Failing to spot how Rasheed became radicalised is the biggest regret of my life
BIRMINGHAM (England) • I gripped the phone, trying to make out the words on the crackling line. There was a moment of silence before the voice at the other end spoke: "I'm sorry, but your son is dead."
It was the call I had feared for months. How was I going to tell Rasheed's sisters that their brother, a fighter for the so-called Islamic State, had been killed in an air strike somewhere on the Syria-Iraq border? How would I answer their questions? I had none myself. Nor any body to grieve over. All I wanted was to hold him for one last time and say goodbye.
Rasheed was born on April 26, 1996, in the town in Wales where I had lived for most of my life. I was brought up an Anglican but converted to Islam in my late teens; my new faith gave me solace and meaning after a difficult childhood. The man I later met and married was also Muslim, from Algeria. Life as members of a Muslim minority in a small provincial town was not easy, so we moved our growing family to Birmingham.
Rasheed was a happy, excitable boy with a zeal for nearly everything. He had big, green eyes and a smile that radiated across his face. He could be mischievous, playing pranks on his sisters, who would scream and chase him around the house in protest. This only gave him fits of laughter. It was a noisy household, a little crazy at times, but this was my family and my children. I loved them, and we were contented.
Birmingham - Britain's most multicultural city, with a mix of white, Asian, Somali and Arab communities - seemed a good place for our children to feel integrated. Despite the typical challenges of growing up in an inner-city area, Rasheed was a straight-A student. He went to college for a while but then signed up for an apprenticeship in electrical engineering. He seemed to flourish and would talk about how he wanted to set up his own business.
Early in 2014, things began to change. My husband and I were having marital difficulties, and Rasheed began to withdraw. My funny, light-hearted boy slowly turned into an aloof 18-year-old. He grew out his sleek hair into an unruly mane. He had worn faded jeans and hoodies, but now he chose loose jogging pants with a traditional long tunic.
Rasheed even insisted I shorten the hem of his trousers, so that they'd sit above his ankles. Being a fashion-conscious mother, this grated on me. But it also bothered me because I knew it was a look favoured by those who adhered to strict interpretations of Islam.
Rasheed had been in the habit of attending the local mosque with his father. It was a moderate mosque, serving both first- and second-generation immigrants from Asian and Arab countries. But Rasheed began to grow impatient with the older, more cultivated attendees at this mosque and sought out a younger congregation at another one known for its more conservative teaching.
He had been a rather lazy reader, but Rasheed became avid, bringing home Islamic literature by authors I'd never heard of. He also started fasting more - outside the Ramadan norm. This caused tension because it meant absenting himself from family meals.
With our relationship already strained, I didn't push the issue because I didn't want another reason for an argument.
I cannot bring Rasheed back. But I have found solace in my work of helping other families with experiences like mine to process theirs. We need a place where families can feel heard and understood, and talk without fear of prejudice, judgment or shame. It's in the building of trust between families, communities and governments that we can find the resilience we need to defeat terrorism.
It was a fraught year, and I was distracted with the ups and downs of our marriage. My husband and I eventually worked through our differences, but Rasheed withdrew further. As the months passed, he seemed only more drained and preoccupied, as if the effort of keeping it together was too much.
At times, I felt I didn't recognise him anymore, but then I'd spot some flash of his old self. I felt hopeful that Rasheed was still there, underneath the teenage angst. Finally, in December, I thought daylight had returned. Rasheed suddenly became more relaxed and upbeat. He began hanging out with his old friends again. I felt relieved: He'd overcome it, whatever it was.
One day, Rasheed left a gift on my pillow: a diamond necklace with a note that read: "To Mama, No matter how much gold and how many precious stones are used, it's never enough to show how precious you are to me. Love, Rasheed." I had my son back.
Only later did I realise that this change was anything but a recovery; it was sad and sinister instead. Rasheed had entered the phase of radicalisation when a person prepares to leave. It's similar to when a depressed person decides to take his life; his mood can seem to lift with the decision, lulling family and friends into a false sense of security.
I now know that Rasheed's gift was his way of saying goodbye.
Friday, May 29, 2015, started out like any other day, but it was the last time I'd ever see my son. There were no kisses. Not even a note. He was just gone. Rasheed walked away from his life with us with just the clothes on his back, leaving behind everything he knew.
Full of apprehension, we reported his abrupt departure to the police. As the police conducted their investigation, a cloud hung over us. We understood why they had to question us, but we felt the weight of their suspicion: Did we know more than we were saying? This only added to our guilt that we should have read the signs better and somehow been able to stop him.
The police asked us to view surveillance footage from the airport of a young man preparing to board a flight for Turkey. As I stared at the grainy pictures, there was no doubt. It was Rasheed.
I veered from numbness to rage. How could he have done this to me?
After 10 distressing weeks, Rasheed finally contacted me via WhatsApp. He said he was in Syria. Once I heard that, I knew I had to prepare for the worst.
But I also had to make a choice. I could hold onto my anger at Rasheed for the decisions he'd made and run the risk that he'd never contact me again. Or I could try to stay calm and keep our relationship alive in the hope that he might ultimately see sense. I chose the latter course.
Occasionally, there seemed a ray of hope. In one conversation with his sister, he said: "If I'm wrong about this choice that I have made, pray to God that I'm guided away from it." Was he having doubts? Was this his way of asking for help, a way out?
As I communicated with Rasheed over the following months, through phone calls and texts, I tried desperately to win the battle for my child's heart and mind. I clung to the bond we'd once had. The boy I'd raised was gone, yet when we spoke, he never stopped calling me Mama.
One day, he told me awkwardly that a senior Islamic State leader had proposed finding him a jihadi bride. He spoke of his nervousness at meeting the young woman and the idea of marriage. He asked what I thought. What could I say? Despite everything, he still wanted his mother's approval.
He and his group lived under constant fear of air strikes, after which they'd have to search for survivors among the rubble. He told me how they were forced to watch public beheadings, which served as a stark warning for anyone considering desertion. He never told me about the things he was called upon to do - his phone calls were monitored - but when his father probed, he said one time that he had been sent out of the Islamic State's eastern stronghold, Raqqa, to "visit Bashar Assad". We took this to mean he had been involved in fighting against Syrian government forces.
I knew Rasheed could be killed at any moment, and I grappled with the anticipatory grief. There is no parenting manual for this.
Then I got the call.
Since Rasheed's death, I've combed through every detail of every memory, searching for clues for what made him leave home to fight in Syria. What had I missed?
The clues were difficult to decipher; their contexts always allowed for other, perfectly innocent explanations. In my quest for answers, I have met families across the world who have experienced the same problems with identifying warning signs. Quite frequently, there is some previous history of mental health trouble, so parents see an increase in agitated behaviour, heightened anxiety or social isolation through that prism, rather than as signs of radicalisation.
In Rasheed's case, there was his altered appearance and his decision to attend a different mosque. With hindsight, I should have questioned more his distancing of himself from his usual social group - and, possibly, the watchful eye of his father. Naively, perhaps, I had passed off the changes in Rasheed as his exploring and forming an identity away from his parents. It was the biggest mistake and regret of my life. But ask any parent of teenagers: Would you have done better?
I cannot bring Rasheed back. But I have found solace in my work of helping other families with experiences like mine process theirs. We need a place where families can feel heard and understood, and talk without fear of prejudice, judgment or shame. It's in the building of trust between families, communities and governments that we can find the resilience we need to defeat terrorism.
•Nicola Benyahia is the founder of Families for Life, a non-profit organisation focused on deradicalisation and support for families.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'My son, the radicalised militant'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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