ISIS is still scary

The IS mothers

In Calgary Christianne Boudreau was busy watching videos of the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) every free minute between her soccer training, working hours as an accountant and inviting neighbors to eat, her nose close to the computer monitor.

She sat in the basement of her middle-class home in her middle-class suburb, a bare room that once belonged to her eldest son, Damian, and watched men pose like teenagers with big guns. She watched firefights. She watched executions. But Boudreau hardly noticed the bloodshed. She concentrated on the faces behind the balaclavas, tried to see her son's eyes.

In Copenhagen Karolina Dam was mad with worry. Her son Lukas had been in Syria for seven months. Three days earlier she had heard of the rumor that he had been injured outside of Aleppo, but she was sure he was dead. That evening she was sitting at home alone, nervously puffing on an e-cigarette, couldn't help but sending a Viber message over the Internet. “Lukas,” she wrote, “I love you so much my beloved son. I miss you and I want to hug you and smell you. Hold your soft hands in mine and smile at you. "

There was no answer. A month later someone wrote her back. It wasn't Luke.

"How about my hands hehe"

Damn didn't know who had accessed his Viber account on her son's phone, but she was dying to find out more. She tried to stay calm and replied: "Yours too, of course, honey, but especially Lukas'."

The person asked, "Can you take news?"

“Sure, darling,” Dam wrote. It took a few seconds, then the answer came.

"Your son was torn to pieces."

In Norway Torill, who does not want to give her last name, learned of his death from the recruiter who had sent her son Thom Alexander to fight in Syria.

When she got the message, Torill just lay down. She barely moved for a week. When she finally found the strength to shower, she undressed and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She found that she looked exactly the way she felt: "Broken like a vase."

** In Brussels "" Saliha Ben Ali, a modern European-born daughter of Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants, was at a humanitarian conference when she suddenly felt a sharp pain in her stomach. She hadn't had this pain in years. “It felt like when you were pregnant and the baby was coming,” she says. She drove home and cried all night.

Three days later, her husband received a call from a Syrian number. A man told him that 19-year-old son Sabri, a boy who loved reggae and enjoyed talking to his mother about world affairs, died the same day Ben Ali fell ill. She realized that the pain was the opposite of Sabri's birth: her body was telling her that her son was just dying.

These are just four of the thousands of women who have lost children to the Islamic State. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war four years ago, over 20,000 foreigners have set out for Syria and Iraq to fight for various radical Islamic groups. More than 3,000 of them come from Western countries. While some leave with the blessings of their families, many disappear in secret, saying goodbye to any sense of normalcy. After her departure, her parents experience a kind of grief that, despite its clarity, seems surreal. It's about losing a child, feeling guilty about what he or she may have caused, feeling shame about hostility from friends and neighbors, and self-doubt about all the things they are only now becoming aware of and about did not know the people they brought into the world. In the past year dozens of such mothers around the world have banded together and created a strange bond through their loss together. They want nothing more than to understand the meaning behind the futility of what happened to their children - in order to perhaps discover something meaningful behind the death of their children.

I visited Christianne Boudreau in Calgary in April and she told me how confident she was when Damian discovered Islam for herself. At 46 years of age, Boudreau still looks a bit girlish, with her narrow nose and bright, probing brown eyes. Her husband left the family when Damian was ten and the boy withdrew to his computer world because he had only experienced despair and loss in the real world. When he was 17, he tried to kill himself by drinking antifreeze.

Shortly after his discharge from the hospital, Damian told his mother that he was interested in the Koran. Although Boudreau raised him Christian, she welcomed his conversion. He looked for a job and had more social contacts. “It grounded him, made him a better person,” she recalls. But in 2011, Boudreau noticed changes in her son. When he was visiting and calling his new friends, he would just answer the phone outside. He didn't eat with the family when there was wine on the table. He told his mother that women should be in the care of men and that it was okay to have more than one wife. He spoke of justified killings. In the summer of 2012, he and some new Muslim friends moved into an apartment directly above the mosque in central Calgary, where they all prayed together. He went to the gym regularly and went hiking in the wilds outside of town with his roommates. The conflict in Syria was still in its early stages at the time, but Boudreau thought that her son, who often looked restless, was just in a difficult phase and that he would get over it. In November Damian left Canada and he told his mother that he wanted to move to Egypt to study Arabic and become an imam. To Boudreau's discomfort, he quickly broke off contact.

Damian with his grandfather. Courtesy Christianne Boudreau.

On January 23, 2013, Boudreau was on sick leave trying to cure her back pain when two men knocked on her door. They told her that they were Canadian secret agents. Damian is not in Egypt. He and his roommates had traveled to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra, a group belonging to Al-Qaeda. When the agents left, "I was mentally ill," Boudreau said. In the days and weeks that followed, she was busy scouring all the jihadist websites looking for her son around the clock. “How sick and perverted is that anyway?” She asks.

