PARIS — She lost her only son to jihad when 20-year-old Sami Sayah slipped out of his home in the Paris suburbs early one morning determined to fight for ISIS.
Less than a year later, in March 2015, and despite repeated pleas over Skype that he return to his family, the young Frenchman was killed in a car accident in Syria, on the road to Shaddadi in the war-ravaged northeast.
“I was the first mother in France to receive a death certificate signed by Daesh [The Arabic acronym for Islamic State or ISIS]” Aziza Sayah said in an interview with Women in the World.
“It was such a shock. The most terrible thing for a mother is to lose her child. I didn’t bring a terrorist into this world … I found out too late he was being indoctrinated by a co-worker.”
Today Sayah is a mother in mourning, yet determined to stop the radicalization process that destroyed her boy’s life, a process she blames a lot on extremist Salafist proselytizers pushing a Saudi-derived “purist” form of Islam.
She has joined other women in the battle against violent Islamist fundamentalism, traveling around France and to her parent’s native Tunisia, the producer of more foreign fighters than any other country, to talk to parents whose children have suffered the same fate as Sami.
As a leading figure with the French counter-extremism group The Mother’s Brigade, and in partnership with the global network FATE (Families Against Terrorism and Extremism), she counsels mothers deemed guilty for their children’s gravitation towards terror, including those whose kids are in jail. The divorced mom of three girls visits prisons to speak with young people at risk of being won over by jihadist ideologues and reaches out to parents whose offspring are vulnerable.
“It’s a war that is not our business but they have taken away all our young people and it is the mothers who suffer — the mothers who can’t get past this pain and who don’t live anymore,” she said. “Because we don’t live, we just survive, and it is very, very hard. But I want to say to all the mothers like me that they can come out of the shadows. They need to speak out and join parents’ groups. This is a form of therapy. Because they can’t be alone and they must meet others.”
Aziza’s other fight is even more personal: To bring back her baby granddaughter from the ISIS killing fields.
“I’m carrying on for my daughters and my granddaughter — Sami’s baby. Her name is Islam and my struggle now is to find her and get her out of Syria. I don’t know her — I’ve only seen photos of her. The girl who married my son was in contact with my daughter. But we haven’t had any news since April.”
Sami’s former wife is a young French woman who lived in Strasbourg, and connected with him on Skype, before leaving her home to join him as a jihadi bride in the ISIS war zone.
“They married and voila. She had a child but he didn’t know she was pregnant. The day he had the accident she found out. ”
At first the Sayahs received news from the mother of Sami’s daughter, but the messages stopped coming earlier this year. “She remade her life and she remarried. Over there when your partner dies you have to marry.”
Still, Sayah remains hopeful she will be united one day with her granddaughter and continues her quest to tell Sami’s story and stop other parents from missing the warning signs of a child falling into the hands of extremists. Last month Sayah traveled to Tunis for a conference on families and terror and was a headline guest on Labes, one of the most-watched TV talk shows in Arabic-speaking North Africa. She reminded parents that there is no standard youth jihadist “profile” – “it can happen to anyone.”
“This affects everyone all over the world — Christians, Muslims, atheists. No one is safe. It really makes you afraid. What is the future for our children and our grandchildren? We’re scared.”
Mothers especially must be vigilant, she said, paying attention to their children’s behavior and online activity, then alerting authorities as soon as they have any concerns. She was unaware of the extent of her own child’s descent into terror. He hid his intentions and even dissembled, became radicalized over only a few months, and was no longer living in the family home.
After Sami left for Syria, his mom was filled with such a sense of betrayal — he had lied many times to her about the extent of his immersion in radical Islamic jihad — that she refused at first to speak to him. Her daughter persuaded her to get back in contact after two months, fearful Sami might die in the battle zone.
