Her son Sabri was just an ordinary teen growing up in Belgium, until he began to become reclusive and serious about Islam, Saliha Ben Ali recalled.
The 18-year-old Belgian boy of Tunisian heritage drifted away from his family and could not resist the lure of radicalism that his mother is fighting against today as the founder of a Brussels-based NGO, the Society Against Violent Extremism (S.A.V.E.) Belgium.
Her son, who vanished in August 2013, ended up being killed in Syria in December of that year, she said. He died fighting for the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, against which Ben Ali has since “declared war,” as she told the French newspaper Le Figaro last year.
“Sabri was very much curious. Thousands of questions whirled inside him. He fell prey to the wrong people at the wrong time, and could not recover,” Ben Ali told a seminar at Dhaka University on Tuesday.
Ben Ali has made it her mission to fight against the indoctrination of young minds by radical groups such as IS, and is visiting Bangladesh this week to spread this message in the predominantly Muslim country that has seen a rise in Islamic radicalism, where scores of youths from across the social spectrum apparently joined local extremist groups.
Ben Ali said she wanted to make mothers in Bangladesh aware of changes she noticed in Sabri before she lost him.
Recruiters from radical groups “spread venom in the name of religion. They find conspiracies in everything,” Ben Ali said.
She told the story of how she lost her son, while appearing on a panel titled “Campaign to Counter Violent Extremism: Learning from S.A.V.E. Belgium,” organized by the American Center in Dhaka and the Innovation for Well Being Foundation, a Bangladeshi NGO that promotes mental health nationwide.
“Youngsters are identified after getting involved with militancy, but the question is why should they become involved?” said Bangladeshi journalist, Julfikar Ali, who spoke at the seminar.
“[P]olice alone can’t fight militancy. Militants don’t only fight with machetes, bombs or grenades. They are also radicalizing social and cultural sectors into fundamentalism. They have taken on a mission to ruin the secular values,” he said.
Another speaker, Mekhla Sarkar, a professor at the National Mental Health Institute, explained some of the psychology behind the appeal of radicalism to young minds.
“When youngsters get involved with militancy, they are always very curious at that age. They want to show heroism. They want to prove that they are now grown and mature enough,” he said.
“Parents and family members need to listen to them with patience.”
A mother’s story
During her visit to Bangladesh, Ben Ali will meet with families who have lost children to radicalism or whose children have gone missing and are feared to have been recruited into extremist ranks. She also will meet with police officials and representatives of various ministries.
On Tuesday, she told her audience in Dhaka how her son grew into a frustrated youth, after he dropped out of high school and could not land a job.
He tried to enlist in the Belgian military, but it wouldn’t take him, she said, alleging that her son was a victim of anti-Muslim discrimination.
“Sabri lamented to me that he could not secure a job even though he knew three languages. He was always under vigilance. While boarding a bus, police used to frisk him. He could not escape police surveillance while coming out of cinemas along with his girlfriend,” Ben Ali said.
Her son’s frustration pushed him toward religion and he was lured into radical circles by some people who frequented a local mosque, she said.
Ben Ali blames local imams for not paying enough attention to her son, saying they could have intervened to stop Sabri from being pulled into the black hole of radicalism.
After he disappeared in August 2013, his mother heard from him just once, when Sabri contacted her over Facebook.
“‘Mom, please forgive me. I am in Syria. I will help the people here,’ Sabri wrote to me. I urged him to return. But he told me that he was in a place where he was being monitored every time,” Ben Ali said.
In December, she received the worst news a mother could get.
A stranger called, and her husband picked up the phone.
“‘Are you the father of Abu Torab?’” the caller asked, according to Ben Ali’s account.
“‘No. I am the father of Sabri,’” Ben Ali recounted.
“‘He has been martyred just now,’” the stranger said and then hung up.