On 1st June 2015 Rasheed Benyahia, aged 19, travelled from Birmingham to Syria to join the so called Islamic State group. Within 6 months he was dead. In the film just released My Son Joined Isis, his mother Nicola Benyahia tells his story and hers. It is a gripping narrative, with the recurrent pounding questions – how is it that nobody knew? How did Rasheed continue to believe in the mission, despite finding that he had been lied to by ISIS, and despite constant contact with Nicola on the phone or by text? Like many others I would think, I am baffled.
Nicola’s story sums up the challenges for many practitioners and teachers who may wonder if they can ‘spot a terrorist’ or observe signs of potential radicalisation. In contrast to the portrayal of extremists coming from dysfunctional homes, or being vulnerable, Rasheed’s family was a close, loving one, packed with laughter, fun and care. He achieved 12 GCSEs, and was a keen sportsman, enjoying karate, football and parkour. If he was going to be more than even 10 minutes late home in the evening, he would always phone home: he cared deeply about his parents. This was not a boy alienated from home, work or life in general. Yet somebody within the ISIS machinery managed to get to him.
There emerges this web of deception. ISIS radicalisers had not only convinced Rasheed of his duty to fight, but that he should ensure nobody suspected anything of his intentions. He had been instructed to destroy the hard drive of his computer so that the digital footprint was covered up and his radicalisers or other sympathisers could not be traced quickly. The only clues for the family were that some confusion within him was sensed by Nicola, that he became more serious and that he withdrew from family activities. But nothing that would signal such a departure. He was told he had a purpose, he would be important, he would have a wage. The latter at least was shown to be spurious: we learn that he was given the equivalent of £40 a week to live on, but that he then had to buy his own protective clothing, and even had to buy his own bullets – i.e. to give the money back to ISIS. This did not appear initially to dissuade him from the cause, although Nicola says he was not completely convinced to the end. Doubts began to creep in once he returned from being sent to fight.
What is extraordinary about the film is Nicola’s description of how, after 10 weeks of silence, Rasheed was in constant contact with her from Raqqa through the Whatsapp or Skype social media apps. Nicola told the police instantly. Yet she was faced with the dilemma of not supporting what he was doing, wanting him back, yet not wanting to show anger and jeopardizing this precious contact. All she could do was to repeat how much she still loved him as a mother. He in turn said how much he loved her, and how amazing his parents had been. In his texts, he says how he could not have wished for a better upbringing. (The ISIS fighter who finally contacted the family to tell of his death said how evident it was how well they had brought him up, that he was a very respectful boy, which was ironically even more heartbreaking for Nicola.) Rasheed knew he was going to die; but Nicola did not want him to die knowing that she was angry with him. So the texts are loving, chatty, even jokey sometimes about whether she should send hair products from Alum Rock (in Birmingham) for his unruly hair. Nicola has been trained as a therapeutic counsellor, and I imagine this helped her to hold it together and decide how best to communicate with her son. As a mother, I have no idea what I would do in those circumstances. But Nicola comes through in the film as so strong and resolute in spite of her grief and what must have been bewilderment.
Her determination to take something from this overwhelming loss and waste of life has led her to start the organization Families for Life – ‘supporting and empowering families to combat all forms of extremism’. Parents or relatives who are worried about a son, daughter or loved one being radicalized, or having gone to fight, can contact them by phone or email to receive appropriate help and counselling. This is a fantastic and highly necessary initiative.
Something else could be a positive outcome from this ghastliness. We showed the film, with Nicola there, at Halesowen College. The 200 students were absolutely engaged and full of questions for Nicola. They were asked in return, ‘what would you do if you thought a friend was being radicalised?’ Interestingly, they would not go to the police, but they might go to the parents, teachers or ask their peers for advice. Often in the training of young people around extremism, the emphasis is on building personal resilience to being groomed or radicalized. But showing films such as this would enable a different and complementary angle, the responsibility of peers to look out for each other. We need to encourage whatever it takes to blow open the secrecy around the process of radicalization and disrupt the coaching that must go on to enable young people to constantly dissemble and hide, even from those they love and care for. My hunch is that savvy kids might pick up on stuff that parents, teachers or experienced Channel mentors cannot.
If there are young people reading this blog, your thoughts would be much appreciated.