“I told him it wasn’t his war and that his life was here [in France] so he must come back home,” Sayah recalled. “He didn’t have the right to abandon his mother and family and leave like a traitor. But he had completely radicalized. I don’t know what they managed to put inside his head. The face was my son’s but inside it was no longer him,” she said.
“He said the same things as all the jihadists: ‘I left to reserve a place for you in paradise. I am in a holy land and where you are it’s not the holy land it is the land of the miscreants and the kuffars (infidels).’ It’s a whole system.”
In Sayah’s view, Salafist Muslims played a significant role in her son’s radicalization and influenced other young people enlisting for jihad and terror — even if many Salafists profess to reject violence. Her argument gels with the findings of a new book titled Les Revenants, or The Returnees, by French journalist David Thomson that’s based on interviews with candidates for jihad who have come back from Syria and Iraq. One radical, ‘”Zoubeir,” told Thomson that “quietist” or non-violent Salafism had prepared the ground and constituted a stepping stone towards him tipping over into jihadism.”
“Everything happens because of the Salafists,” Sayah declared. “If my son had never gone to [the Paris suburb] Sevran to work and if he had stayed with me he would never have left for Syria. The recruiters are there, and it is the most affected neighborhood [for jihadist enlistment]. There is a problem. You see these highly religious radicals in the streets speaking to young people. They don’t hide themselves.”
France has for too long tolerated the spread of Salafist ideology and zealots in tough neighborhoods, she said.
“We gave everything to the Salafists, but at one point it has to stop. This is a democracy and a secular country. We have handed too much power to the Salafists giving them subsidies for their little mosques and religious activities.”
Sayah’s claims are backed up by a fellow mother of a dead jihadi Veronique Roy. Her son Quentin converted to Islam and in Sevran came into contact with what was probably the same Salafist network that targeted Sami. One of the presumed recruiters has since been sent to prison, suspected of being behind the departures for Syria of more than ten young people from Sevran, of which seven are now dead, including Quentin.
“I think we are too timid when faced with radical Muslim politics, and these Salafist brotherhoods, who flirt with lawmakers — lawmakers who themselves negotiated and engage in client politics with the radicals, all for electoral reasons,” Roy told Women in the World.
“Then we don’t forbid hate preachers and that poses a problem: our country of liberty tolerates hate as long as it isn’t an explicit incitement to terrorism. Of course we have freedom of worship but only the radical Islamists believe that the law of God is superior to the law of men. And unfortunately we hear them more than the moderates.”
Before he became enmeshed in Salafist Islam, Sami was what Sayah calls a “typical boy” from the Paris suburbs who liked music, going out and dating girls.
“He had a job, and his family, an apartment and plans for the future,” she recalled.
Then he moved to the district near the French capital that has become globally known as one of France’s leading exporters of jihadists. Sami got a job as a janitor in an apartment building in the suburb of Sevran.
“Soon after that he began to change,” explained Aziza. “He was praying all the time. He stopped smoking. He wouldn’t shake the hand of his female boss, and he refused to watched TV or listen to music. I said to him ‘You’re not getting caught up in radical Islam are you?’ and he assured me that no he was not ‘one of those crazies.’
It was only after his departure Sami’s family I found out he had come under the sway of a colleague who was indoctrinating him. Sayah’s is therefore keen to discount the idea that young people get brainwashed purely via social networks and media.
When a young person is drawn to jihadism, there is always a person and a place, like a school, a workplace, colleagues and friends, Sayah affirmed.
“It’s not just the internet. They radicalize first then they go online afterwards to see propaganda. But everything is accomplished before.” Girls must also be closely watched, Sayah believes, because they “are even more determined” than the young men, once they have been inculcated.Without warning, under the pretext that he was preparing a pilgrimage to Mecca — he even bought plane tickets as a decoy — Sami snuck out one morning two-and-a-half years ago, and headed first to Turkey and eventually to Syria where he began training as a soldier for the “caliphate.”