Most of the young people setting out to join radical groups in Syria are operating Takfir - This means that they cut off all contact with all unbelievers, including their parents, who are with them with theirs Jihad could stand in the way. But from February onwards, Damian began calling his mother every two to three days, often while he was on guard. “You could hear all the noise in the background,” says Boudreau. “I heard people shouting to each other in Arabic.” Damian once told her that the planes were flying low, which means that they would soon be dropping bombs. He ran while Boudreau was still on the phone. But Damian was mostly careful with what he said to his mother, and to this day she doesn't know what he was actually doing there. Her stomach turns in every possible scenario.

In the summer of 2013, their conversations became more and more painful. "You try to get them to come home and you beg and plead, then you try to talk normally," Boudreau recalls. "And then you start asking and pleading again." She asked Damian how he would feel if his half-brother Luke, who was nine years old at the time and loved Damian like a father, went to Syria. Damian replied that he would be proud then. "At that moment I realized that my son had disappeared, that a stranger was in his body," said Boudreau. She tried to get Luke on the phone, but he just rocked back and forth crying and asked: "When are you coming home?", Until Damian got angry. At some point he stopped saying "I love you" and "I miss you", "says Boudreau. And finally he stopped calling. She later learned that the Islamic State had split off from al-Nusra at that time and Damian had joined IS.

The last time they wrote to each other was in August when Damian contacted Boudreau through his new Facebook account. In this exchange she was pleading and cautious; Damian, on the other hand, seemed formal, condescending and painfully adult.

Christianne
We all miss you very much and love you very much too
Christianne
We are all very sad that you left us and put yourself in danger as we think every day about whether you are okay or not. It is very difficult for me as a mother to see the grief of her children and also of her own ... The thought that I can never see or hug you again breaks my heart. You will probably never understand this because you will never be a mother.

Damian answered that afternoon. He eats well, he said, he has learned Arabic and he was on the waiting list for a wife and a house - he wanted to concentrate fully on those things.

Damian
I miss you too, but as you may have already guessed, nothing has changed in my beliefs, my intentions or my current situation.
Damian
I know that you care about me and that you love me. This is nothing new to me.

On the evening of January 14, 2014, a journalist called Boudreau and drew her attention to a tweet that Damian had been executed by the Free Syrian Army in Haritan, near Aleppo. Boudreau did one more important job before everything went dark around her: she had to tell Luke about it before he found out on TV. She drove him to her psychologist's office so she didn't have to do it herself.

Late in the evening on January 30th, Luke posted the final message on the Facebook thread. It read:

hatch
I miss you and wish you hadn't been killed.
Damian and Luke. Courtesy Christianne Boudreau.

After Damian's death, Boudreau was on the verge of madness. She cried all the time; she couldn't sleep. “Whenever I closed my eyes, I couldn't stand the silence,” she says. She had to pull herself together because of Luke, Damian's half-sister Hope and her stepdaughter Paige, but, she says, "I felt so lonely and empty."

Only one person seemed to understand how they felt. Shortly before Damian's death, Boudreau contacted Daniel Köhler, a German expert on deradicalization. Köhler, who lives in Berlin, initially mainly helped dropouts from the neo-Nazi scene, but in recent years he had also increasingly worked with radical Muslims and their families. After Damian's death, Koehler was in close contact with Boudreau and tried to help her understand what had happened to her son.

What Boudreau experienced was a classic radicalization process, Köhler told me. The phases are very similar, whether the person joins a group of religious extremists or a neo-Nazi group. The recruited people are initially euphoric because they have finally discovered the meaning of life. They try to convince all relatives of this as well - the Muslims, who had become radicals in recent years, also asked their relatives to take care of the suffering of the Syrians. The second, more frustrating, phase occurs when the converts discover that their loved ones are not receptive to their message. At this point the family conflict begins: disputes on the topics of clothing, alcohol, music. At this point converts begin to listen to advice from their fellow believers that the only way to remain faithful is to move to a Muslim country. In the last phase, those affected sell their property, often they train themselves to be physically fit or learn a martial art. As the frustration rises, the desire to be able to do something grows immeasurably and ultimately violence appears to them to be the only solution.

Six months after Damian's death, Boudreau visited Köhler in Berlin and introduced her to three other mothers whose sons had died after joining extremist groups in Syria. They had all brought photo albums and shared memories of their sons. They found similarities in the stories of how their children had been radicalized. The son of one of these women, Boudreau learned, had been killed in the same town as Damian. Talking to the other mothers made Boudreau feel “as if this black cloud was gradually disappearing,” she says. According to Köhler's statement, he tried to show these women that "they are not the only ones in the whole world who had to experience such a stroke of fate and that they could not have done anything."

“Mothers play an extremely important role in jihadist Islam. Mohammed said that paradise is at the feet of the mothers ’. You have to ask their permission to go into the Jihad want to move or say goodbye. "

Upon returning home, Boudreau threw himself into action. She realized that what had happened to her family could happen to others too. With Köhler's support, she founded two organizations - Hayat Canada and Mothers for Life - which support the parents of radicalized young people. She travels around Canada speaking with teachers, students, and law enforcement officials about how to spot signs of radicalism in friends or relatives and what to do about it. She can often be seen in the media. “We don't tell our children about it,” says Boudreau as we sit in her kitchen. Her smoking voice sounds rough and haunting. "We educate our children about drugs, sex, alcohol and bullying - all the other important issues, and we tell them how to deal with them, but we don't tell them about it."

