Mothers Of ISIS Recruits Fight Their Own Battles Back HomeJulia Ioffe
In Calgary, between the soccer practices and the hours at her accounting job and the potlucks with the neighbors, Christianne Boudreau spent every spare minute watching Islamic State videos, her nose pressed up against the computer screen.
She sat in the basement of her middle-class home in her middle-class suburb, a bare room that once belonged to her eldest son, Damian, and watched men posturing with big guns like teenagers. She watched firefights. She watched executions. But Boudreau barely registered any of the bloodshed. She was focused on the faces behind the balaclavas, trying to spot her son’s eyes.
In Copenhagen, Karolina Dam was wild with fear. Her son Lukas had been in Syria for seven months. Three days earlier, she received word that he had been injured outside Aleppo, but she was convinced that he was dead. Sitting alone that evening, nervously puffing on a vaporizer, she couldn’t stop herself from sending a Viber message into the ether. “Lukas,” she wrote, “I love you so much my beloved son. I miss you and want to hug and smell you. Hold your soft hands in mine and smile at you.”
There was no reply. A month later, someone wrote back to her. It wasn’t Lukas.
"What about my hands hehe" 1
Dam had no idea who might have gained access to her son’s phone or Viber account, but she was desperate for information. Trying to stay calm, she wrote back: “Also yours, sweetie, but mostly Lukas’s.”
The person asked, “Can you handle some news?”
“Yeah, honey,” Dam wrote. A few seconds, and then the response.
“Your son is in bits and pieces.”
In Norway, Torill, who asked that her last name not be used, learned of the death of her son, Thom Alexander, from the recruiter who had sent him to Syria to fight. She wanted proof, so her daughters, Sabeen and Sara (not their real names), met the recruiter in the Oslo train station. He casually flipped through some photos on his iPad until he arrived at the image meant for them: a photo of Thom Alexander shot in the head with one eyeball hanging out of its socket.
When she got the news, Torill simply lay down. She hardly moved for a week. When she finally summoned the strength to take a shower, she removed her clothes and faced her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She found that she looked exactly the way she felt: “Broken, like a vase.”
In Brussels, Saliha Ben Ali, the modern, European-born daughter of Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants, was at a humanitarian aid conference when she began to feel wrenching pains in her stomach. She hadn’t felt that kind of pain in years. “It was like when you have a baby and this baby has to come out,” she says. She went home early and cried through the night.
Three days later, her husband received a phone call from a Syrian number. A man told them that their 19-year-old son Sabri, their boy who loved reggae and chatting with his mother about world events, had died on the same day Ben Ali had fallen ill. She realized those pains in her stomach were the inverse of giving birth to Sabri: They were her body telling her that her child was dying.
These women are just four of thousands who have lost a child to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Since the Syrian civil war began four years ago, some 20,000 foreign nationals have made their way to Syria and Iraq to fight for various radical Islamist factions. Over 3,000 are from Western countries. While some go with their families’ blessing, most leave in secret, taking all sense of normalcy with them. After they’ve gone, their parents are left with a form of grief that is surreal in its specificity. It is sorrow at the loss of a child, it is guilt at what he or she may have done, it is shame in the face of hostility from friends and neighbors, and it is doubt about all the things they realize they did not know about the person whom they brought into the world. Over the last year, dozens of these mothers from around the world have found each other, weaving a strange alliance from their loss. What they want, more than anything, is to make sense of the senselessness of what happened to their children—and, perhaps, for something meaningful to come from their deaths.
In April, I visited Christianne Boudreau in Calgary, and she told me how hopeful she had been when Damian discovered Islam. At 46, Boudreau is still vaguely girlish, with a slender nose and bright, probing brown eyes. Her first husband left the family when Damian was ten, and the boy retreated into his computer from a world that exasperated and excluded him. When he was 17, he tried to commit suicide by drinking antifreeze.
Shortly after his release from the hospital, Damian told his mother that he had discovered the Quran. Although Boudreau had raised him Christian, she welcomed his conversion. He got a job and became more social. “It grounded him, made him a better person,” she recalls. But by 2011, Boudreau noticed a change in her son. If he was visiting and his new friends called, he would only answer the phone outside. He wouldn’t eat with the family if there was wine on the table. He told his mother that women should be taken care of by men and that it was acceptable to have more than one wife. He spoke of justified killings. In the summer of 2012, he moved into an apartment with some new Muslim friends right above the mosque in downtown Calgary where they all prayed. He became a regular at the gym and went hiking with his roommates in the wilderness around the city. At the time, the conflict in Syria was in its infancy, and all Boudreau saw was her often-troubled son going through another phase, one she hoped he would outgrow. In November, Damian left Canada, telling his mother that he was moving to Egypt to study Arabic and become an imam. To Boudreau’s distress, he quickly fell out of touch.
On January 23, 2013, Boudreau was home from work nursing a bad back when two men knocked on her door. They told her they were Canadian intelligence agents. Damian was not in Egypt. He had traveled to Syria with his roommates and joined the local branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra. After the agents left, Boudreau says, “I was physically ill.” In the days and weeks afterwards, the only thing she could think to do was to scrounge around jihadist websites, searching for her son. “How sick and twisted is that?” she says.
