Relatives of Western jihadist fighters go public, hoping to stop others

World

JUDY WOODRUFF: While we're reporting on that war-torn country, for months, we have reported on Western-born young people who travel to Syria to join the Islamic State.

Parents and relatives of some of the young European men who'd joined ISIS and other extremist groups met late last week at a conference in Paris. Among the group were also family members of victims of the terrorist attacks last fall in Paris. They gathered to grieve, to condemn terrorism and the extremism that drives it, and look for ways to prevent other young people from following the fates of their loved ones.

From Paris, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This is the Bataclan club, where Islamist gunmen slaughtered 89 concert-goers last November the 13th.

It was, briefly, a place of pilgrimage for a group of people inextricably linked to the massacre through the ideology embraced by their relatives, even though they didn't participate in the attack.

Karolina Dam, mother of 18-year-old Lukas, a boy with learning difficulties, converted and radicalized in Denmark and believed killed in an airstrike on the Syrian Turkish border. Janne Mortensen (ph), also from Denmark, whose convert foster son, Kenneth, was killed in Syria three years ago.

Briton Michael Evans, whose brother Thomas converted and joined Al-Shabaab in Africa. This footage shows the jihadist with the nom de guerre Abdul Hakim just before he was killed in a battle with Kenyan troops.

MICHAEL EVANS, Brother of Killed Foreign Fighter: It's just such a tragic waste of life. You know, people out just enjoying their night were cut down for nothing. It's so sad to be here. I don't understand how someone who is my own flesh and blood could be — could think like this. I just don't understand.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Canadian Christianne Boudreau wants deradicalization programs to make the most of the experiences of families like these, by using them as educators, helpers, and guides.

She's campaigning in memory of her convert son Damian killed in fighting near Aleppo in Syria.

CHRISTIANNE BOUDREAU, Mother of Killed Foreign Fighter: It could easily have been my son that had been walking into here. It could have been easily me having to deal with what he had done. It's one thing when he's over in Syria and we don't see it.

But, here, we're faced with it. And the parents that lose a loved one in this way, in a violent way, not only do they lose their son or their daughter to something horrific, but they also carry the guilt of what their child has done to others. And it's a horrible, horrible burden to carry.

GEORGE SALINES, Father of Bataclan Victim: She was 28 years old. She had the greatest smile in the world.

MALCOLM BRABANT: George Salines is talking about his daughter Lola, one of those murdered at the Bataclan. Like others at the conference, he wanted it to be a turning point in the battle against extremism.

GEORGE SALINES: I very much wanted to tell my fellow citizens that, even though I was a victim, I had no hate. I just wanted to prevent those events from happening again.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Not all of the relatives participating in the conference wanted to be identified.

But the sense of solidarity could be instrumental in helping more parents to go public. Michael Evans made it clear that Islam wasn't under attack.

MICHAEL EVANS: No, it hasn't altered my view of Islam at all, because my brother wasn't practicing Islam. He was practicing a sick ideology that just hides behind Islam.

MALCOLM BRABANT: According to the Pentagon, the number of foreign fighters entering in Iraq and Syria has gone down by 90 percent from 2,000 to just 200 a month.

But this conference in Paris has been told that interest in joining the Islamic State remains enormous. The latest research shows that Google has registered 50,000 inquirees a month for people wishing to either joined the so-called Islamic State or to travel to Syria.

But the good thing is that all of these people leave an electronic trace, which means that the West has a chance to counter the allure and the propaganda of the extremists and to win the battle for hearts and minds.

This short film dramatizing the regret of a wounded Islamist fighter is an attempt to match the high production values of Islamic State videos, and to win the war of ideas.

Adam Deen now works for the counterradicalization Quilliam Foundation, which produced the film, but he once belonged to one of Britain's most militant Islamist groups. His own intellectual curiosity saved him, but he worries that not enough is being done to convince vulnerable young Muslims to abandon the path of extremism.

ADAM DEEN, Quilliam Foundation: At the end of the day a very small minority of individuals will take up arms, will travel to ISIS. If we have a community that is — has become — has developed a religiosity, and identifies themselves with the Islamic faith, the problem is that the default position for some — for a young Muslim is Islamism and this type of puritanical Islam.

And the danger is that, if they don't have counternarratives, that they will be susceptible. So, a large portion of Muslims, young Muslims that are discovering Islam, let's say, are susceptible to this type of — this interpretation, this pernicious reading.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Norwegian Bjorn Ihler is committed to opposing extremism in all its forms. He returned to the island of Utoya, where the right wing fanatic Anders Breivik gunned down 69 young people at a political summer camp. Breivik shot at Ihler, but missed. Ihler believes similar methods can neutralize both the ultra-right and Islamists.

BJORN IHLER, Utoya Survivor: All forms of extremism are very similar in many ways. Extremism thrives on the same kind of factors regardless of what ideology is titled. And at the end of the day, their ideology very quickly becomes just an excuse essentially for being violent.

The issues we need to address are not necessarily the theological issues, but rather the ideological issue of violence and how violence is being used for political means.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Ihler shares the view of some experts that bombing the so-called Islamic State will lead to more radicalization. But former British government Minister Pauline Neville-Jones disagrees.

DAME PAULINE NEVILLE-JONES, Former Member, British House of Lords: If you use force, of course there will be those who think that this is a good reason for joining the jihad.

But one of the things that's very important things about Da'esh is actually to destroy its claim to constitute a state, to be a caliphate, because it's a major part of their appeal: We won some territory. We are a real state force.

We have actually to destroy that, because it's a very — it's very insidious. It's very powerful.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The battle against ISIS may be primarily military, but Karolina Dam believes that mothers like her can play a vital role.

KAROLINA DAM, Mother of Radicalized Son: For me here, I miss him like crazy. I really do. I just wish he was here. I would have wanted to talk more with him about his religion and what he wants to do, and how I can be a part, a better part in his life, because I — we were very close, me and my boy, but obviously not close enough. Otherwise, he would have told me about this double life.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Paris may be peaceful once again, but there remain fears that, somewhere soon in Europe, there will be another Bataclan.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Paris.

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