According to Köhler, there are usually two groups of people who can get through to the young radicals and get them to repent: ex-radicals and mothers. “Mothers play an extremely important role in Jihadist Islam. Mohammed said that paradise is at the feet of the mothers ’. You have to ask their permission to go into the Jihad move or say goodbye. ”He says that he had to do with fighters who had desperately tried to skype one last time with their mothers, either to say goodbye or to convince them that they would find themselves in paradise could meet again. An Austrian NGO called Women Without Borders is currently setting up “mother schools” in countries that have been infested by Islamic extremists, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. There, mothers should learn how to keep their children from becoming radicals. The organization is currently building five more schools for mothers in Europe.

Because with a few exceptions, mothers take on this task. In families with children like Damian who are converting to Islam, the fathers are often not informed. In families where Muslim immigrants emigrate to the West, the fathers are often present but they care little. According to Magnus Ranstorp, a Swedish expert and co-chair of the Radicalization Awareness Network, a working group of the European Union, Muslim men often felt emasculated by Western society and disappeared into the background. “The mothers are the linchpin,” he says.

The experts I spoke to also found that the mothers and fathers who lost their children to jihadist groups dealt with their grief in different ways. Fathers often withdraw themselves in feelings of guilt and shame: they find it difficult to admit in front of others that they have failed in any way in their upbringing. The mothers do the opposite.They really want to share their grief with others, they plunge into the world their children have migrated into, they try to get as much information as possible. In this way they gain a minimum of control over the unimaginable. “You dive in yourself,” Köhler tells me.

During my visit, Boudreau took me to a local Catholic secondary school where most of the students were refugees. She showed them a video about Damian that she did. At the end you see a close-up of Boudreau's tear-streaked face. She turns to her dead son: “When that last moment came, were you scared?” She asks. "Did you wish I could hold your hand?" And then, in a calmer, almost threatening voice: "What did all this have to do with God?"

When the lights come on again, the audience is stunned. Before she goes on stage and answers the students' questions with a confidence that she has acquired in dozens of presentations, Boudreau needs a moment to regain his composure. Even though she has seen this movie countless times, she still had to cry in the dark.

In February, Boudreau received an email from a woman from Denmark named Karolina Dam. "Hi," she wrote. “I would like to know more about your project. I also lost a son who died in Syria and I would like to get in touch with other mothers with the same problems. ”Last May I visited Dam in her apartment in a working class area of ​​Copenhagen. Dam, who has a round face and strong, coppery brown hair, offered me a seat in her light-flooded dining room, which is carefully decorated in lilac and white and furnished with fabric and plastic flowers. She brought a pot of coffee and her fresh, homemade bread and told me everything about her son, Lukas, whom she almost exclusively calls "my boy".

Lukas has always been an introverted child, and his social contacts often ended in conflict. He was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and Attention Deficit Disorder when he was ten, but his problems worsened during puberty. He was caught driving around on a stolen scooter; he stole a friend's mother's engagement ring. Dam suspected that he had joined a gang.

But finally there was light in the dark. Lukas got an apprenticeship in a local car repair shop, where mainly Muslims worked. They took the boy in and introduced him to their religion. Dam only found out that her son had converted a few months ago when she noticed that he did not eat anything during the day. He attended Ramadan.

Courtesy Karolina Dam.

Similar to Boudreau, Dam's transformation of her son initially seemed like a “small miracle”. Finally her closed boy opened. And just like Boudreau, Dam did not understand why Lukas was upset when she heard music, or why one day he came home crying because he was afraid that she would not go to paradise with him if she did not go to Islam converted.

Lukas hadn't changed completely. He was still angry a lot; he punched holes in the walls of his room. Not knowing what to do, Dam consulted social workers and sent him to an institution, but Lukas fled. He began living in apartments in the Copenhagen area with three Islamist friends who were all elderly men. Dam filed a missing person report, but because Lukas called home every day, the police told her that he was actually not considered missing. When he returned home she decided to re-admit him, and when she was packing his things, she found a bulletproof vest under his bed. Lukas was only 15 at the time.

In May 2014, shortly after Luke's 18th birthday, he disappeared. A few days later he called Dam from the Turkish border and said he needed a vacation. “I was scared,” Dam recalls. “He's still a boy, he's still vulnerable, he's still easy to manipulate. And the fact that he left on his own without saying goodbye or anything, that's bloody scary! If a boy does not say goodbye to his mother, then something is wrong. "

In the months after Luke's departure, they kept in touch. "Somehow he didn't want to let go of me," said Dam. He told her that he was working in Turkish refugee camps, packing clothes, fetching water and preparing food. But according to Jakob Sheikh, a Danish journalist who is writing a book about Lukas and other Danish jihadists, he eventually traveled to Syria and joined Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist group in Idlib province. And yet, in the news to his mother, Lukas sounds a lot more like a freshman student who is homesick. “Please call me back,” wrote Lukas Dam on August 15th. "I love you very much, my only mom." "A thousand kisses wherever you are," Dam replied, littering her messages with emojis. He asked about the cat. Dam sent him voice messages with her purr. She asked if she should transfer money to his account, mainly to make sure he hadn't given his card to anyone else. In a photo of Luke from his time in Syria, he has just washed himself for prayer, his face and hair are still wet. He looks happy.