Most young people who run away to join radical groups in Syria make takfir—that is, they sever all ties with non-believers, including their parents, who stand in the way of their jihad. But, starting in February, Damian called his mother every two or three days, often while he was on watch. “You can hear all the noises in the background,” Boudreau says. “You can hear people yelling at each other in Arabic.” Once, Damian told her there were planes flying low, which he said meant that they were about to drop bombs. He began to run while Boudreau was still on the phone. Mostly, though, Damian was careful about what he told his mother, and she still doesn’t really know what he was doing there. Every possible scenario turns her stomach.
By spring 2013, their conversations had become excruciating. “You try to convince them to come home and you beg and you plead, then you try to have some normal conversation,” Boudreau recalls. “Then you start begging and pleading again.” She asked Damian how he would feel if his half-brother Luke, who was nine at the time and loved Damian like a father, went to Syria. Damian replied that he would be proud. “That’s when I realized that my son disappeared, that there was somebody new that’s in his body,” Boudreau says. She tried putting Luke on the phone, but he would only rock back and forth and cry, asking, “When are you coming home?” until Damian became enraged. Eventually, Boudreau says, “The ‘I love yous’ stopped, the ‘I miss yous’ stopped.’” And then, so did the calls. She would later learn that around this time, the Islamic State had broken away from al-Nusra and Damian had gone with ISIS.
They last corresponded in August, when Damian contacted Boudreau using a new Facebook account. In their exchange, she is pleading and tentative; Damian is formal, condescending, and painfully adolescent.
We all still miss you very much and love you very much as well
Everyone is still hurt that you would leave us all and put yourself at risk while we guess every day whether you’re alright or not. It makes it very, very difficult as a Mom to watch all her children go through the heartache as well as my own…The thought of never seeing you again or holding you again, has broken my heart in pieces. I guess you’ll never understand because you’ll never be a mother.
Damian replied that afternoon. He is eating well, he tells her, he has mastered Arabic, he is in line for a wife and a house—these are the things she should focus on.
I do miss you all as well, but as you may have assumed, nothing has changed in terms of my faith, my intentions or my current situation.
As for how you worry about me and love me, it is known to me. These are not new pieces of information.
On the evening of January 14, 2014, a reporter called Boudreau, alerting her to a tweet that said Damian had been executed by the Free Syrian Army in Haritan, just outside Aleppo. As everything began to blur around her, Boudreau held on to one concrete task: She needed to tell Luke before he saw it on TV. She took him to his psychologist’s office so she didn’t have to do it on her own.
Late at night on January 30, Luke posted one last message in the Facebook thread. It said:
I miss you and wish you were never killed.
After Damian’s death, Boudreau felt that she was constantly on the verge of losing her mind. She cried all the time; she couldn’t sleep. “Every time I closed my eyes, it was just too quiet,” she says. She had to hold herself together for Luke, Damian’s half-sister Hope, and her stepdaughter Paige, but, she says, “I felt so lonely and dark.”
There was only one person who seemed to know what she was experiencing. Shortly before Damian died, Boudreau had made contact with Daniel Koehler, a German expert on deradicalization. Koehler, who is based in Berlin, used to focus on helping people leave the neo-Nazi movement, but in recent years he had also started working with Muslim radicals and their families. After Damian’s death, Koehler stayed in close touch with Boudreau, trying to help her understand what had happened to her son.
What Boudreau had witnessed was a classic radicalization process, Koehler told me. Its phases are remarkably similar whether the person is joining a sect of religious extremists or a group of neo-Nazis. First, the recruit is euphoric because he has finally found a way to make sense of the world. He tries to convert those around him—and, in the case of radicalized Muslims in recent years, to make them care about the suffering of Syrians. The second, more frustrating stage comes when the convert realizes that his loved ones aren’t receptive to his message. This is when the family conflicts begin: arguments over clothing, alcohol, music. At this point, the convert begins to consider advice from his cohorts that perhaps the only way to be true to his beliefs is to leave home for a Muslim country. In the final stage, the person sells his possessions and often pursues physical fitness or some kind of martial training. As his frustration mounts, his desire to act becomes overwhelming, until he starts to see violence as the only solution.
Six months after Damian’s death, Boudreau visited Koehler in Berlin, and he introduced her to three other mothers whose children had been killed after joining extremist groups in Syria. They had all brought photo albums and shared memories of their sons. They discovered similarities in the stories of how their children had been radicalized. One of the women’s sons, Boudreau learned, had been killed in the same town as Damian. Talking with the other mothers made Boudreau feel “like this black cloud finally started disappearing,” she says. Koehler told me he had wanted these women to see that “it’s not a unique thing in the universe that struck them down, that they couldn’t have done anything.”
After she returned home, Boudreau threw herself into activism. If what had befallen her family was possible, she realized, it could happen to anyone else. With Koehler’s help, she founded two organizations—Hayat Canada and Mothers for Life—to help the parents of radicalized youth. She travels around Canada speaking to teachers, students, and police departments about how to spot signs of radicalism in one’s friends and relatives, and what to do about it. She is a constant presence in the media. “We’re not educating our kids,” Boudreau said as we sat in her kitchen, her smoker’s voice raspy and urgent. “We educate our kids about drugs, sex, alcohol, bullying —all these other topics and how to cope with it, but we’re not educating them about this.”
