As one father told me the story of his daughter’s radicalization, his every word was heavy with regret. He should have intervened earlier, he said, when he first noticed she was hiding her online conversations from him. When his daughter disappeared, he frantically tried to call her. But it was too late; she’d gone to Syria to join the Islamic State.
Now she is among the 250 individuals who have attempted to or succeeded in traveling to Syria or Iraq to join terrorist organizations such as Islamic State. Parents like the father I spoke to are desperate to halt their children’s descent into violent extremism, but they get little help and support from the government or anyone else. Left to struggle on their own, parental interventions often fail.At George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, we spent six months looking for clues to explain the recent surge in American recruits to jihadism. We reviewed nearly 8,000 pages of court documents stemming from Islamic State-related criminal charges against 85 individuals. We also interviewed some family members and combed through online communications.
In the end, we found no clear profile. The path to radicalization wasn’t linear or predictable. Islamic State recruits were old and young, rich and poor, college graduates and high school dropouts. Some had deep knowledge of Islam, while others had only a superficial understanding of the faith. While they shared an affinity for jihadist ideology, they manifested that support in a variety of ways — from joining the so-called caliphate to raising money to send to Syria or Iraq.
If red flags exist, it is family members who might spot them. Such early suspicions are best described as simply “parents’ intuition.” These feelings and observations could never be quantified into a checklist, but some families sense that something is awry.
Our interviews and court records reveal how parents, siblings, even aunts and uncles try urgently to intervene, but often fail. In at least four cases we studied, families hid their loved ones’ passports. Minnesota resident Hanad Mohallim’s mother followed him to Turkey in a futile attempt to bring him home. He later died in Syria.
When Sal Shafi, a father in California, realized his son Adam was flirting with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, he sent him on a “scared straight”-style visit with a jailed Islamic State sympathizer. His efforts, too, were in vain: The FBI arrested his son for providing material support to a terrorist group.
Simply enlisting the help of law enforcement doesn’t appear to increase the odds of success either. Police officers and FBI agents met with convert and Colorado native Shannon Conley at least eight times to dissuade her from traveling to Syria. They provided guidance to Conley’s parents, brought in a Muslim FBI agent to debate verses from the Koran and tried to redirect her energies to charities that help Syrians. Despite all those efforts, Conley was arrested at the airport on her way to Syria.
It is easy to criticize these families’ haphazard attempts to save their loved ones, but what options do they have? There isn’t a guidebook for American parents in these scenarios. There is no catalogue of intervention experts to call upon. U.S. government officials and community groups offer little practical help. Indeed, there are no comprehensive U.S. deradicalization or disengagement programs.
Other countries have programs that provide an avenue for interventions. In Germany and Austria, there are hotlines for concerned parents. In Canada, the government-funded Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence gives guidance and support to families. The Danish city of Aarhus has developed a mentorship program to help radicalized individuals. Social workers from Hayat, a German nongovernmental organization, counsel and advise families. Just last week, the French government announced a new plan to create “deradicalization centers” around the country.
The FBI, however, has only haltingly introduced any alternative to arrest. It recently hatched a program called Shared Responsibility Committees that would, in theory, enlist local mental health professionals, religious leaders, teachers, local law enforcement and social workers to develop strategies to counter violent extremism. The concept quickly attracted the ire of civil rights advocates, however, for its lack of transparency and potential 1st Amendment issues.
I share their concerns. Still, an estimated 250 people have left the United States to join Islamic State, or tried to. The U.S. knows it has a problem with radicalization but offers few solutions. Without a formalized approach to intervention, parents are resorting to hiding their child’s passport, and hoping for the best.
Seamus Hughes is the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. He is the co-author of the Program’s report, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa.”