ISIS’s War on Families Never Ended
The Islamic State's campaign for the hearts and minds of Syrian children may have laid the groundwork for its resurgence.
The displaced families from the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor who gathered for a town hall meeting at a shelter in rural Aleppo in October 2017 had escaped the territory controlled by the Islamic State. However, they were still struggling to overcome the vestiges of its toxic rule: Particularly, parents were resentful of the growing divide between them and their male children.
With tears in his eyes, Abu Salem* recalled memories of his 15-year-old son, who was killed in 2016 shortly after joining the Islamic State. During an interview in southern Turkey, Abu Salem described how his son increasingly spent his time listening to jihadi-inspired music and watching beheading videos on his phone and shocked his father one day when he exclaimed, “The Islamic State is right.… You are 100 percent wrong in this life.”
Abu Salem responded by hurling insults at the Islamic State, and in response his son threatened to report him to the hisbah, the group’s religious police. After three days of not speaking, his son left home and never returned. Abu Salem is one of many parents who continue to hold themselves responsible for their sons turning to extremism. Tough discipline was unsuccessful, he admits, as were his consistent efforts to discredit the group’s ideas with proof from religious scripture.
Interviews with parents who fled Islamic State-controlled areas in Syria to Turkey reveal that the group pursued a calculated campaign aimed at creating mistrust between parents and their children. The group has aggressively targeted youth, especially boys, to override parents’ authority, create new power structures in society, and propagate its ideology. The result is that the Islamic State has been able to mobilize youth for its own causes — and potentially lay the groundwork for the group’s resurgence. Although the caliphate has lost most of its territory, its ideas could persist in the minds of its young former recruits.
The town hall meeting was organized by the Deir Ezzor Advocacy Group, a nonprofit that aims to help Syrian displaced — mostly by the Islamic State — from the eastern governorate. It provides them with shelter and directs them to social services, avoiding interferences and exploitation from local extremist groups. The group’s work creates safe spaces for much-needed discussions on post-Islamic State recovery in their communities, including returnees’ safety.
While some parents had already lost their sons to the Islamic State, others were still fighting a daily battle to prevent the group from winning the loyalty of their children. One mother rose to explain her struggle to keep her sons at home. She and others pleaded to the attendees for advice on how to combat the lack of authority they had over their own sons. In response, one parent credited patient communication and engaging his son in conversations to plan a future. Other parents’ strategies were not as successful, and they shared their experiences of losing children to combat.
Many Syrian parents described how their children followed a similar path to radicalization and eventual support for the Islamic State. While walking home from grocery shopping with her son, Umm Ahmad lifted her face veil because she could not see the sidewalk in front of her. A hisbah official observed her pulling back her veil and remonstrated her son for his mother’s actions, saying that if he joined the Islamic State, he would have the money to bring groceries home for his family and his mother would not need to go out in public. Umm Ahmad tried to convince her son to abandon his interest in the group, but he would respond that it was religiously permissible to disobey a parent when they discourage jihad.
This is a message that the Islamic State’s propaganda has repeatedly driven home to young potential recruits. Sara, a 22-year-old from the city of Bab, described how her brother, Samer, began attending sharia courses at 14, making frequent visits to the group’s “media points,” propaganda centers that resemble open-air cinemas with large screens that play footage of battles, beheadings, and Islamic chants and songs. Additionally, Samer shortened his mustache according to Islamic standards. He would scold his sisters for wearing sleeveless tops at home and his mother for wearing pants. To them, it seemed that the arguments would never end. When he finally joined the Islamic State, Sara asked him how he could abandon his family. He coldly responded that the group was “his family.”
The Islamic State has specifically tailored its propaganda to appeal to youth, exploiting teenage rebellion for its own recruitment purposes and encouraging teens to place their trust in the Islamic State’s leadership rather than their own parents and siblings. Many Syrians under Islamic State rule were required to attend a course that emphasized birr al-walidayn, which literally means “obedience for one’s parents.” At the same time, the group’s training included examples that easily galvanized youth to recognize the so-called hypocrisy of their parents, who might engage in acts forbidden by Islamic State, such as smoking a cigarette or not praying five times a day. The courses implored youth to love God more than their family and, therefore, follow his guidance first. These ideas were legitimized through the use of a well-known religious proverb: To disobey any person, even a parent, is permissible “if they encourage you to disobey God.”
Families from previously Islamic State-held territory in Syria such as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor now yearn to return home but fear being held responsible for the actions of their children while under the Islamic State. Their towns and villages are now under the control of either the Syrian government and their allied militias or the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which could exact retribution on those they perceive to be extremist sympathizers. They have reason to be afraid: Amnesty International and UNICEF reported on civilians being collectively punished by Iraqi forces for their families’ alleged ties to the Islamic State, and Human Rights Watch reported that revenge attacks against Sunnis are already a reality in Iraq and could worsen in Syria. Whether it’s the SDF shelling civilians in Raqqa, senior Syrian army commander Issam Zahreddine threatening the displaced not to return, or detailed accounts of the torture of Syrian civilians, including unarmed protestors, by Syrian intelligence forces, the threat is well-documented and real.
The family is the most fundamental and critical unit of Syrian society. To strengthen the country’s social fabric and prevent radicalization, familial bonds need to be strengthened. In the context of a broken society where authority has collapsed, many young men see the Islamic State as bringing order and its members as worthy of their respect and allegiance. The removal of the Islamic State by Syrian government forces and Iran-backed militias in Deir Ezzor, which the local population often also views as foreign occupiers, just pushes civilians from one brutal authority to the next.
International efforts to counter violent extremism are almost always reactive rather than preventive: The United States and its European allies fund media programs to counter the Islamic State’s media outlets, for example, and support the establishment of schools to counter its extremist approach to education. A better strategy may be to equip parents, through therapeutic training, to support the social and emotional needs that lead youth to feel neglected and sometimes sympathize with extremist figures. To stem the new recruits and sympathizers to militant groups, as well as boosting post-Islamic State recovery, the solution starts at home.
*Names have been changed throughout the story to protect those interviewed.