The 14 year-old French girl offered no signs of being lured by Islamic State propaganda.
She ate pork, wandered around the house in a bikini top – not a tell-tale niqab – and listened to the so-called “devil’s music”.
Then just before Christmas she was gone, a freshly-minted jihad recruit, possibly headed to join the “caliphate” in Iraq or Syria.
“She even danced Zumba with her mother. Everything was programmed, so her parents, who are not Muslims, would have no idea,” Dounia Bouzar, France’s “Madame Deradicalization” dedicated to saving young people ensnared by ISIS, told Women in the World. “Sometimes these girls are as young as 12, seduced online by recruiters disguised as bearded Prince Charmings who will lead them like Alice in Wonderland to the paradise of Daesh, a kind of purist Disneyland.
“Instead they find themselves in hell. And some never return.”
Left behind are the devastated parents, online trails revealing rapid, increasingly hidden radicalization, and a serious security problem.
Out of their minds over their missing daughter whom they hoped would be stopped at the border (but until today has not been found), the parents of the 14 year-old convert immediately called the official French Government ‘Stop Jihadism’ alert line and were put in contact with Bouzar. A doctor in the anthropology of religion and an expert in dealing with delinquent and “lost” youth, Bouzar employs controversial — but arguably effective — reverse indoctrination techniques at her high-profile Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Trends Linked to Islam.
Since 2014 the author of 15 books, including How to escape from the Jihadist Grip, has employed deradicalization tactics that draw on emotion, childhood memory, sound and smell. Alcoholics Anonymous-style informal meetings, between fervent ISIS recruits and “repented” or reformed jihadists, are also a key part of the mix.
The aim is not to appeal to reason. Feelings, instinct and especially mothers and former ISIS “addicts” are used to jolt brainwashed recruits — if they return after “rupture” with their families and mainstream society — back from what Bouzar labels “Daeshland”, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS that Islamic State so loathes.
One such example is Hanane, a young French woman profiled in Bouzar’s new book Life after Daesh, one of the few to survive a spell in Syria imprisoned in ISIS’s closed houses. Here women of all nationalities are thrown together in squalid conditions without access to showers or proper food, until they agree to or are forced into marrying a jihadist fighter.
Accused of being a spy, and abused by her captors, Hanane managed to escape, got back to France and eventually passed through Bouzar’s deradicalization program. Her journey was so complete she has been able tell her story to other young women attracted to ISIS, to the point where some of them break down or “crack” — the first step on the road to rehabilitation. “She is a miracle, because most of these girls who make it to Daeshland never get out alive,” says Bouzar.
Addiction to online tribes
More than two-thirds of cases she treats are girls. Half have a history of some form of sexual abuse, and the majority are from families that are atheist or Catholic, with only one in five having a Muslim background.
Her team works with young people and their families caught up in the jihadist nightmare, even when it seems too late to “deprogram” the groupthink set in place by sophisticated recruiters who target vulnerable individuals with tactics fitting their psychological and online profiles.
“What we call ‘relational recruitment’ dissolves the individuality of the young person within the group, consisting of small groups of young women who send each other up to 300 messages, religious sayings, or videos daily,” she said. “They validate each other and all lose their identities. The group replaces the individual and eventually thinks for the individual.
“The girl is made to believe that she likes her new family more than her real parents or brothers and sisters. When you only have ideological recruitment saying you are on a divine mission — this is easier to break down than relational recruitment because this involves an addiction to these online tribes even if the girls don’t really know each other”.
Officially accredited by the French Interior Ministry, the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Trends linked to Islam has top-secret securitized mobile “de-recruitment cells”. They deal primarily with teens and some twenty-somethings whose parents suspect them of — or have found evidence of — jihadist indoctrination, and who are on the verge of leaving for the war zones of Syria and Iraq or, in the minority of cases, that have survived and come back, dehumanized to the point where they see their potential victims as objects.
A year on from the first of a series of terrorist attacks that have rocked France, starting with the massacres at Charlie Hebdo magazine and police officers and shoppers at a Paris Kosher supermarket, Bouzar’s attempts to “deradicalize” youth have been questioned by some detractors.
