The most overlooked resource in fighting violent extremism? Moms.


This article originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

When 19-year-old Akhor Saidakhmetov started hanging out with two older men and talking about waging jihad in Syria, his mother took away his passport. Later, when he begged to get it back—admitting that he wanted to join the Islamic State—she hung up the phone. Mothers like her may be the first, last, and best approach to stopping militant recruiters, but law enforcement often leaves them out of their counterterrorism efforts in the U.S. and Europe. 

There are three different approaches a country can take against violent extremism and terrorism: prevention, repression, and intervention. Mostly, Western countries rely on prevention and repression. They focus on containing the active extremist movement through law enforcement operations or they finance large-scale educational and advocacy programs directed at those deemed to be at risk of violent radicalization. However, Western governments often overlook more targeted deradicalization programs (sometimes called “off-ramps”) that engage the families and the immediate communities of individuals deemed to be falling under the sway of extremist narratives. 

Two years ago I founded GIRDS, the German Institute for Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, which works worldwide to figure out how to intervene when people become radicalized. I first became interested in the topic growing up in a small suburb of Berlin where neo-Nazi skinheads were an accepted part of the youth culture. I went away to university and then on a Fulbright to study violent extremism and counterterrorism. Since then, I have been working as a family counsellor to develop deradicalization programs, including specially designed family counselling programs for relatives of Jihadi fighters.

As governments increase the pressure on extremist groups through sting operations and raids, some members begin to crack, facing a choice to withdraw from the group (which they might want to do, if given a path to do so) or escalate their commitment by doing something violent. Intervention programs aim to provide that first path, allowing wavering members of an extremist cell a way out. A key ingredient of such programs is the debunking of appealing extremist narratives. We strive to destroy the “jihadi cool” by having someone say, “I’ve been there… And it sucks.” In the end prevention and repression are much more effective when complemented by such targeted intervention programs.

If we want to prevent future attacks, we need to recruit family and close friends of potential attackers into the counterterrorism effort and provide them with specially trained experts. In almost all previous attacks by lone actors or members of small terror cells, someone in the attackers’ close social environment recognized a disturbing change in their behavior. Sometimes this close relative or friend even knew about the attack plans.

Frequently these families or friends are desperate to get help and advice on what to do, despite their mixed feelings about betraying a loved one, but law enforcement rarely offers a strategy for making this seem possible.

In every country that has introduced a dedicated family counselling hotline and support program against violent radicalization to date, these programs were almost instantly overwhelmed with calls and requests for help from families of individuals from all different stages of radicalization. This indicates the high demand and the success in reaching out to the affected families once they are offered specially designed programs and neutral third party counsellors.

Designed and conducted correctly, these programs empower families and communities to counter the appeal of violent extremism. We work by reaching out to the gatekeepers—family and close friends. Because these gatekeepers know their friends and relatives best, they also know what might have motivated them to join the radical group and what drives them. These gatekeepers also have the legitimacy to suggest alternatives and bring in other solutions. But for that they need help and strong support networks. 

Mothers are essential gatekeepers. Most of the mothers I have worked with who have lost their children to ISIS or other terrorist groups have noticed something changing about their child, but were mostly alone without any outside help. When these families contact me from around the world what I hear almost every time is the urge to understand what is happening and how to do something about it. Many parents act on their own, take away passports, lock their children up, or move with them into another town. These reactions are understandable but are counterproductive and can further push the radicalization process.

There is a common saying amongst Jihadis: “Allah tests the ones he loves,” meaning that any obstacle on the path to martyrdom will be seen as a proof that one is the chosen one. In addition, recruiters and the Salafi-Jihadi ideology explain to those drawn to terrorism that these signs of rejection by their own family are a natural consequence of the perfect truth they have found. The biological family is superseded by the spiritual one—the ummah— and in this way even your own mother can be labelled as “infidel” and part of the enemy.

