The number of foreign fighters who have joined ISIS now exceeds 20,000, illustrating the effectiveness of the group's recruitment strategies. Governments and private groups like CEP are experimenting with a variety of initiatives designed to counter the powerful and deceptive narratives of ISIS and prevent every more at-risk youth from joining its ranks. Among the groups trying to help families prevent their sons and daughters from becoming radicalized are several community based organizations that have garnered attention due to their unique composition: Mothers who have lost children to extremist groups.
Groups of mothers of children who have chosen jihad come from a variety of backgrounds and have sprung up in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, Sweden, and the United States. These mothers have organized support groups and advocacy initiatives out of a common bond: losing their children to jihad.
One American mother, Abeyte Ahmed from Minneapolis, told CBS News that the pain of her loss never goes away. However, that pain is motivating her and other mothers to reach out to help other parents take preventive action.
The mothers against jihad go by many different names and operate independently, but they all are dedicated to the same cause, helping other families recognized the signs and dangers of extremism. These groups include, among others, Women Without Borders, Mothers for Life, Syrien ne bouge, agissons, Concerned Parents Collective, and Support for Families Touched by Violent Extremism. They are determined to prevent children from other families from becoming radicalized by providing the support they never had; a secure network of moral support, promotion of reintegration for returned radicals, and education on parenting skills necessary to recognize radicalization.
For example, Austria-based Women Without Borders launched a project called “Mothers for Change,” which aims to help mothers notice signs of radicalization. Founder Edit Schlaffer believes women “must become visible players in the security arena.”
Mothers for Life established the “Open Letter Project,” which uses the foundation of the mother-child relationship in an attempt to convince children to reconsider their decisions and return from Syria and Iraq. Mothers for Life is an international network of mothers organized through the German Institute on Radicalization and de-Radicalization Studies. The project includes a three-page letter that aims to convince children to reject extremism and jihad and return home. The letter also encourages other children not to leave by emphasizing the strong mother-child bond as explained in the Quran.
The deep pain and yearning for the return of their children is made plain in each letter: The mothers write, “We did not want you to leave. We want you to return. We want you to live. Even if you think death will give you that ‘better’ life, remember that even the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said: "Paradise lies at the feet of your mother" [Musnad Ahmad, Sunan An-Nasâ’i, Sunan Ibn Mâjah].”'
These mothers from around the world have decided to take action, not only because of the impact on their families, but because of dissatisfaction with government programs. European governments, such as in Belgium, France, and the U.K., arrest and jail returning jihadists or prohibit radicalized nationals from returning home. Parents favor therapy and reintegration support as a solution, as in Denmark’s Aarhus Model, which consists of counseling.
French mother Dominique Bons lost her son Nicolas to ISIS in Syria, and her biggest complaint is French authorities did nothing when she alerted them about her concerns about her son’s behavior. Due to this inaction, she and other parents formed the support group Syrien ne bouge, agissons which translates to "If nothing is changing, let's act."
The work of mothers against jihad has apparently attracted ISIS’s attention, as the group seems to have designed its most recent guidebook, “Sister’s Role in Jihad,” as a direct response. The ISIS guidebook urges mothers to “raise jihadi babies” through activities such as camping to learn about outdoor survival skills, using toy guns to practice aim, and playing with dolls to learn about beheadings. ISIS’s response clearly demonstrates its concern that the mothers may be making a difference.
As governments and the international community struggle to defeat the lure of ISIS and other extremist groups, the actions taken by these mothers are a welcome development.
And the mothers show no signs of backing away from the fight to prevent radicalization. In the words of Dominique Bons, a mother who has lost two of her children to violent extremism, "The mothers are on the front line. There are fathers, too, of course. But mothers will stop at nothing."