Her critics such as centrist Senator Nathalie Goulet want more quantifiable results, after millions of dollars in public funds have been spent. Others say the media-savvy anthropologist focuses too much on young radicalized French girls. The extreme right ridicules her defense of the Muslim headscarf (she is passionately anti-Niqab) while radical Imams and political agitators mock her Muslim credentials and say she doesn’t speak Arabic.
Women’s work in jihadist networks
Some may say Bouzar over-emphasized the problem of female radicalization, but recruited wives and girlfriends, or accomplices like Hasna Boulahcen, the cowgirl hat-wearing cousin of Paris November attacks leader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, play a key role in jihadist networks.
Emails sent from Mossoul, Iraq by the wife of Bataclan suicide killer Samy Amimour — the pair met when he was driving buses in suburban Paris and fled to Syria then Iraq — reveal her pride in his martyrdom and how such women are used to spread propaganda to future female recruits.
“You’re shocked by the attacks? LOL,” she wrote to a girlfriend in France only days after the attacks. “One of the kamikaze killers at the Bataclan was my husband Samy Amimour, he blew himself up…and you still want to hang around in Panam (colloquial for Paris)?…leave so you too can terrorize the French people who have so much blood on their hands.
“Here I have a fully furnished apartment with an equipped kitchen, two bathrooms and three bedrooms and I don’t pay for rent, electricity or water. The good life! In all the cities I’ve seen in Syria and now in Iraq I haven’t seen a single begger…You know why? Because wealth is so equally distributed everyone lives well.”
Bouzar herself admits her center only reaches a minority of Muslim families whose children are flirting with or engaged in jihadism, and cannot treat the “hardest cases” of committed terrorists. “Those who have committed terrorist attacks on French soil are all of immigrant background” she said. “Even if they are from non-practising Muslim families they have the classic profile: they haven’t integrated the rule of law, or they didn’t have a father who marked out boundaries. It is as if the converts still had an unconscious relationship towards death which stops them from moving towards an acting of terrorism on French territory.
“We have to be careful because there are many polemics in France surrounding the statistics. We work with parents who have telephoned the police and obviously not all parents call the police. That is why almost 70 per cent of our cases are girls from families who are Catholic or atheist. A lot of families of Muslim background are living in the suburbs and don’t have confidence in the police so they don’t call.”
Since the November 13 attacks in Paris, however, Bouzar says there has been an increase in calls from Muslim parents reporting their radicalized children: “With each attack, these families contact us more and more. It is as if their fear of reporting their child disappears under the weight of the horror of the attacks and they say to themselves, better that I warn them (the police) now”.
Since it opened in 2014, Bouzar’s group comprised of reformed ISIS recruits, her own daughters and experts like the renowned psychiatrist Serge Hefez, has been contacted by more than 600 families.
Last year the Center de-radicalized 234 individuals in their teens and 20s who were preparing their departure for Syria or Iraq or were arrested at the border, after their parents alerted authorities. Sixty-six percent were girls, and of those the majority were aged between 12 and 20.
One case, Lea, as recounted in Life After Daesh, was reeled in to Islamic State’s jihadist network on a camping trip. After watching countless propaganda videos sent to her by her “digital tribe” of online recruiters she became passionate about rescuing young children allegedly gassed under the orders of Syrian president Bachar al-Assad, one of Islamic State’s prime enemies.
The conversion was so complete Lea was ready to commit a terrorist attack against a synagogue in France until she was arrested by the anti-terror forces and eventually began her journey back from the brink, after meetings with Bouzar’s deradicalization swat team. “Daesh says to these girls — aren’t you ashamed sitting there in your comfortable Western home with your heating and your TV remote control, while these little babies are dying?,” Bouzar explains, based on her studies of computers and mobile devices seized from identified radicals. “They say come with us, and in three months you will be a nurse saving these babies.”
Seducers: “Pearls of love”
Over the past two years in France, Bouzar’s center has observed that ISIS recruiters who speak and think in French have “individualized their methods for entrapping young people”.
“At first they come across as seducers or simply new friends met online. They don’t necessarily have a Muslim first name. They call the girls ‘pearls of love’ and little by little they propose an ideal and a myth that corresponds to the psychological profile of their target. They start by plunging the future recruit in a world of paranoia and secret societies.