At the end of September Lukas did not get in touch. Dam did not know at the time that at that time the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham had been crushed in an attack by IS and that Lukas had joined the Islamic State. When he got back on the line two months later, Dam tried to persuade him to come back home while chatting on Viber. She told him that she had renovated his room - she had plastered the fist-sized holes in the wall and repainted the wall - she had also put money aside for his plane ticket to Denmark.

Dam pressures him: "I need to know when you're coming home."

“I can't tell you that because i don't know!“

It was their last contact. On the night of December 28, 2014, Dam recalls, Adnan Avdic, one of Luka's Muslim friends from Copenhagen, rang the doorbell. “It took him forever to go up the stairs, and it's only four steps,” says Dam. “He was standing in the hallway, pushing around, so I pulled him in. He was crying, he couldn't look me in the eye. ”Alarmed, Dam looked around for a knife in case she had to defend herself. "I started yelling at him and grabbed his neck," she recalls. Avdic blurted out that Luke was wounded. “And that's exactly when I knew he was dead,” said Dam.

Check out Karolina's story

After Avdic left, he sent Dam a link to a closed Facebook group that evening. She sent a request to join and was accepted immediately. Dam saw that someone had posted a photo of Lukas sitting on the floor, an AK-47 next to him, and an IS flag hanging on the wall in the background. As she scrolled through the other posts, the videos started automatically. "I watch videos of beheadings, rape, murders - shit stuff just to get information about my boy," she recalls. She quickly came across a Facebook post about Shaheed's death and she knew it was Luke's Muslim name. She read, “May Allah accept our Danish convert brother named Shaheed and may he be reunited with Allah.” Dam was too scared to post, but eventually she wrote:

Karolina
this is MY SON, is he dead?
Karolina
CONTACT ME and tell me !!!!

A man named Abu Abdul Malik soon replied:

Abu Abdul Malik
Karolina Dam, the brother did indeed immediately think of you and how you could be notified.
Abu Abdul Malik
Such messages can indeed be difficult for a mother, whether she is a believer or not, because a mother's love for her child is very special and that is one of the reasons it took a while ... May Allah guide the mother through all of this and may Allah accept our brother.

Countless questions tormented Dam. What had your son really done in Syria? How did he get there in the first place? Above all, she could not understand how her socially incompetent son had managed to keep such important parts of his life secret from her: The offense about this still makes her cry. In the weeks that followed, she contacted dozens of other fighters - everyone who appeared to have had contact with Lukas, and scoured their social media profiles as much as possible. Part of her search included pragmatism: Dam has no evidence of her son's death, and if she can't produce one, she'll have to wait five years to get a death certificate. "All I have is a bloody Facebook status message!" She says. "There is no more."

But the main reason she wants to know everything is because she knew so little beforehand. Dam told me that she developed techniques on how to come into contact with jihadists and extract information from them. “You have to play the role of the mother, even if you actually have other goals.” She admonishes them to eat, she calls them darling and she scolds them when they are rude.

Dam turned her screen around and showed me a picture of another friend of Lukas from Copenhagen, Aziz (not his real name), who she thinks is in Syria. She learned a lot about Luke through him. Aziz sent her audio files that Lukas recorded asking Aziz to follow him. (Sending audio files is one way the fighters try to evade surveillance because, unlike phone calls, they cannot be overheard.) Dam played some of the files to me. Birds chirp in the background, cars drive by. Lukas laughs, he tells his friend about the “pleasant atmosphere”. In another message, he sounds excited. "Our brothers and sisters are murdered, they are slaughtered like chickens, hens, animals," he says, his voice trembling with anger. In another message, he tells Aziz that he got married, Dam did not know that.

"I specifically asked Aziz if he knew if my son beheaded someone," says Dam. She's almost screaming now. “I need to know!” The fighters are kind to her. They tell her that Luke had nothing to do with violence, and sometimes she just wants to believe them. Sheikh, who had this checked by other fighters and the secret service, says that this is not the truth: Lukas spent his last months in Syria as a fighter.

Dam has aged since her son left for Syria. The grief is written on her face and she has got wrinkles. On the mantelpiece in the living room there is a small altar for Luke as a substitute for a real grave. In the middle is a “mother's pot”, a clay pot with handles that is traditionally filled with food in Denmark and given to mothers who have just had a child. As Luke grew more radical in his beliefs, he asked Dam if she could remove all of the logos from his t-shirts. She never got around to doing that, but after Luke died she found one of his T-shirts that was still unwashed. It still smelled of her boy. She put it in a plastic bag to preserve the smell and put it in her "mother's pot".

