of people, said Manik, a noted investigative reporter. 

The programme was also addressed by Dhaka University Pro-Vice Chancellor Prof Nasreen Ahmad; Ann B McConnell, director of The American Centre, Dhaka; Monira Rahman, founder of Innovation for Wellbeing Foundation; and barrister Sara Hossain, among others.

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