“They speak about Islam but not straight away. They say she has been chosen by God and that no one understands this yet.
“Everyone has a role and this is very appealing for a girl who is a bit fragile or who has suffered from aggression or sexual abuse. They offer a world where men and women are kept separate and where a girl will be protected by her niqab like an armour.”
The journey back from the brink is long, with newly de-radicalized cases followed intensively for more than a year by professionals, including therapists and ex-recruits, as they traverse a zone of “ambivalence” and mourning vacillating between their old Daesh life and their post-recruitment phase.
Parents also have support groups, meeting at the so-called “orphans café” when their children are still on the run.
For her efforts Bouzar is now one of the most wanted women in France. Daesh and its sympathizers send her regular death threats, and forced the cancellation of her year-end book launch in Strasbourg in the east of France, near a hot-bed of jihadi recruitment.
Despite a round-the-clock security detail, including several police guarding her and being obliged to constantly move her workplace and home over the past year, Bouzar is undeterred. “In a way this is my life’s mission now,” she says of her job of “saving” adolescents and in particular girls who have come under the control of ISIS recruiters.
For many years an anti-discrimination campaigner who worked with vulnerable youth and juvenile delinquents, Bouzar was one of the first to notice the problem of growing radicalization led by neo-fundamentalism or Salafism exported from Saudia Arabia and the Gulf States to France.
Extremism began to spike about a decade ago, yet young people did not respond to reason, such as lectures from respected Imams and specialists of Islam.
Eschewing rationality — “if atheist or non-practising parents try to get in an intellectual argument with their kids they feel caught in a sandwich and in this struggle Daesh always wins” — Bouzar uses the strategies of psychology and even literature or what she refers to as “invoking the Madeleine of Marcel Proust.” The novelist immortalized the classic French cake when he spoke, in his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, of eating a morsel of the delight and being transported almost physically back to the tastes and feelings of his childhood.
“If a father sometimes took his son fishing on a Sunday morning we ask the father to take the child fishing in the same lake and use the same fishing rod so that the young person remembers these feelings. If the mother does the housework with Charles Aznavour or some other music we ask the mother to replay the same music.
“We try to reawaken the unconscious of the child. We go looking for the little child and we make a bet that it still exists.”
The approach has proven effective, especially with young women who already have children or who are pregnant, after radicalizing in France as part of an extremist couple.
“Sometimes when they feel their baby move in their belly we have been able to save these girls thanks to the child that kicks and reawakens something human in them. We could help them they become individuals again because of their growing motherhood”.
The girls are so blind to their exploitation, their marriages at very young ages are “almost like rape”, says Bouzar.
“These are not real love stories and the girls are often violently treated. But it is the child who saves the mother by making her become an individual again.”
She recounts another anecdote of a patient treated at the center, a Niqab-wearing woman whose radicalized husband cut the heads off her child’s dolls, and made her accept that music was the devil. “All this was fine until one day he cut the head off the “doudou” (soft toy or teddy bear) of the baby.
“This triggered the ‘rehumanization’ of this woman,” Bouzar said. “She told me that when she was little she lost her doudou and she still remembered how traumatic it was because her father made fun of her and didn’t look for her lost toy.
“So when her husband cut the head off the doudou all the suffering of her childhood came back into her mind. The Madeleine of Proust can be a positive sentiment or feeling but sometimes it is negative.”
Bouzar, who often tells girls in her program that she too was under the control of a pathologically violent husband, and lived under daily terror, says she has to pay homage to the parents, and especially to the mothers. “We have done all of this with the mothers. We have built a human chain of women,” she said. “We said to the mothers that their child has been disaffiliated — literally, Daesh has made them part of a substitute community and kidnapped them from their parents. So now they need to rediscover themselves and go back to their childhood.
“I say to all these moms and girls you can find yourselves on the ground at one point in your life — as I did with my ex-husband — but everything that doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. I come from a family of women and we knew terror too.
“Take Lea who wanted to commit a terrorist attack in France and now does so much to help us. These girls who were ready to kill everyone are the first to want to save the others when they get out.”
Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons