Nicola Benyahia grew up Anglican and converted to Islam as an older teen. She considered herself religiously liberal, and Western. So it came as a surprise when her son Rasheed was radicalized, eventually running away to join ISIS. Rasheed was killed in an airstrike in Iraq in 2015.
Benyahia joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about her family's tragedy, and her work helping other families fight indoctrination and radicalization of their children.
On her initial reaction when Rasheed's behavior started to change
"I kind of just thought he was going through some sort of teenage angst, really. And my daughters — I have four daughters — and they'd gone through kind of the teenage stuff as well. So being a boy, I thought maybe he was just going through it in a different kind of way. But it was, again, over about a year, year and a half period when sort of small things started changing that were kind of more religious. And that was what was concerning me more than anything."
On whether it felt like a stranger had taken her son
"It did. I would say particularly the last sort of six to eight months. There was a very... a big change within his own character, because as you said before, he was a very smiley, very happy-go-lucky... I can't remember a time where he ever became angry or was kind of unhappy. And so when he became more rigid, and he wasn't joining in with the fun in our family life, that was what was most significant for me. That was really, really out of character and strange for me."
On whether there's anything she regrets not doing
"Obviously, you know on hindsight and looking back, I've reflected constantly about the past. And looking back, at the time, with the tools and what I knew at the time, really I couldn't have changed anything. I didn't have the right people around me, I didn't have the right skills, I didn't have the right knowledge. At the time I just did the best I could as a mother, and there wasn't an awful lot really of assistance or help, really, in the U.K."
"When he became more rigid, and he wasn't joining in with the fun in our family life, that was what was most significant for me."Nicola Benyahia, on changes in her son Rasheed's behavior
On how Rasheed sounded when she first heard from him after he went missing
"The first call I got from him after he'd been missing about two and a half months, he was exactly the same. He was slightly panicky, because he'd known that he hadn't been in touch for nearly three months, so I could hear his voice shake. He was full of emotion because he'd just been released from a camp. The homesickness and missing us was all just coming out. But after that, I almost had to view it — the phone calls I got from him — I had to literally, to get through them, I had to view it as if he was just at college down the road, because I would not have been able to get through those phone calls with him had I really understood where he was."
On being told that her son had been killed in an airstrike
"I had been expecting it, because I heard the stories from other mothers and other parents who had had similar stories, and I knew it was only literally every day that passed was just an extra day that he was living. Psychologically and emotionally I was preparing myself for that call."
"[The ISIS fighter] just said, you know, 'Are you the parents of Rasheed?' And we confirmed, we said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'I'm really sorry to tell you but your son's been killed. He was hit by an airstrike and he was taken outright.' But I think what was very difficult for me, which kind of hurt me and upset me, was he just turned around and even began to cry himself and said, 'Your son was a very, very good boy. He was a very respectful boy.' I thought, 'If you knew that, why did you do this to him?'"
"In a way, as awful as it sounds coming from a mother, part of me was glad that he died when he died, because I no longer had to fear thinking that he may do something like that."Nicola Benyahia, on being notified of her son's death a week after the 2015 Paris terror attacks
On seeing attacks like the 2015 Paris terror attacks and thinking of her son
"Whenever there was any kind of attack or anywhere, you know, even when my son was out in Syria, it scared me thinking, you know, 'What if they made him return or made him do something.' So anything that was on the news or in the paper, it never went out my mind that that could be possibly my son, that they could make him do something. So in a way, as awful as it sounds coming from a mother, part of me was glad that he died when he died, because I no longer had to fear thinking that he may do something like that."
On her advice for families in recognizing and preventing radicalization
"I think it's going with your gut feeling, because there aren't these magical signs. The family will have a gut feeling, or there's something not quite right. And what I do with the families is make sure that I validate that and I work through that with them."
"I think I always encourage the family to have the authorities on board as well. You need a whole team around that family and the individual to kind of really sort of intervene with this, and everyone has a part to play, whether it's the sort of social services here, or welfare, whether it's the police authorities. Everybody has their part around that individual to deradicalize them. But meanwhile, I'm there to support them emotionally and psychologically, because the radicalization can change from sort of week to week. And they have to obviously live with this individual and cope with them, and that can be incredibly draining on their own mental health as well."
This segment aired on July 24, 2017.
Support the news
Support the news