All In The Family

CEP Research Analyst


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Families faced with the horror of losing a loved one to the lure of ISIS  propaganda have often chosen collective action in the hopes of  stopping radicalization and emigration to ISIS controlled areas. But other families have chosen to wage their battle privately, taking action to halt the radicalization of their sons and daughters into their own hands.          

While foreign fighters have flocked to fight in Syria since the opening clashes of the civil war in 2011, it has been only fairly recently that ISIS has clamped down on their ability to leave the self-declared caliphate. As the coalition air campaign intensified in the fall of 2015 and efforts by ISIS to seize Kobane failed, the first reports of executions of fleeing foreign fighters began to emerge. Now radical groups, particularly ISIS, have turned their security apparatus against their own foot soldiers, erecting a sprawling network of checkpoints and informants to halt the outflow and carrying out grisly executions of those caught. Naturally, families and friends of potential fighters increasingly see a trip to Syria to fight as a near certain death sentence and have consequently mounted desperate attempts to keep their loved ones at home and away from the fighting.

Some families have taken an active role in physically preventing their relatives from traveling to Syria. Jamshed Javeed, a high school chemistry teacher of Pakistani descent living in the U.K., came to the attention of authorities when friends became concerned about his sudden radicalization. When Javeed revealed intentions to travel to Syria, his parents hid his equipment for fighting in Syria and passport, forcing Javeed to postpone his trip. When Javeed remained resolute in his plan to travel to Syria, his family confronted him and recorded their subsequent 25 minute argument, which was later used as evidence in court. They then reported him to anti-terror police who arrested him three days later at the airport. Outside of the western world, in September 2015 in Riyadh, a father reported his two sons, aged 19 and 21, to security forces when he discovered they were planning terrorist attacks on behalf of ISIS.

To facilitate communication between families and authorities, the government of Australia, at an October 2015 extremism summit, discussed the formation of a "family hotline" where family members could report radicalized young people outside of the existing national security apparatus.       

Other families have been forced to take more extreme action. In May 2014, the mother of Zakariya Ashiq, a then 20 year old British man who was trying to enter ISIS controlled territory, intercepted her son in Turkey and seized his money, debit card and passport, forcing him to return to the U.K.

Increasingly, families have also used the media to appeal to their relatives to return home. In one high profile case, Akhtar Iqbal and Mohammad Shoaib held a televised press conference begging their wives and children to return home from Syria. The men are the husbands of two of three British sisters, Khadija Dawood, Sugra Dawood, and Zohra Dawood, who immigrated to ISIS controlled territory with their nine children in June 2015. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, the group of 12 disappeared, secretly traveling to Syria via Turkey. Similarly, family members of three teenage British girls, who traveled from the U.K. to Syria in February 2015, made televised, emotional pleas for the girls to return home. None of the families, however, was successful.

Still others have come to regret their decision to contact authorities. After British man Yusuf Sarwar left his parents a note stating he had traveled to Syria to fight with al-Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra, his mother reported him missing to the police. When he later returned home, Sarwar was sentenced to more than 12 years in jail. Sarwar’s mother was appalled by the verdict, stating: “As soon as I found out about the letter I went to the police and co-operated but the police have betrayed me and misused me...If I had known they would put my son behind bars I would not have told them about the letter.” She urged legal reform, arguing that, in the future, the parents of other Jihadists wouldn’t come forward knowing their children would be jailed for significant periods of time.