Photo: Jorn H. Moen / Dagbladet

In March, a Norwegian-born Islamic State fighter, known to his comrades as Abo Sayf al Muhajir, was shot in the head near Kobani in northern Syria. That week, his mother, Torill, happened to read a newspaper article about Luke and she forced herself to drop a line on Dam's Facebook page. When I visited Torill in her apartment in Halden, a small town surrounded by lakes, about 120 kilometers south of Oslo, it was exactly two months since Abo Sayf died - even if he will always be Thom Alexander to his mother. Of all the mothers I had met, their loss was the most recent. But she could hardly think about what had happened to her son because her daughters faced the same fate.

When Torill, a delicate blonde with fine features, told me the story of her son Thom Alexander, the external circumstances struck me as very familiar. There was an absent father who died of a heroin overdose when Thom Alexander was seven. Her son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 14; when he was in his early twenties, he was arrested for petty offenses and repeatedly went on drug withdrawal from increasingly harder drugs. He was once pronounced clinically dead. And then Thom Alexander discovered a copy of the Shahadah, the Muslim creed, in the gym locker room and became a whole new man. He quit heroin and called his mother again; he got a job in a kindergarten and married a nice Moroccan woman. “It was like having a new son, a good son,” Torill sighs.

While we were talking, Sabeen, Torill's 17-year-old daughter and Thom Alexander's half-sister came into the room. She has long, dark brown hair and a sly expression on her face. She wore baggy sweatpants. She let herself fall on the couch and stuffed a packet of chewing tobacco under her lip. After he converted, according to Torill, Thom Alexander reappeared in Sabeen's life. He took her and sometimes his 28-year-old sister Sara to his apartment in Oslo, where he talked to them about his new religion. "He told me how great Islam is," Sabeen told me dreamily. One day in October 2013, Thom took Alexander Sabeen to his mosque, where two women showed her how to pray. The next day she converted.

Meanwhile, all media reported about the war in Syria and Thom Alexander spent his time organizing collections of clothes for refugees. Torill made her son promise not to go to Syria. But it wasn't long before he divorced his first wife and married a Somali woman who was determined to move to a Muslim country. Later that year he told his mother that he could no longer keep his promise.

Sabeen chatted online regularly with Hussain, the leader of the Profetens Ummah. Eventually the chats turned into a flirt.

In spring 2014 Torill received a visit from the PST, the Norwegian secret service. According to Torill, the agents told her that they believed Thom Alexander was a member of the Profetens Ummah, a group of extremists based in Oslo, and that he intended to leave Norway to join the Islamic State. The PST agents asked her to call immediately if anything changed, and so did they when they found that Thom Alexander had sold all of his property. She had heard that some people did this before leaving for the Caliphate. But the PST didn't prove to be very helpful. “I got the impression they weren't taking it very seriously,” said Torill.

She last saw Thom Alexander on June 26, 2014. He visited her home and made pizza, he wore western clothes and had his beard shaved. Some families put their hope in such developments, they see it as a sign that their child will soon return to a completely normal life. But Torill had heard that this was another thing young men did just before they went to Syria. She had planned in great detail how she would keep Thom Alexander from leaving, if it ever came to that. She could have him arrested for his criminal drug history, she could drive to the airport and make a big show. But when she watched him roll out the pizza dough, she was paralyzed. She was so stunned and scared, she says, that she can't remember what else happened that day.

Courtesy Torill

After Thom Alexander left their house, people from the Prophetens Ummah drove him to the airport. Torill had been right: he hadn't shaved off his beard and put on Western clothes because he wanted to live like a European again, but because he didn't want to cause a stir at the airport security and passport controls.Despite being monitored by the PST, they hadn't stopped Thom Alexander from getting a passport and leaving the country. Thom Alexander called Torill from Syria a few days later. In a panic, she called the PST and said that her son had left. "You said: 'Thank you, is there anything else we can do for you?'", She recalls.

Thom Alexander occasionally called home and texted his mother on Facebook. He told her that he was driving a truck in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. He sent her photos of his apartment and the street, and of the restaurant where he and his comrades ate grilled chicken. “One hundred percent halal,” he beamed. She noticed that he always steered the topics of conversation towards her when he skyped with Sabeen. When she was visiting her father's family in Pakistan, Thom Alexander asked her to find a wife for her there. “I've already looked around, but I haven't found any,” Sabeen remembers and grins in embarrassment.

One day a bomb went off just 50 meters from Thom Alexander and killed several children. "If you want, I can send you pictures of the children so that you can see for yourself," he wrote to his mother. Torill rolls her eyes as she reads this message aloud. She scrolls through her messages, which she hasn't done since her son died. I ask her how she feels reading this now. "Oh, I don't feel anything, I won't let that get to me," she says, covering her face with her hand. In another message, she asks him if he has seen beheadings. “No,” he replies, “but I saw the heads of decapitated people lying around.” He puts a smiley beneath it. In late March, Ubaydullah Hussain, the leader of the Profetens Ummah, called Torill and told her Thom Alexander was dead. 1

1 Her son was killed in Kobani, northern Syria, months after ISIS lost control of the city. According to some reports, after the defeat, ISIS sent countless foreign fighters there to harass and kill the Kurds. Those who resisted were killed.