Koehler told me that there are usually two groups of people who are good at getting through to young radicals and starting them on a path to reform: former radicals and mothers. “The mother is extremely important in jihadist Islam,” he explained. “Mohammed said ‘Paradise lies at the feet of mothers.’ You have to ask her permission to go on jihad or to say goodbye.” He says he has dealt with fighters who desperately try to set up one last Skype call with their mothers—either to say farewell or to convert her so that they can meet in paradise. An Austrian NGO called Women Without Borders is starting “mothers’ schools” in countries battered by Islamist extremism, like Pakistan and Indonesia, to teach mothers how to keep their children from being radicalized. The group is now building five more mothers’ schools in Europe.
And, with a few exceptions, mothers are the ones doing this work. In the families of children like Damian who convert to Islam, the father is often not in the picture. In the families of Muslim immigrants to the West, the fathers are often present but unengaged. Magnus Ranstorp, a Swedish expert who co-chairs the Radicalization Awareness Network, a European Union working group, says that Muslim men often feel emasculated by Western society and fade into the background. “The mother is the pivot,” he says.
The experts that I spoke with also noted that mothers and fathers who lose children to jihadist movements tend to deal with their grief in very different ways. The fathers often withdraw into feelings of guilt and shame: They have a hard time admitting to outsiders that their parenting was in any way lacking. The mothers do the opposite. They are hungry to share their sorrow with others, to plunge themselves into the world their child inhabited, to gather as much information as they can. It is their way of gaining a tiny measure of control over the unfathomable. “They immerse themselves,” Koehler told me.
When I visited her, Boudreau took me along to a local Catholic high school where most of the students were refugees. She showed them a video she had made about Damian. It ends with a close-up of Boudreau’s tear-streaked face, addressing her dead son. “When those final moments came, were you scared?” she asks. “Did you want me to hold your hand?” And, in a calmer, almost scolding voice: “What did all of this have to do with God?”
There was a stunned silence in the auditorium as the lights came back up. Before climbing onto the stage and fielding the students’ questions with an assurance she has acquired after dozens of presentations, Boudreau took a moment to compose herself. Though she had seen the film countless times, she had been crying in the dark.
In February, Boudreau received an email from a woman in Denmark named Karolina Dam. “Hi,” she wrote. “I would like to know more about the project. I to have lost a son, whom was killed in Syria and would like to get in contact to other mothers with the same issues.” This past May, I visited Dam in her apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Copenhagen. Dam, who has a round face and wild copper hair, sat me down in her sunlit dining room, which was meticulously decorated in purple and white, and festooned with cloth and plastic flowers. She produced a pot of coffee and her own freshly baked bread, and told me all about her son, Lukas, whom she refers to almost exclusively as “my boy.”
Lukas had been a withdrawn child, and his social interactions often ended in conflict. When he was ten, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder, but in adolescence, his problems became more serious. He was stopped driving a stolen scooter; he stole a friend’s mother’s engagement ring. Dam suspected he had joined a gang.
But then there was a break in the darkness. Lukas got an apprenticeship at a local garage where most of the employees were Muslim. They took the boy in and introduced him to their religion. Dam only learned that he had converted some months later, when she realized that that her son wasn’t eating during the day. He was observing Ramadan.
Like Boudreau, Dam initially saw her son’s conversion as “a little miracle.” Finally, her hard-to-reach boy was opening up. And, like Boudreau, Dam didn’t understand what it meant when Lukas got irritated at her for playing music, or why, one day, he came home sobbing, horrified that she wouldn’t be able to join him in paradise unless she converted to Islam.
Lukas hadn’t undergone a complete transformation. He was often still angry; he punched holes in the walls of his room. Afraid of what he might do, Dam consulted social workers and had him institutionalized, but Lukas ran away. He started living in apartments around Copenhagen with three fellow Islamists, all of them older men. Dam filed a missing persons report, but because Lukas was calling home every day, she says, the police told her he wasn’t technically missing. After he returned home, she decided to institutionalize him again and, while packing his things, found a bulletproof vest under his bed. Lukas was only 15 at the time.
In May 2014, just after Lukas turned 18, he disappeared. A few days later, he called Dam from the Turkish border, saying he needed a vacation. “I was scared,” Dam recalls. “He’s still a boy, he’s still vulnerable, he’s still manipulatable. And the fact that he went by himself, without saying goodbye or anything, that’s scary shit! If a boy doesn’t say goodbye to his mother, there’s something wrong.”
