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After her son joined ISIS, this mother fights radicalization at home

November 22, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
It was as a big surprise to his family when Racheed Benyahia, born and raised in Britain, became a fighter for the Islamic State. In the wake of his death, Racheed’s mother Nicola launched a deradicalization project as part of her personal war against ISIS. That mission is more pertinent than ever, with Britain on high alert for a terrorist attack. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the wars in Iraq and Syria continue, Europe is on a high state of alert, on guard against fleeing foreign fighters attempting to slip back into their home or adoptive countries.

With Britain’s state of alert severe, the mother of one young British fighter killed in Syria has launched a deradicalization project as part of her personal war against the Islamic State.

Malcolm Brabant reports from Birmingham.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Nicola Benyahia leafs through a box of childhood memories.

NICOLA BENYAHIA, Mother of Converted ISIS fighter: Look at his little picture there.

MALCOLM BRABANT: They were left by her 19-year-old son, Rasheed, when he slipped away to Syria to join Islamic State. It included a letter foretelling his death.

NICOLA BENYAHIA: “Death can strike at any time. Give all my money to mama. My bank card is in the case of my phone. Remember me in your prayers, and remember that death will take everyone. Now is the time to turn to God. I love you all for the sake of God. Remember to treat mama and papa with respect and honor. Rasheed.”

MALCOLM BRABANT: Almost exactly a year ago, Rasheed Benyahia’s father received a call to say his son had been killed in a drone strike on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

In the run-up to his death, the teenager had been clingy in Internet conversations with his mother, which she has preserved in a small book. Both sensed the end was near.

NICOLA BENYAHIA: I was waiting for that call to say that he was dead. And part of me wanted that call, almost, like, to end the nightmare, to end it. It was — and I used to catch myself thinking, how can you, as a mother, want that call? But, on the other hand, I wanted the nightmare to end.

MALCOLM BRABANT: For him or for you?

NICOLA BENYAHIA: For him and me. I felt I was caught in a nightmare that I had no choosing of. I felt he was caught in a situation that he had absolutely no power over. He couldn’t get out. He didn’t have his passport. They’d taken it from him.

So I knew that, even if he changed his mind, he was stuck.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Rasheed was brought up in a liberal household by his Algerian father and mother, Nicola, a British convert to Islam.

NICOLA BENYAHIA: Aggression and Rasheed are just two words that don’t go together. Violence wasn’t something that was in him. I don’t think I ever saw him, even as a child, lash out.

That’s why it’s more shocking when I found out that he had actually gone to join ISIS, and knowing the atrocities that they were kind of carrying out.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Mrs. Benyahia believes her son was radicalized at Birmingham’s Green Lane mosque. The police didn’t wish to discuss Green Lane’s involvement, and the mosque didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

NICOLA BENYAHIA: He began going to a new mosque that had some sort of, kind of quite orthodox, and, I would say, quite extreme kind of thinking in Islam. That’s when I could see the change within Rasheed.

MAN: We’re here in the 17th division military base, just outside the city of Al Raqqa. And we’re here with the soldiers of Bashar. You can see them now digging their own graves in the very place where they were stationed.

MALCOLM BRABANT: During his time with Islamic State, the family asked whether he had participated in atrocities, but he only said he’d only been a witness.

NICOLA BENYAHIA: It was a public beheading that had taken place, and basically they were forced to watch it, because they’re made to watch these things, one, to desensitize them, and, secondly, to — as a warning to them that, if they’re thinking about possibly leaving or changing their minds, that this is what could happen to them as well.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As Islamic State’s strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria come under increased military pressure, there are concerns that jihadis who don’t wish to fight to the death will try to slip away and return home to places like Birmingham.

Along with most other European countries, Britain is having to live with the ever-present threat of terrorism. According to the country’s new anti-terrorism coordinator, the authorities have managed to thwart 10 potential attacks over the past two years. And at any given time, there are supposed to be about 500 live investigations under way.

The authorities say there are about 850 Britons who are a security concern who’ve gone to fight in Syria, about half of those have returned to the country, and about one in three of those are living in the Birmingham area.

Britain’s current security level is severe, which means an attack is likely.

SUE SOUTHERN, West Midlands Police: What has happened in Europe could play out anywhere within the U.K. That’s a real threat that we all face. We’re alive to that.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Sue Southern heads the anti-terrorist unit in the Birmingham region. She’s prepared for returning jihadis.

SUE SOUTHERN: We are ready, and in some cases we already have evidence waiting. And we will deal with people proportionately, but they will be arrested. We will investigate that. And we will treat each case on its own merits.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Birmingham is one of Britain’s most diverse cities, and moderate Muslims use the main street to try to counter misunderstanding and extremism.

Hamza Ali Khan opposes those who go to fight in Syria or Iraq.

HAMZA ALI KHAN, British Muslim: God will not ask you to go to a country to commit such atrocities. When they go to such countries such as Syria, they go with the intention of causing bad, they go with the intention of killing innocent people.

God says in the Koran, in our Koran, in our holy book that if you were to kill someone, it was as if you have killed the entire world, and if you were to save someone, it’s as though you have saved the entire world.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Amid the street musicians and shoppers, there is an air of vigilance, and Toby Ephram from Southern Sudan is doing his bit by trying to counter the propaganda of Islamic State.

TOBY EPHRAM, Ahmadiyya Muslim Association: The fact I can tell the world today there is no verse in the Koran that somebody will die by destroying himself, destroying the innocent people and then to think that God is going to give him a red carpet by having 75 virgins, that is a wrong concept.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But Dr. Imran Awan, a criminologist at Birmingham City University, doubts the effectiveness of using theology alone.

IMRAN AWAN, Birmingham City University: Primarily, I don’t think mosques are in touch with a lot of the younger people. And I think what needs to happen is, in a sense, get them onto a digital platform.

So, I call it a digital revolution, where mosques and imam leaders are online and on the Internet. And I think they need to flood the Internet with countermessaging and sort of counter the ISIS propaganda. I think that’s a huge role.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But a string of anti-I.S. videos is starting to appear.

MAN: We are hope. And we are action against division, against violence, against death. This is our fate and our future.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Dr. Awan has suggested that repentant jihadis returning to Britain could be turned by the authorities to help deradicalization programs.

Is that something that you would consider?

SUE SOUTHERN: I don’t dispute that there is absolute value in being able to use the experiences of others to deter others. But what we have to be clear about is that, if an individual has traveled and has gained the type of training and capability and comes back with the I.S. narrative, which is anti-West and attack those in the West, we have a duty to protect the citizens of the U.K., both here and overseas.

MALCOLM BRABANT: After keeping a low profile since her son’s death, Nicola Benyahia, in the head scarf, has joined other mothers present at this conference in Paris in publicly fighting against Islamic State.

She believes that, as a Muslim, she might perhaps succeed where the police and other organizations might not be trusted by families of children on the verge of radicalization.

NICOLA BENYAHIA: Maybe that anger is, I’m using it as a strength to kind of hit back at them, and say, no, you are not taking any more of our children. I don’t think a mother can hate them as much when they have taken the one thing, a child, from you.

And I will do everything in my power, as a mother, as a professional, whatever I can, to fight against them and give our young people a different narrative.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Nicola Benyahia worries she might be rejected by the Muslim community for raising a taboo issue that is often only discussed behind closed doors, but she wants to save other families from similar pain, so that some good can come from her son’s death.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Birmingham.