We sat on Torill's balcony in Halden and looked out over the green little town. “I was once happy, happier than most people,” said Torill, her face completely still behind the large sunglasses. “But now I don't know how to go on living.” Sometimes she gets overwhelmed by what people say to her. The neighbor below called her a bad mother. “If that had been my son,” he said, “I would have cut off his hands.” On some days, “I would like a lobotomy because it hurts so much.”

And yet she can't just give in to her grief. After Thom Alexander left, Torill called two young Muslims who are dealing with the deradicalization of Norwegian youth, Yousef Bartho Assidiq and Faten Mahdi al-Hussaini. She had heard of them on TV. After Thom Alexander's death, the two almost moved in with the family to help her. Sabeen took advantage of this extremely, she craved attention. That she had seen the gruesome image of her brother's corpse had triggered something destructive in her. She could not concentrate at school and no longer wanted to eat in the cafeteria. “I felt like everyone was staring at me,” she says. "I like to be the center of attention, but not like that." Assidiq and Mahdi noticed that she chatted regularly online with Hussain, the leader of the Profetens Ummah. Eventually the chats turned into a flirt.

The night before Thom Alexander's funeral, Sabeen was picked up for interrogation by the police, who then informed Assidiq and Mahdi that they wanted to run away with Hussain in a few days. The activists reached out to Halden City Council, which gave them funds to send Sabeen on vacation to Greece just to lure them away from him. He only broke off contact with Sabeen when Sara reported him. Assidiq and Mahdi took her passport away.

And when Sabeen finally seemed out of danger, Sara fell into the hands of the Prophetens Ummah. In June she married the group's spokesman, Omar Cheblal. The ceremony was held on Skype because Cheblal had just been expelled from Norway on suspicion of posing a threat to national security. The two are now divorced, and Assidiq and Mahdi have also taken Sara's passport away.

Ranstorp, the EU deradicalization expert, told me that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. As soon as the converts arrived in Syria, many tried to bring their siblings to join them. When a fighter dies, the recruiters often besiege their families and ask them to provide more children. And the siblings often got involved with jihadists that this was a coping mechanism, said Köhler: “They look for the meaning behind it and accept everything that gives death a meaning and purpose. In the end, they support the cause themselves. ”As soon as a child comes into contact with militant Islamism,“ we have to look after the whole family, ”Ranstorp told me.

The question of how to protect a child who is in danger of radicalization is a constant concern of many of the mothers. Dam, for example, blames herself for not helping Luke find a more conducive Muslim identity. "I should have taken Lukas to a good imam once or twice a week and waited in the car," she says. “All mothers of converts should do this. The children do not know the difference, and neither do we, because we are not Muslims. "

Torill knew a lot more about what she was going through than any of the other mothers. She knew that Thom Alexander was drawn to the war in Syria and she had made him swear not to go. She called the secret service three times. And yet she found that in most western countries it was very difficult to get the government to intervene. In no European country is it forbidden to travel to Syria, except Turkey. The IS recruiting strategies take effect much faster than the clumsy Western bureaucracy. The group advises recruits to divide their entry into four different stations so that they are not discovered. Some European fighters use Europe's open borders to their advantage and simply travel to Turkey via Bulgaria.

Even when it comes to minors, governments often fail to exercise their authority to prevent them from going to Syria. After Luke died, Dam started a group called Sons and Daughters for Scandinavian mothers. A Danish woman with whom she is in regular contact calls herself Miriam in the press. Miriam is a Muslim and she immediately saw the danger when her son Karim (not his real name) started meeting with Islamist radicals in Copenhagen. She informed the authorities, destroyed his passport and made sure that the Danish government registered his case so that he could not get a new one. Karim, who was 17 at the time, was in Syria within four months. He had forged his father's signature on the parental consent form in order to get a new passport. (Dam found out at some point that Karim and Lukas were friends and that Karim had written to her that Lukas had been “torn to pieces”.)

Part of the problem is that the phenomenon of ISIS recruitment is so new that countermeasures are still in their infancy. Many Western countries are still considering how to prevent jihad recruitment before considering penalties or reintegration options. Parents like Torill, who raise the alarm, are often treated simply like informants: An American official told me that the US would rather that the foreign fighters die in Syria than that they return home.

There are now far too few activists who campaign against radicalization. The mother schools run by Women Without Borders will not be ready for a year. Assidiq and Mahdi, the Oslo activists who saved Torill's daughters, do not receive any government support for their organization Just Unity; they both have rent arrears of several months. Ranstorp and his working group are still just a working group. Your conversations are "like in the film, and the groundhog greets you every day". We have no legal means, ”he says. "We can only stop them for a short time."

Photo: Capucine Granier-Deferre

One Monday morning two little women, Dominique Bons and Valerie, were standing at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, waiting. They were both wearing jeans on this warm spring morning, their hair cut short. People hurried past them, but the two women were talking lively. A train from Brussels pulled in and they saw Saliha Ben Ali pushing her way through the crowd with a small suitcase. The three women greeted each other stormily, like childhood friends who finally saw each other again. For the remainder of the day, the women visited one café after the next - they talked, drank coffee and mojitos, and laughed almost continuously. The joy of the presence of the others was overwhelming.