In the months after Lukas left, he was in constant contact. “He didn’t want to let me go, kind of,” Dam says. He told her he was working in Turkish refugee camps, packing clothes, ferrying water, preparing food. But according to Jakob Sheikh, a Danish journalist who is writing a book about Lukas and other Danish jihadis, he eventually crossed into Syria and joined Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist faction based in Idlib province. Yet, in his correspondence with his mother, Lukas sounds more like a homesick college freshman."Please call me back,"Lukas wrote to Dam on August 15. "I love you very much, my only mom.""Lots of kisses, wherever you are,"Dam responded, peppering her messages with emoji. He asks about the cat; Dam sends him sound files of its purr. She asks if she should put some more money in his bank account, partly to make sure he hadn’t given his card to anyone else. In a photograph of Lukas in Syria from this period, he has just washed up for prayer, his face and hair still wet. He looks happy.
In late September, Lukas went silent. Though Dam didn’t know it, around this time Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership was annihilated in an ISIS attack, and in the ensuing chaos, Lukas joined up with the Islamic State. When he resurfaced two months later, Dam, chatting with him on Viber, tried to entice him to come home. She told him that she’d refurbished his bedroom—plaster on the fist-sized holes and a fresh coat of paint—and had money set aside for his plane ticket back to Denmark.
Dam presses him: “You need to tell me when you’re coming home.”
“I can’t tell you that because I don’t know!”
It was their last conversation. On the night of December 28, 2014, Dam recalls, Adnan Avdic, one of Lukas’ Muslim friends from Copenhagen, rang her doorbell. “He was taking forever to go up the stairs, and there are only four steps,” says Dam. “He was hemming and hawing in the hallway, so I pulled him inside. He was crying, he wouldn’t look me in the eye.” Alarmed, Dam started looking for a knife in case she needed to defend herself. “I began shouting at him and grabbed his neck,” she recalls. Avdic blurted out that Lukas was wounded. “Right then and there,” Dam says, “I knew he was dead.”
That night, after he left, Avdic sent Dam a link to a private Facebook group. She asked to join and was immediately approved. Dam saw that someone had posted a photo of Lukas lounging on the floor with an AK-47 beside him and the ISIS flag pinned to the wall in the background. As she started scrolling through other posts, videos began to play automatically. “I’m looking at videos with beheadings, rape, slaughter—shit things, just to see if I can find information about my boy,” she recalls. Before long, she came across a Facebook post describing the death of Shaheed, which she knew was Lukas’ Muslim name. It read, “May Allah accept our danish convert brother, named Shaheed, called Shaheed amongst Shuhadah and reunite him with Allah.” Dam was too terrified to post anything, but finally she wrote,
this is MY SON, is he dead?
CONTACT ME and tell me!!!!
A man named Abu Abdul Malik soon responded:
Karolina Dam, you where in fact one of the first things the brother thought about, and how to notify you.
The news can be hard for a mother, regardless if she's a beliver or not as a mothers love for her child is speciel, and that has been one of the reasons that it has been delayed…May Allah guide the mother though this and may Allah accept our brother.
Dam found herself tormented by questions. What had her boy really been doing in Syria? How had he even gotten there? Most of all, she couldn’t understand how her socially awkward son had deftly hidden so much of his life from her: The affront of it still brings her to tears. Over the following weeks, she reached out to dozens of other fighters—anyone who seemed to have had contact with Lukas, following their social media webs as far as they would take her. In part, there was a pragmatic element to her quest: Dam has no proof of her son’s death, and unless she can produce some, she will have to wait five years to get a death certificate. “I have a fucking Facebook status!” she says. “There’s nothing else.”
But mostly she wants to know everything she can because she once knew so little. Dam told me she has developed techniques for striking up conversations with jihadis and coaxing information out of them. “You have to play the part of a mom, even though you have a different agenda.” She reminds them to eat, she calls them sweetie, she scolds them when they’re rude.
Dam turned her screen to show me a picture of another one of Lukas’ Copenhagen friends, Aziz (not his real name), who she believes is in Syria. Through him, she has learned a number of things about Lukas. Aziz sent her audio files that Lukas had recorded, encouraging Aziz to join him. (Sending sound files is one method fighters use to get around surveillance, since unlike a phone call, it can’t be overheard.) Dam played some of the files for me. There are birds chirping in the background, cars driving by. Lukas is laughing, telling his friend about the “beautiful atmosphere.” In another, he sounds agitated. “Our brothers and sisters are being killed, they’re being butchered like chickens, hens, animals,” he says, his voice straining with anger. In another, he tells Aziz that he has gotten married, which was news to Dam.
“This guy Aziz I have asked specifically, do you know if my boy has beheaded anyone?” Dam says. She is almost shouting now. “I need to know!” The fighters are gentle with her. They tell her Lukas was walled off from the violence, and there are times when she gladly believes them. Sheikh, who has checked this with other fighters and Danish intelligence, says it is not quite true: In his last months in Syria, Lukas was a fighter.
Since her son left for Syria, Dam has aged. Her face has filled out and furrowed with grief. On the mantle in the living room, she has a little shrine set up to Lukas, in lieu of a proper grave. At its center is a “mother jar,” a clay pot with handles that Danes traditionally fill with food and bring to mothers who have just given birth. As Lukas grew more radical in his faith before he left, he had asked Dam to remove all the logos on his T-shirts. She never got around to doing it, but after Lukas died, she discovered that one of the shirts was unwashed. It still smelled like her boy. She put it in a plastic bag to lock in the scent, and stored it in the mother jar.
