When her daughter disappeared last spring, an unthinkable nightmare began for Saida Munye. She knew her daughter had fled the family home in Sweden with a man she loved. The man was a terrorist from ISIS.
Munye shared her story at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on Wednesday, describing the search for her child in Syria and the reasons why girls join jihad. Among those reasons: a misguided sense of romance.
Girls who join jihad often want to be in love, according to Edit Schlaffer, a social scientist who joined Munye onstage. Schlaffer works with mothers to help them stop their children from becoming extremists. In her work, she has found that terrorist recruiters often promise marriage and motherhood—an instant path to adulthood. For girls in patriarchal or controlling families, or for girls who are lonely and vulnerable, this can sound appealing.
Munye, a native of Somalia, has lived in Sweden for more than two decades. She said her daughter, Fatima, a good student who was raised in Islam and wanted to become an engineer, fell prey to a man who groomed her by speaking of love, marriage, and religion. “This man came into our life by asking her hand. We find out that he’s a terrorist. He’s a recruiter,” she said. But her daughter didn’t see it that way—she thought she was in love. Munye tried enlisting religious leaders in the community to help her daughter understand. But still Fatima left.
Munye said she has managed to make contact with her daughter in Syria via cellphone. Earlier this year, she sent a text asking her daughter to meet her at the Syrian border. Munye found her way to the border and waited. While there, she sent her daughter a heart-wrenching video, saying, “The love I have for you is not something I created, but God built in me.” Fatima did not come, but sent a text. “She said, ‘There is no way I can come to you. It’s not possible. It’s not good for you,’” Munye recalled. Girls who become jihadi brides become increasingly isolated, experts say. Wives are often forbidden from leaving the home without a male relative.
But Munye has not given up hope, and she is using her experience to help other mothers. She now works with Schlaffer, who runs a group in Vienna called Sisters Against Violent Extremism. The group helps educate mothers in high-risk areas around the world, including Pakistan and Nigeria, to stop their children from joining jihad.
“Mothers are the emotional space, the emotional relation—jihadists cannot compete with the connection,” Schlaffer said. “During adolescence, you might seem to lose this connection, or it becomes looser. Jihadists are in competition with families. Families and mothers have to realize the goldmine they have.” Girls who join jihad often dismiss reports of terrorist extremism as Western propaganda, Schlaffer has said. Mothers can often break through that. “Mothers are on the front lines,” she said.
Swedish psychologist Yassin Ekdahl, a counterterrorism specialist, joined the women onstage, noting that kids in their late teens are especially susceptible to terrorist recruiters who make promises of a better life. “It’s a time of turmoil and finding oneself and who I am,” he said. Ekdahl works with the government of Sweden to help families battling the traumatic effects of extremism.
Moderator Barkha Dutt, a consulting editor for Indian television network NDTV, asked Munye what she would like to tell her daughter today. Munye said that if her daughter returns, “I will try my best to be the mother she dreams. If she has the ideology that is self-destructive, she needs to be protected.” She added, “In our religion, you get to paradise with the ticket the mother gives you. She has my ticket to get to paradise.”