When a mother comes to us she is assigned a trained case manager. Together they will analyze the child’s situation and try to identify the “radicalization recipe.” What is driving the son or daughter towards ISIL? Together they will design a step-by-step plan, identify external partners, and build support networks around the family. The counselor will teach the family de-escalation techniques to reduce frustration, fights in the family, and bullying in school. They will bring in positive alternatives addressing the motives of the son/daughter. Does he or she want to help women and children in Syria? The mother might suggest that the youth work with a Muslim charity, or do a fundraising campaign with a legitimate organization. Also, the mother will get constant risk analysis from the counselor so that they will be able to decide if and when to bring the matter to law enforcement. The counselor is a bridge between the family and all relevant external partners.

To connect mothers to one another, we’ve built a community called Mothers For Life, which exists mainly online but also has met a couple of times in person When we wrote an open letter to ISIL in the summer 2015 and the group responded the same day on Twitter, we knew that they were afraid of the parents’ power to block their recruitment efforts. This letter contained the feelings and questions mothers around the world had when their beloved ones were taken away against their will—in stark contrast to the fundamental values of Islam. We wanted to pose questions designed to dissolve parts of the ISIS narrative. After receiving letters from imprisoned fighters saying they have realized what they did to their own mothers and want to leave jihadism behind, we knew it worked. 

Mobilizing mothers fixes another hole in the law-enforcement strategy. Parents in the Mothers for Life network have told me that they do not have a problem in principle with cooperating with law enforcement agencies, but that they have lost trust in them. Sometimes intelligence and police surveilled their children and did nothing to stop them from leaving. Sometimes the mothers were treated as terrorists themselves during house searches. At other times they have even been charged by courts with providing material support to terrorist organizations despite doing everything they could to get their children back. Sometimes I have to explain to the authorities what the role of the families is, that they are allies and want to help, that they should be respected and seen as partners, not suspects. 

Mothers for Life is currently active in 11 countries (U.S.A., Canada, France, U.K., Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Norway). Most of the parents involved have their own national organizations to support other families. GIRDS experts are based in six countries (Germany, France, England, U.S.A., Canada, and Denmark) and have trained experts and advised governments around the globe on how to counter violent extremism. Most recently I was asked to train probation officers in Minneapolis on deradicalization interventions and to conduct risk and radicalization evaluation studies for a number of defendants.

ISIS itself has announced that taking away its territory in Syria and Iraq will not defeat its brand and core ideas. It will continue to recruit and shift its tactics and strategy to overseas terror attacks. That makes it all the more important for Western societies to counter ISIS’s appeal and that of other violent extremist and terrorist organizations, and there can be no more effective fighters in that cause than the families and immediate communities of those disaffected youths tempted by the perverted promise of martyrdom. 

Daniel Koehler is the founder of GIRDS. As a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism he trains experts and advise governments around the world helping families to turn away their beloved ones from violent extremism. 

Report: Bin Laden’s journal urged al-Qaida to hit Los Angeles, not just New York [VIDEO]


Files taken from Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal intent to plan another 9/11-scale attack on cities like Los Angeles, the Associated Press reports.

He was well aware of U.S. counterterrorist defenses and schooled his followers how to work around them, the messages to his followers show. Don’t limit attacks to New York City, he said in his writings. Consider other areas such as Los Angeles or smaller cities. Spread out the targets.

In one particularly macabre bit of mathematics, bin Laden’s writings show him musing over just how many Americans he must kill to force the U.S. to withdraw from the Arab world. He concludes that the smaller, scattered attacks since the 9/11 attacks had not been enough. He tells his disciples that only a body count of thousands, something on the scale of 9/11, would shift U.S. policy.

He also schemed about ways to sow political dissent in Washington and play political figures against one another, officials said.

The communications were in missives sent via plug-in computer storage devices called flash drives. The devices were ferried to bin Laden’s compound by couriers, a process that is slow but exceptionally difficult to track.

Read more at ap.org.

Video courtesy of AP.

Israeli puppies walk the beat with L.A. sheriffs


When Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Faulk strolled into Los Angeles’ Union Station on a recent Monday morning, his new Israeli partner, Ami, walked beside him. The blond-haired sabra is disarmingly friendly, maybe even a little frisky.