In March, a Norwegian-born Islamic State fighter known to his comrades as Abo Sayf al Muhajir was shot in the head outside Kobani, in northern Syria. That week, his mother, Torill, happened to read a newspaper article about Lukas, and forced herself to write a few sentences to Dam on Facebook. When I visited Torill at her apartment in Halden, a small town on the water 75 miles south of Oslo, it was exactly two months after the death of Abo Sayf—though to his mother he will always be Thom Alexander. Of all the mothers I met, her loss was the freshest. Yet she has barely had the chance to think about what happened to her son, because the same thing has threatened to consume her daughters.
By the time Torill, a petite blonde with delicate features, told me Thom Alexander’s story, its contours were familiar. There was the absent father, who died of a heroin overdose when Thom Alexander was seven. Her son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at 14; in his early twenties he was arrested for petty crimes and went in and out of rehab for addictions to increasingly harder drugs. Once, he was pronounced clinically dead. And then Thom Alexander discovered a copy of the shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith, in the gym locker room and became a new man. He quit heroin and started calling his mother; he got a job at a kindergarten and married a nice Moroccan girl. “It was like getting a new son, a good son,” Torill says, sighing.
As we sat talking, Sabeen, Torill’s 17-year-old daughter and Thom Alexander’s half-sister, padded into the living room. She has long, dark hair and a round, mischievous face, and was dressed in loose sweats. She dropped into a loveseat and stuffed a packet of chewing tobacco under her lip. After his conversion, Torill says, Thom Alexander became more present in Sabeen’s life. He would have her, and sometimes his 28-year-old-sister Sara, up to his apartment in Oslo, where he talked to them about his new religion. “He taught me how beautiful Islam is,” Sabeen told me dreamily. One day in October 2013, Thom Alexander took Sabeen to his mosque, where two women showed her how to pray. The following day, she converted.
By then, the war in Syria was all over the news and Thom Alexander was spending his time organizing clothing drives for refugees. Torill made her son promise that he wouldn’t go to Syria. But before long, he divorced his first wife and married a Somali, who insisted that they move to a Muslim country. Within the year, he told his mother he could no longer keep his promise.
In the spring of 2014, Torill got a visit from the PST, Norway’s intelligence agency. According to Torill, the agents told her they suspected Thom Alexander was a member of the Prophet’s Umma, an Oslo-based extremist group, and was planning to leave Norway to join the Islamic State. PST told her to call if anything else came up, and she did so when she realized that Thom Alexander had sold all his belongings. She had heard that this is something people do before departing for the caliphate. But the PST didn’t prove very helpful. “I got the impression that they didn’t take it seriously,” Torill says.
The last time she saw Thom Alexander, it was June 26, 2014. He came to her house to make pizza, dressed in Western clothes, his beard shaved. Families sometimes interpret this development as a hopeful one, a sign that their child is turning back towards a secular life. But Torill had heard that this was another thing young men did right before going to Syria. She had made elaborate plans to stop Thom Alexander from going, if it ever came to that. She could use his history of addiction and crime to have him arrested; she could go to the airport and throw a fit. But as she watched him roll out the pizza dough, she was paralyzed. She was so stunned, so terrified, she says, that she has no recollection of anything else that happened that day.
After Thom Alexander left her house, people from Prophet’s Umma drove him to the airport. Torill had been right: He had shaved his beard and donned Western clothing not to transition back to European life, but to smooth his way through airport security and border control. Though PST had been watching him, they had not prevented Thom Alexander from obtaining a passport and leaving the country. Thom Alexander called Torill from Syria a few days later. Panicking, she called PST in tears to tell them that her son was gone. “They said, ‘Thank you, is there anything else?’” she recalls.
Thom Alexander occasionally called home and wrote Facebook messages to his mother. He told her he was driving a truck in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. He sent her videos of his apartment and street, as well as the restaurant where he and his comrades ate rotisserie chicken. “One hundred percent halal,” he beamed. When he Skyped with Sabeen, she noticed that he kept the conversation focused on her. Once, when she was visiting her father’s family in Pakistan, Thom Alexander asked her to find him a wife there. “I looked around but no one was available,” Sabeen recalls, smiling sheepishly.
One day, a bomb fell 150 feet from where Thom Alexander was standing and killed several children. “If you want, I can send you pictures of children so you can see,” he wrote to his mother. Torill rolls her eyes as she reads this message aloud. She’s scrolling through their correspondence, which she hasn’t done since her son died. I ask her how she feels reading it now. “Oh, I don’t feel anything, I just lock out,” she says, and passes her hand in front of her face. In another message, she asks if he has seen any beheadings. “No,” he responds, “but I have seen the decapitated heads lying around.” This he punctuated with a smiley face. In late March, Ubaydullah Hussain, leader of the Prophet’s Umma, called Torill to tell her that Thom Alexander was dead. 2
We sat on Torill’s balcony in Halden, looking out on the verdant little town. “I used to be happy, happier than most people,” says Torill, her face perfectly still behind large sunglasses. “But now I don’t know how to live.” Sometimes she is floored by what people say to her. Her downstairs neighbor told her she was a bad mother. “If it were my son,” she recalls the neighbor saying, “I’d cut his hands off.” There are days, she told me, “that I want a lobotomy, it hurts so much.”
