What responsibility do terrorists’ families bear in children’s radicalisation?
A young man lies dying on a London street, leaving a mother to mourn the wasted, ultimately worthless life of a son drawn into the death cult of the Islamic State. A father laments the transformation of a bright, gentle boy into one of the monsters who slaughtered 90 people at a Paris rock concert.
From the British and French capitals to the Maghreb, the Indian subcontinent, the United States and beyond, the families of terrorists killed or captured ask where they went wrong as they voice their disgust and sorrow. But the killing goes on and, all too often, families are powerless to prevent it — even if they want to.
Anyone who has spent time with the relatives of actual or would-be killers can testify that disapproval is often heartfelt and sincere, highlighting the apparent failure of parental efforts to identify radicalisation and provide meaningful influence or mere deterrence.
There are alarming exceptions, those who justify, support or minimise the actions of loved ones, a disturbing reality to which society has yet to find an effective response.
After Mohammed Merah killed seven people, including three Jewish children and two off-duty Muslim French soldiers, before being shot dead by police in south-western France in 2012, his mother and a sister applauded his crimes. One brother, Abdelkader, was jailed for 30 years as an accomplice, though another, Abdelghani, rejected Islamist violence and staged a 1,000km march through France against extremism.
In some cases where there is no evidence of family complicity, a sense of denial persuades parents or siblings they have no need to worry, at least until it is too late.
After Sudesh Amman, 20, stabbed two people February 2 in south London, it was revealed he had been released 10 days earlier from a 40-month sentence for possessing and distributing terrorist documents. His mother claimed, implausibly, that her “polite, kind, lovely boy” was not fully radicalised before being sent to prison.
Azdyne Amimour, whose son Samy was among three attackers at the Bataclan theatre as an Islamic State (ISIS) gang killed 130 people at various Parisian locations in November 2015, said his family witnessed his son’s gradual conversion to Salafism and his growing links with extremist elements but believed when he left France for Syria in 2013 that he intended to engage in humanitarian work.
Amimour, who has written a book with Georges Salines, the father of a Bataclan victim, came to realise his son was involved in the conflict and travelled to Syria to plead with him to return. “He was like a zombie,” he said.
An inability or unwillingness to detect the descent of family members into jihadist thoughts and actions is not a new phenomenon. The only person convicted in the United States in connection with the attacks of September 11, 2001, is a Frenchman of Moroccan origin, Zacarias Moussaoui, serving a life-in-prison without parole sentence for conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.
Although he is often described as the “20th hijacker,” Moussaoui was in custody for an immigration violation on September 11. His part in the plot, and the extent of his prior knowledge, remain unclear although he is known to have attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and wanted an active role in terrorist operations.
Like so many parents, his mother — who became a campaigner against extremism — was blind to his drift into terrorism and said he was radicalised by Islamists he met while studying in London. His elder brother watched him change from a warm, communicative young man into someone who could “spend a whole day slumped in an armchair,” mostly silent but occasionally speaking to justify wife-beating or denying education to girls.
Donald Trump said ahead of his election as US president that it was necessary to “take out” not only ISIS militants but their families, whatever that meant. Even more cautious observers cite cases of siblings involved in joint terrorist activity, with the Paris and Brussels attacks of 2015 and 2016, and the Charlie Hebdo killings, also in Paris, as striking examples.
Aggressive methods, including intrusive raids and protracted questioning for relatives and friends, now commonly follow any terrorist incident once a perpetrator’s identity becomes known. Yet there are also signs that few terrorists are deterred by the effect of their crimes on those they were close to since they are conditioned to regard ISIS or whichever militant group they join as their true families.
SAFE, an independent British support service specialising in all forms of extremism and terrorism, says there has been only limited research into the role of families. Research that has been conducted, it says, produced ambivalent results, one study finding some parents “supported the cause of their children, some spoke out against it and others were simply oblivious to their child’s susceptibility.”
Azdyne Amimour wonders whether his frequent absences from work helped to make his son “easy prey” for recruiters.
It will bring scant comfort to him or those bereaved in the Paris massacre that a Dutch paper published by Germany’s Journal for Deradicalisation concluded that even “outstanding parental qualities are no guarantee against radicalisation.”