It was here that I saw the grief go away from these mothers for the first time when they were with other mothers like them. These are the few times, Ben Ali told me, that “you don't have the feeling that you are a bad mother.” Most of the time, they are confronted with incomprehension and condemnation. Torill told me that she had gone to a psychologist to deal with her grief and that he had advised her to process her grief by writing a letter to Thom Alexander telling him that he was “eating shit “Should. "He said that anyone who joins IS deserves a bullet in the head," said Torill. Friends would turn away and many women would feel that their husbands or partners cannot fulfill their need to constantly talk to them about their children. For example, Boudreau's partner does not understand why, after a year and a half, she is still preoccupied with Damian's death.

With the other mothers, they don't have to explain much. You just understand. Torill and Dam have never met in person because neither has enough money for the trip, but they are in constant contact via Facebook Messenger and Skype. Dam is an expert at Torill. "She's been through all of this before me and she's telling me how I'm going to feel next," says Torill. Boudreau also finds solace in these virtual gatherings. "It's funny, Karolina and I Skype or I Skype with one of the other mothers and suddenly someone says something and the next moment we all start crying." The conversations give her the feeling that we are "still human".

Bons, Ben Ali and Valerie now have a deep friendship, even if their paths would never have crossed without their children. Bons is a slim, 60-year-old retired soldier from Toulouse with bleached hair and striking blue eyes, and she has lost two children to IS. Her son Nicolas and her stepson Jean-Daniel ran away for Syria in March 2012. Jean-Daniel died in August at the age of 22 and in December Bons received a text message that Nicolas had died at the age of 30. He had apparently crashed into a building in Homs in a truck full of explosives.

Ben Ali, a chubby woman with chocolate brown eyes that shows her broken heart, is Muslim, but she wears nylon pants and leaves her hair uncovered. Their four children were all born in Belgium. “I live out Islam in silence,” Ben Ali told me during our first conversation in the spring. But to live it out in silence was not enough for her second eldest son Sabri. In August 2013, he left home without saying anything. Four days later he sent Ben Ali a Facebook message: "Mom, I am in Syria and we will meet again in heaven." For months she tried to bring him to his senses. “There are seven conditions that it is one Jihad acts, ”she explains. “For me, the war in Syria is not one Jihad ... it's a civil war. ”She tried constantly to follow Köhler's advice - to break the brainwashing of Muslim theology. But Sabri didn't want to know anything about it. After he was killed, her neighbors in Brussels came up to her and said, “Your son is a martyr. And now close up with him and don't talk about him anymore. ”She replies that she will never stop talking about Sabri, and the neighbor broke off contact with her completely.

Sabri (top left) with his family. Courtesy Saliha Ben Ali.

Valerie, who doesn't want to give her family name, is the only mother I meet whose child is still alive. Her 18-year-old daughter Léa (not her real name) lives somewhere near Aleppo. When Léa was 16, without Valerie's knowledge, she met a 22-year-old Algerian, a man through whom she converted and radicalized. On June 5, 2013, Léa hugged and kissed her mother after dinner, left the house, and disappeared. Valerie thought she had been kidnapped, but Léa and the Algerian were actually on their way to Syria. It is Valerie's most urgent wish for her daughter to return home. But she also knows that, in a way, Léa is no longer her child. Your calls and chats on WhatsApp sound rehearsed, robotic. About ten months ago Léa gave birth to a son and her voice is softening. Sometimes she asks Valerie for parenting tips, and Valerie believes that her daughter understands her better now that she is a mother herself. Still, Valerie knows that even if she could somehow save Léa and the baby, reintegrating Léa into her normal life would be a hopeless and daunting challenge. "If I found out that my daughter was dead," says Valerie, crying, "it might be easier".

But that afternoon in Paris, the mothers didn't really want to talk about their children. They wanted to talk about their activism, and the never-ending number of press inquiries, about which reporters they wanted to talk to and which better not. They talked about TV crews that had besieged their homes for days and they talked about how every time it was getting harder to convince their families to do another interview. Going public in the end turned out to be even more exhausting than everyone expected. They were berated and accused of failing as parents. They thought activism would help them cope, but every interview reminds them of the worst that ever happened to them. “I can't talk about it 24 hours a day,” complains Valerie. "I can't live like this."

And yet, since the departure of their children, the mothers have only dealt with IS. They are very familiar with the geography of Syria, with the factions involved in the four-year civil war; they speak the language of Jihad fluently. When these young men and women went to Syria, they took their mothers with them because how could it be otherwise? Sometimes that means more than just following the depths of ISIS social media profiles. This spring, Ben Ali tried to get to Syria with two other mothers to see what their sons had been through in their final months. They were stopped at the border by Turkish authorities, but Ben Ali told me that the suffering of the Syrian refugees had already given her an insight into why her son had left her. “I can now say that my son had a lot of courage,” she says. Your search is not unusual, Ranstorp told me. "Many parents are looking for their children in Turkey or are trying to get to Syria themselves ... Some have even been arrested by the Islamic State."