Yet she cannot afford to give herself over to mourning. After Thom Alexander left, Torill had called two young Muslims who work to deradicalize Norwegian youth, Yousef Bartho Assidiq and Faten Mahdi al-Hussaini. She had heard about them on television. After Thom Alexander died, the pair essentially moved in with the family to help them cope. Sabeen was acting out, craving attention. Seeing the gruesome photo of her brother’s body had triggered something destructive in her. She couldn’t concentrate in school and had a hard time eating in the cafeteria. “I felt like everyone was staring at me,” she says. “I like attention, but not that kind of attention.” Assidiq and Mahdi realized that she was frequently chatting online with Hussain, the head of Prophet’s Umma. Then the chats veered into flirtation.
The night before Thom Alexander’s memorial service, Sabeen was taken in for questioning by the police, who then informed Assidiq and Mahdi that she was days from eloping with Hussain. The activists reached out to the municipality of Halden, which gave them the funds to whisk Sabeen off for a vacation in Greece simply to get her away from him. It was only after Sara pressed charges against Hussain that he cut off contact with Sabeen. Assidiq and Mahdi took away her passport.
Then, just when Sabeen seemed to be out of danger, Sara fell under the sway of the Prophet’s Umma. In June, she married the group’s spokesman, Omar Cheblal. The ceremony took place on Skype, because Cheblal had just been deported from Norway after being deemed a threat to national security. The two have since divorced, and Assidiq and Mahdi have taken away Sara’s passport, too.
Ranstorp, the E.U. deradicalization expert, told me this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Once converts reach Syria, many try to get their siblings to join them. After a fighter dies, recruiters often target their families, expecting them to offer up more children. As for the siblings, they sometimes engage with jihadists as a coping mechanism, says Koehler: “In order to make sense of everything, it might happen that they look for anything giving a sense and purpose to the death and end up endorsing it.” After one child has embraced militant Islam, Ranstorp told me, “We have to treat the whole family.”
The question of how to save a child who is in danger of being radicalized is a constant preoccupation for many of the mothers. Dam, for instance, blames herself for not helping Lukas find a more wholesome Muslim identity. “I should’ve driven Lukas, once or twice a week, to a good imam and waited in the car,” she says. “All convert moms need to do this. The kids don’t know the difference, and we don’t know because we’re not Muslim.”
More than the others, Torill had some understanding of what she was seeing. She knew that Thom Alexander was drawn to the fight in Syria, and made him swear not to go. She called the intelligence services three times. And yet, as she discovered, in most Western countries it is shockingly difficult to get the government to intervene. It is not illegal in any European country to travel to Syria, let alone to Turkey. ISIS recruitment strategies, Ranstorp says, are moving much faster than ungainly Western bureaucracies. The group now encourages recruits to break up their itineraries into as many as four legs to avoid detection. Some European fighters are taking advantage of the E.U.’s open borders and simply driving to Turkey through Bulgaria.
Even in the cases of minors, governments often fail to exercise their authority to stop them from going to Syria. After Lukas’ death, Dam founded a group called Sons and Daughters for Scandinavian mothers. One Danish woman she regularly speaks to goes by the name Miriam in the press. Miriam is Muslim, and she had immediately understood the danger when her son Karim (not his real name) started running with Islamist radicals in Copenhagen. She alerted the authorities, destroyed his passport and made sure the Danish government flagged his file so that he could not get another. Within four months, Karim, who was then 17, was in Syria. He had forged his father’s signature on the parental consent form in order to obtain a new passport. (Dam would eventually figure out that Karim and Lukas had been friends, and that it was Karim who had messaged her to tell her that Lukas was in “bits and pieces.”)
Part of the problem is that the phenomenon of ISIS recruitment is so new that efforts to counter it are still in their infancy. Many Western countries are only starting to think about jihadi recruits in terms of prevention, rather than punishment or rehabilitation. Often, parents like Torill who actually sound the alarm are treated simply as sources of intelligence. Nor are many governments eager to bring radicals back once they have left: One American official told me privately that the U.S. would rather foreign fighters die in Syria than return home.
In the meantime, the activists fighting radicalization are woefully under-resourced. The mothers’ schools run by Women Without Borders won’t be up and running for a year. Assidiq and Mahdi, the Oslo-based activists who saved Torill’s daughters, receive no government funding for their organization Just Unity; they are both months behind on their rent. Ranstorp and his working group are still just a working group. Their discussions, he told me, are “like Groundhog’s Day.”“We have no legal instruments,” he says. “We can only delay them.”
On a May morning, two tiny women, Dominique Bons and Valerie, stood waiting at the Gard du Nord train station in Paris. They were both dressed in jeans in the warm spring morning, their hair cropped short. People bustled around them, but the two women were lost in animated conversation. A train from Brussels arrived, and soon they saw Saliha Ben Ali moving through the crowd with a small suitcase. The three women exploded in affection, like childhood friends finally reuniting. For the rest of the day, the three women moved around a series of cafés—talking, drinking coffee and mojitos, and laughing almost ceaselessly. Their relief at being in each other’s company was overwhelming.