“I couldn’t stop my own son,” Sayah laments. “So I have taken up this struggle which is extremely painful. I fight to try to stop young people from leaving [to wage jihad] — and from getting radicalized in the first place.”
Her work with The Mothers’ Brigade, founded by Sevran mother and social worker Nadia Remadna is a “combat.” The moms’ “army” works in the field with mothers and young people on prevention in schools and prisons.
“We are not behind a desk or writing papers. I like being at the grassroots and that is why I am with Nadia on the ground especially working on prevention so that girls as well as boys don’t depart [to wage jihad] abroad or in France,” she said.
“If we save one young person it is already a victory. We can’t de-radicalize but we go to see them and we try to reestablish their links with their families. It is remarkable work and we are not supported by the state of course. We don’t have offices. I work at home or we work at Nadia’s. Our goal it’s not a question of money because we do it with our heart.”
Sayah and Remadna’s friend Marie-Laure Brossier, a Socialist councilor in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet, said the fact Sami’s departure took his whole family by surprise was no isolated case.
“As in many cases the radicalization happened so rapidly over several months and the signs were not sufficiently clear for his mother and relatives to say ‘Stop, emergency!’” she told Women in the World. Brossier believes the strength of The Mothers’ Brigade and the participation of women like Aziza is their experience in the terrain where extremism is taking root. “They know the Salafists by heart and are not constrained by any false sense of political correctness. Sometimes it’s very blunt but it’s a liberation.”
Bitterness edges into Sayah’s voice as she recalls the multiple alerts and warnings she gave French authorities the moment she found out Sami had fled. She told the local police then contacted the French embassy in Turkey, Sami’s first stop, hoping they would arrest him before he committed any crimes or made it to Syria. Nothing happened.
“Sadly, France has been too late to wake up to what is happening and the French state has a lot to answer for. We alerted and we warned we said ‘be careful there are young people who are radicalizing and we need to protect them and work on prevention.’ There is so much work to do but France didn’t see the danger coming.”
Sayah points out that children have been leaving for the war zone since 2012, and she believes her son and others like Quentin Roy have died, and paid with their deaths so that the recruits who came after them would not have the same destiny. But it still took too long, as was seen with the Paris attacks of November 2015, perpetrated by French and Belgian operatives who had moved back and forth between the caliphate and Europe. France faces enormous challenges because radicalization takes two forms.
“There are those who are being persuaded to leave and fight abroad and others who are being recruited to perform terrorist atrocities on home soil,” said a spokesperson for FATE which works with non-profits and families in Europe and North Africa. “Our network is set up to provide support and education for families being targeted by recruitment messaging, and by enabling families to take a stand we are able to effectively counteract the influence of DAESH.”
Amine El Khatmi, an Avignon Socialist lawmaker and practicing Muslim, agrees more support is needed for families on the frontlines of extremism.
“Every day I meet mothers, very often single mothers, who are raising their children alone, and sometimes even working two jobs to survive,” he told Women in the World. “I consider them the real heroines of the French republic, because they have an enormous responsibility on their shoulders.
“But often because they are not adequately supported, some are overwhelmed by the situation and see their children radicalizing without being able to do anything.”
El Khatmi believes that despite improvements, precious time has often been lost between the time a mother alerts the authorities and when they react. “We need to devote more financial means to working with families, especially single mothers,” he said. “The government needs to be more reactive because a when we take charge of a child early we can perhaps save him or her more easily than if they have been radicalized for a long time.”
Empowering moms offers a positive alternative to the guilt trips laid on the parents of kids who get caught in the jihadi milieu.
Sayah has encountered disapproval and negative reactions from some people in France and elsewhere who judge her responsible for what happened to Sami – a mom who didn’t raise her kids well.
“We have to stop always passing judgment on the moms,” she said. “We did our job and our duty.
“I hold out my hand to moms in the same pain as me. I leave my suffering to the side so I can be able to help them and I have seen a lot of mothers come out of the shadows.”