In Hebrew, Faulk tells him “Tovah kelev, tovah,” or “good dog,” and his Israeli partner wags his tail.

Ami is a yellow Labrador from

Israeli Institute tracks tricks and trends in terrorism


Every profession has its little inside joke, and terrorist hunting is no exception.

As Boaz Ganor tells it, a lady approached him at an airport and confessed that she was terrified that somebody might have planted a bomb on her upcoming flight.

“Here’s what you do,” counseled Ganor, executive director of the International Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya. “Take aboard some explosives, because there’s hardly any chance of two bombs being on the same plane.”

This was about the first and last light moment at the seminar hosted here recently at the Israeli consulate, with the weighty title, “Combating International Terrorism: Current and Future Trends and Domestic Implications.”

The event drew about 70 people from a cross-section of the Jewish community.

Four ICT experts spoke and if their well-presented talks can be summarized in two sentences, they are: The battle to contain global terrorism will be long and hard, but it can be done. Above all, don’t panic.

Over the years, Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi has changed from the direct attack of Sept. 11, to bombings by affiliated groups and now to actions by homegrown cells in Western countries.

The latter have become the most dangerous, Ganor believes, because they know the lay of the land, are convinced they are acting at Allah’s command and are spurred by perceived humiliations and grievances.

In contrast to the homegrown cells, which often carry out operations on their own, Iran is spreading terrorism through well-defined proxies.

Taking Hezbollah as an example, ICT Deputy Director Eitan Azani said that from its headquarters in Lebanon, the Shiite terrorist organization runs a three-pronged social-political-military operation with a presence in 40 countries.

Terrorist groups have become quite adept at using Web sites for propaganda, recruiting and fundraising, noted ICT senior researcher Jonathan Fighel, using symbols whose meaning are instantly recognized by Muslims, but escape most Westerners.

Thus, the icon for “The Light” represents one of the 99 names of Allah; a rose symbolizes martyrdom for female suicide bombers; a finger pointed skyward, a favorite gesture of fervent public speakers, signals divine approval, and a snake stands for Israel.

Understanding the codes and mentality of the terrorists is a complex and subtle task, Fighel said, adding, “There are no cookbook answers.”

The threat of chemical, biological, radiological or electronic means used by terrorists has gotten a lot of hype, but such “silent” weapons have not proven particularly effective and have caused relatively few casualties, according to Yael Shahar, who heads ICT’s database project.

“Such devices are used primarily for their psychological effect,” Shahar said. “Most casualties are caused by attacks using off-the-shelf weaponry.”

On the diplomatic front, the sheer number of states hostile to Israel will always put the Jewish state at a disadvantage, said Israel Consul General Ehud Danoch, who hosted the event, which was organized by his deputy, Yaron Gamburg.

For instance, in the U.S. State Department or the foreign services of major countries, there will be 51 ambassadors who have served in Arab or Muslim countries and can identify with their viewpoints, compared to one ambassador who has served in Israel, Danoch said.

In a lively Q-& -A session, Ganor warned against lumping all Muslims into one category.

“Most Muslims are not extremists,” he said, especially in such non-Arab countries as Turkey and Indonesia.

Inevitably, the role of the media came in for scrutiny, with the American press getting surprisingly good marks.

In a private conversation, Ganor evaluated the international media’s coverage of the Lebanon War as “not too critical” and relatively restrained, but the same could not be said for the Israeli media.

“I met with news editors of the Israeli press and TV stations some years ago and urged them to help lower public anxiety by not showing close-ups of mutilated bodies or of panicky behavior,” Ganor said.

His pleas were not heeded and his current warning to the Israeli media, Ganor said, is that “you are creating fear and you are being misused by the terrorists.”

On the international scene, however, Israel’s public relations efforts during the Lebanon War were more effective than during the first and second intifadas, the experts agreed, though unfortunately one doesn’t win wars through PR campaigns.

Commented Fighel wryly, “The media was excellent, but we [Israel] screwed up.”