This was the only time I saw the weight of these mothers’ grief lift, when they were with other mothers like them. It is one of the few times they feel, Ben Ali told me, “that you are not a bad mother.” Most of the time, they are beset by misunderstanding and judgment. Torill told me that she went to see a psychologist, and he advised her to cope with her grief by writing to Thom Alexander and telling him to “eat shit.” “He said that everyone who joins ISIS deserves a bullet in the head,” Torill says. Friends turn away, and many of the women find that their husbands or partners can’t relate to their need to talk about their children constantly. Boudreau’s partner, for instance, cannot understand why, a year and a half after Damian’s death, she is still fixated on it.
With the other mothers, there’s not much you have to explain. They just know. Torill and Dam have never met, since neither has the money to travel, but they chat constantly, on Facebook Messenger and Skype. To Torill, Dam is an expert. “She experienced this before me, and tells me what I’m going to feel next,” Torill says. Boudreau, too, has found comfort in these virtual gatherings. “It’s funny, Karolina and I get on Skype, or some of the other mothers and I get on Skype, and something will come up and, next thing you know, we’re all crying.” The conversations make them feel, she says, as if “we’re still human.”
Bons, Ben Ali, and Valerie have formed a deep friendship, though their paths would never have crossed if it weren’t for their children. Bons, a petite 60-year-old army retiree from Toulouse with dyed blonde hair and striking blue eyes, lost two children to ISIS. Her son Nicolas and step-son Jean-Daniel ran off to Syria in March 2013. Jean-Daniel was dead by August, at age 22, and in December Bons received a text message saying that Nicolas was dead at 30. Apparently, he had driven a truck packed with explosives into a building in Homs.
Ben Ali, a plump woman with chocolate eyes that radiate heartbreak, is Muslim, but wears parachute pants and doesn’t cover her hair. All four of her children were born in Belgium. “I practice my Islam quietly,” Ben Ali told me when we first spoke this spring. But practicing quietly wasn’t enough for her second son, Sabri. In August 2013, he left home without a word. Four days later, he sent Ben Ali a Facebook message: “Mom, I’m in Syria, and we will be together in heaven.” She tried for months to reason with him. “There are seven conditions for it to be jihad,” she explains. “For me, the war in Syria is not a jihad … It’s a civil war.” Her efforts were consistent with Koehler’s advice—use Muslim theology to break through the programming. But Sabri would have none of it. After he was killed, Ben Ali’s Muslim neighbor in Brussels came to her and said, “Your son is a martyr. Now close the door and don’t speak about him anymore.” She responded that she would never stop talking about Sabri, and the neighbor cut off all contact with her.
Valerie, who asked that her last name not be used, is the only mother I met whose child is still alive. Her 18-year-old daughter, Léa (not her real name) is living somewhere in Aleppo. When Léa was 16, unbeknownst to Valerie, she met a 22-year-old Algerian man who converted and radicalized her. On June 5, 2013, Léa hugged and kissed her mother after dinner, left the house, and disappeared. Valerie thought she had been kidnapped, but Léa and the Algerian eventually made their way to Syria. Valerie wants her daughter to come home with an almost animal need. But she also understands that in some sense, Léa is no longer her child. Her phone calls and chats on WhatsApp sound programmed, robotic. About ten months ago, Léa gave birth to a baby boy, and her tone softened slightly. She sometimes asks Valerie for parenting advice, and Valerie believes that her daughter understands her better now that she, too, is a mother. Still, Valerie knows that even if she could somehow rescue Léa and her baby, the task of reintegrating Léa into normal life would be hopelessly daunting. The state of suspension is exhausting for her. “If they told me my daughter was dead,” Valerie says, crying, “it might be easier.”
But it wasn’t their children that the mothers wanted to talk about that afternoon in Paris. It was about their activism and the never-ending media inquiries, which reporters they’d chosen to speak to, which ones to avoid. They described television crews that invaded their homes for days and discussed how it was becoming harder to convince their families to participate each successive time. Going public ended up being vastly more difficult than any of them had anticipated. They had been called names and accused of failing as parents. They had thought activism would help them cope, but each interview submerges them anew in the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. “I can’t talk about this for 24 hours a day,” Valerie moaned. “I can’t live like this.”
And yet since their children left, ISIS has become these mothers’ whole waking universe. They are experts on Syria’s geography, on the factions in its four-year civil war; they are fluent in the language of jihad. When these young men and women went to Syria, their mothers went with them, because how could they not? Sometimes, this entails more than just following them into the depths of ISIS social media. This spring, Ben Ali and two other mothers tried to cross into Syria, to witness what their sons had seen in their final months. They were stopped by Turkish authorities at the border, but Ben Ali told me that seeing the misery of Syrian refugees there gave her some insight into why her son had left her. “Now I can say that my son had great courage,” she says. Her quest is hardly unusual, Ranstorp told me. “There are a lot of parents looking for their kids in Turkey, or trying to go into Syria themselves ... Some have even been imprisoned by the Islamic State.”
