Why this formerly radicalized Muslim is speaking out against extremism

AMSTERDAM — After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the start of the war in Iraq in 2003, 30-year-old Amsterdam native Mahmoud Tighadouini fell into an online community that exposed him to radical Islamic ideology for the first time.

In online messages sent to Tighadouini, the U.S. — and, more generally, the West — were cast as enemies of all Muslims.

As his beliefs became more extreme, he harbored ambitions to travel abroad to fight for the cause.

Growing up in a Muslim family that originally emigrated from Morocco, Tighadouini says his path toward radicalization began years earlier as he grappled with his own identity. “I live in the Netherlands, but [people here] were always looking to me like a Moroccan,” he said.

But in embracing his identity as a radical, he started to feel that void being filled, he said. “It felt like really safe, it’s like I found what I was looking for,” he said. “I needed the structure — I needed the people who say to me how to go, how to live.”

Tighadouini stopped going to school, spending more and more time alone in his room and on the computer. He began to dress in traditional Islamic clothing and get into fights with his family. He became increasingly isolated — speaking only to like-minded people on the internet.

As the years passed, he became convinced that he should travel abroad to “help his Muslim brothers and sisters.”

“You become very angry,” Tighadouini said, recalling his ambition to fight. “I cannot only watch and sit in my room.”

Tighadouini packed a bag, planning to travel to either Afghanistan or Iraq. It was then that his mother, Fatima Ben Ayad, intervened. She took his passport and called the police.

“I was scared,” she said. “My son shouldn’t be going to somewhere that’s not good.”

But the police didn’t arrest Tighadouini. Instead, a community officer came to his house to speak with him about his behavior. He told Tighadouini that it was time to end his isolation and that his actions were causing pain for his family. “I was very upset, but I was also listening to him, because he was very clear,” Tighadouini said. “So I was thinking, okay, maybe it’s right.”

It was in that moment he says he began the process of de-radicalization.

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But the years of hatred had taken a toll on his psyche. As he tried to turn his life around — going back to school and trying to securing a job — it was difficult to completely change his outlook.

“It stays in your head,” Tighadouini said. “When something happened in wars or like with Syria, the hate comes back — or wanted to come back.”

He was still struggling with those feelings when he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2011. As he lay in a hospital bed being treated by a team of Dutch doctors, Tighadouini had a sudden realization. “They don’t see a Muslim on the bed, they see me, a human,” he said. “So why can I not do the same thing?”

Then, when two gunmen attacked the Paris office of satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” in January of last year, Tighadouini felt compelled to speak out against the assault. While there was almost universal outcry about the terrorist attack that killed 12 people, he felt he was in a unique position to make a difference.

“I know what happened in the minds of the youth so I want to tell my story,” Tighadouini said. “Maybe I can prevent something, maybe a guy will hear my story, will think, ‘Yeah, maybe he’s right.’”

After the attacks in Paris last November, he wrote an op-ed  piece in the Dutch newspaper “De Volkskrant” about his experience. He hopes he may reach people who are in the same position he was in. It’s this potential to help, he says, that makes any stigma or negative responses that he may receive for going public with his story worth the risk.

“I have a responsibility to speak out — as a Muslim, as a human,” he said.