So far none of the mothers can let go. Letting go would mean watching other mothers' children fall under the lure of radical imams and end up as suicide bombers. Letting go would mean breaking ties with their own children. Through their activism, through their endless search for answers, each of them has found a way to keep their child alive, even if it has a negative effect on the psyche.Dam told me that every morning when she wakes up, she experiences a brief moment of oblivion, a tiny moment that reminds her of her old life. And then, she says, “I am drawn back into this completely alien world that I didn't even know existed before”.

Boudreau sits on a bar stool at the table in her small kitchen, which she also uses as an office. She just finished with that Father of a young woman named Hoda who left her home in Alabama to join ISIS in Syria. Boudreau listened attentively as the father described that Hoda had prepared him for her own death. Jordan had started air strikes and everyone around them was going to die.

"I just want to be there for you and support you in every possible way," said Boudreau to him, her voice full of empathy. "Even if you just want to scream and cry, or if you are looking for other people to find support and advice from, just contact me and I will do all I can to help you."

After the call, Boudreau had ten minutes to buy a couple of cans of tomato soup and a couple of packs of spaghetti for dinner in the supermarket. Then she raced through town to pick up her stepdaughter Paige from school. While we waited in the car, Boudreau gave the BBC a long, tearful interview on her cell phone. When Paige, a lanky girl with glasses, jumped into the back seat, Boudreau's voice was still covered and she was absent-mindedly answering Paige's chatter. She had to go home and prepare food for the children before participating in a conference call with representatives from the Somali community in Edmonton who needed funding for a deradicalization initiative. She also had to pack: at 6 a.m., she would fly to Montreal for a local radio talk show and meet with the mother of the young man who shot at the Canadian parliament building last October. Boudreau put on the spaghetti and left the room to talk to the press. Luke came home from school with a friend and they both had large slush ice cream in their hands and were playing in the garden. Paige zapped through the television programs. The spaghetti continued to cook unattended.

I was just about to take care of it when Mike, Boudreau's significant other, came home from work at a local construction site, dusty and exhausted. When I apologized for disturbing me, he mumbled that I wasn't the first female journalist in his house. I asked him if he would like to speak to me for the report. "Oh, I don't want to interfere," he said. "I live in my own bladder." He opened a beer and apologized.

Boudreau quickly ate a plate of spaghetti, lost in thought, and she hardly talked to Mike and Paige, who were eating with her. Then she sat down on the couch next to it and dialed into the conference call with the Somalis. Her face lit up, her voice grew louder, she laughed loudly and excitedly. Suddenly she was in her element. Paige and Mike continued to eat except for an occasional whisper and tried not to disrupt the call. Then they crept out on tiptoe to get an ice cream.

Köhler had told me that Boudreau was “using her wounds in a proactive way”. But somehow she prefers her dead son to her family. She spends most of her time in Damian's world, not her own, and this has had quite an impact on her life. She hardly works as an accountant anymore. She can no longer find a full-time job, which she attributes to the fact that she went public as the mother of an IS fighter. All of her activism only leads to increasing financial pressure: Her telephone bills for May and June amounted to over 1,000 US dollars.

Meanwhile, her son's death affects the whole family. Last summer Hope, Damian's 13-year-old half-sister, moved out to live with her father. She hasn't spoken to Boudreau for twelve months. Luke is in therapy and has been diagnosed with an adjustment disorder. The little boy with the curly blond head and attentive, intelligent eyes told me that he was marginalized at school. “They say that I talk about it too much and that I am overly dramatic,” he explains. Sometimes he is angry with Damian for breaking his Indian word of honor that he will come home after four years in Egypt. Sometimes he blames himself and wonders if he was too wild with his brother when they were fighting. "I'm only happy when I'm asleep," he says.

At the beginning of that afternoon we were sitting on Boudreau's terrace, smoking and she told me that Damian was not the first son she had lost. In 2001 Hope's twin brother died of cot death at the age of one month. His death plunged Boudreau into a deep depression and also hit Damian badly. "Mike is not happy, it's all too much for him," she says. "He wants me to end my activism, he wants everything to be the way it used to be."

Some nights Boudreau is overwhelmed by the heavy burden of everything that has befallen her. On these nights, while the whole house is asleep, she gets into her car, which is full of traces of her small-town family life, and she yells at Damian as if he were sitting next to her in the passenger seat. She yells at him for what he did to her family, for destroying them and for destroying Luke, for resting in peace while she is supposed to fix the irreparable. Then she cries, and the strong facade she maintains for her other children is cracked. And when she has cried everything out, then she goes upstairs, lies down in bed next to Mike and, like Luke, tries to find comfort in her sleep. Tomorrow is another day of press interviews and phone calls, another day of life Damian chose for her. “If I had known then what I know now,” Boudreau told me, drew on her cigarette and blinked in the late afternoon sun, “then I would never have had children”.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post Highline and was translated from English by Susanne Raupach.

Story - Julia Ioffe
Julia writes for that New York Times Magazine.
Video and Photos - Emily Kassie
Emily is a filmmaker, photographer, and journalist. She is the producer of Highline.
Additional Photography - Capucine Granier-Deferre, Jorn H. Moen / Dagbladet & Todd Korol