For now, letting go is not an option for any of the mothers. Letting go means seeing the children of other mothers fall under the sway of radical imams and end up as suicide bombers. Letting go means severing the connection to their own children. Though activism, through the endless search for answers, each of them has found her own way of keeping her child alive, no matter the psychic cost. Dam told me that each day when she wakes up, she experiences a split second of oblivion, a brief moment that resembles her old life. And then, she says, “I am trawled into a whole new world that I didn’t even know existed."
Boudreau perched on a high stool at the table in her cramped kitchen, which also serves as her office. She was talking on the phone with the father of a young woman named Hoda who had left her home in Alabama to join ISIS in Syria. Boudreau listened intently as the father described how Hoda had been preparing him for her own death. Jordan had stepped up airstrikes, and people all around her were dying.
“I’m just wanting to be here to support you in any way I can,” Boudreau told him, her voice laden with empathy. “Even if you just need to scream and cry and yell, or if you want to find different people to connect with for support and counseling, just let me know and I’ll do whatever I can to reach out and help you.”
After the call, Boudreau had ten minutes to go to the supermarket and pick up a couple of cans of tomato soup and packs of dry spaghetti for dinner. Then she raced across town to pick up her stepdaughter Paige from school. As we waited in the car, Boudreau gave a long, tearful interview to the BBC on her cell phone. When Paige, a lanky girl with glasses, bounded into the back seat, Boudreau’s voice was still congested, her responses to Paige’s patter distracted. She had to get home and feed the kids before a conference call with representatives of the Somali community in Edmonton who were seeking state funding for a deradicalization initiative. And she had to pack: At 6 a.m., she’d be off to Montreal to do a local talk show and meet with the mother of the young man who shot up the Canadian Parliament building last October. Boudreau put the spaghetti on and wandered out of the room on another press call. Luke and a friend came home from school with giant red Slurpees and horsed around in the backyard. Paige listlessly watched TV. The spaghetti boiled on, unattended.
I was about to rescue it when Mike, Boudreau’s partner, arrived home from his job at a local construction site, dusty and exhausted. When I apologized for the intrusion, he mumbled that I was far from the first journalist he’d found in his house. I asked if he’d talk to me for this story. “Oh, I don’t even want to go there,” he said. “I live in my own bubble.” He opened a beer and excused himself.
Boudreau quickly ate a plate of spaghetti, lost in her thoughts, barely speaking to Mike and Paige, who sat eating with her. Then she moved to the couch a few feet away and dialed into the conference call with the Somalis. Her face lit up, her voice rose with laughter and excitement. She was suddenly, fully engaged. Paige and Mike continued to eat silently, save for the occasional whisper, trying not to disturb the call. Then they tiptoed out for ice cream.
Koehler told me that Boudreau is “using her wounds in a proactive way.” But, in a sense, she has chosen her dead son over her family. It is in Damian’s world that she spends most of her days, not in theirs, and it has had real repercussions for their lives. Her accounting work has slowed to a trickle. She can’t get a full-time job, which she attributes to having gone public as the mother of an ISIS fighter. All the activism is only increasing the financial pressure: Her phone bills for May and June totaled over $1,000.
Meanwhile, the impact of her son’s death is still slowly working its way through the family. Last summer, Hope, Damian’s 13-year-old half-sister, left to live with her father. She didn’t speak to Boudreau for 12 months. Luke is in therapy and has been diagnosed with adjustment disorder. A short boy with a fuzz of blond hair and quick, intelligent eyes, he told me that he feels ostracized at school. “They say I talk about it too much and that I’m a drama maker,” he explained. Sometimes he is angry at Damian for violating a pinky swear to come home after four years in Egypt. Sometimes he blames himself, wondering whether he was too rough on his brother when they used to wrestle. “The only time I can be happy is when I’m sleeping,” he says.
Earlier that afternoon, as we sat on Boudreau’s deck, smoking, she told me that Damian was not the first son she’d lost. In 2001, Hope’s twin brother died of sudden infant death syndrome when he was a month old. His death plunged Boudreau into a long depression, and deeply affected Damian, too. Now, of her four children, two are dead and one is barely speaking to her. Her relationship with her partner is faltering, too. “Mike isn’t happy, it’s too much for him,” she says. “He wants me to stop the activism, he wants things to go back to the way they were.”
There are nights when Boudreau is overcome by the massiveness of everything that has befallen her. On those nights, while the house is sleeping, she gets in her car, littered with the traces of suburban family life, and screams at Damian as if he were sitting next to her in the passenger seat. She screams at him for what he has done to her family, for destroying her and destroying Luke, for being at peace in death while she is left to fix the unfixable. Then she cries, abandoning the façade of strength that she wears for her other children. And when she’s cried it all out, she goes upstairs and slips into bed next to Mike, trying, like Luke, to find some solace in sleep. Tomorrow will bring another day of press interviews and phone calls, another day of the life that Damian has chosen for her. “If I had known then what I know now,” Boudreau told me, pulling on her cigarette and squinting into the late afternoon sun, “I would never have had kids.”