These days, Dounia Bouzar doesn’t go anywhere without her three bodyguards. The French Muslim anthropologist has received death threats for unveiling the tactics of Islamist recruiters. I meet her in a cafe along Paris’ Boulevard St. Germain, where Bouzar is enjoying an ice cream sundae in the back while her security contingent, provided by the French government, sits at a table out front, eyes on the entrance.
Bouzar’s book, Defusing Radical Islam, was published in 2014, a year before the rest of the country woke up to the threat of homegrown radicalization. That moment came in January 2015, when radical Islamist gunmen attacked the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, killing 17 people.
“When it was published, hundreds of parents of radicalized kids came looking for me,” says Bouzar. “Because they recognized themselves and their children in my book.”
After the book came out, Bouzar began working with 300 parents to develop ways to deal with the problem. One of the fathers was a policeman and showed the others how to bug their kids’ phones and computers. Bouzar says they were then able to witness how the recruiters worked.
“They set out to break every emotional, social and historical tie in the kids’ lives,” says Bouzar. “The recruiters had them drop their friends, who [they said] were complicit with a corrupt society; their teachers, who [they said] were being paid to indoctrinate them; and eventually, even break from their parents, who [they said] were nonbelievers even if they were Muslim,” she says.
Bouzar says the young people also stopped taking part in sports and music. And when they were stripped of their identity and there was nothing left, ISIS took them over and they became part of the group.
In early 2015, Bouzar’s organization, the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam, won a government contract to help parents who had called a national anti-radicalization hotline that had recently been put in place. Bouzar traveled the country training teams of psychologists, police and other experts to deal with the phenomenon of radicalization and parents’ concerns.
One of the parents who reached out to Bouzar for help was Celine, a mother from a small Normandy town whose 19-year-old son had converted to Islam. Celine doesn’t want to give her last name because of fears for her family.
She says it wasn’t her son’s conversion to Islam that bothered her, but the way he began to cut himself off from the world. “All of a sudden, he refused to eat pork or listen to music,” she says. “And his grades plummeted. He had an empty look in his eyes and it was like he didn’t think for himself anymore. He became sort of like a robot. And he was always, always on the phone.”
Celine discovered her son had opened a second Facebook account — and on it, he was discussing going to Syria.
According to the French Interior Ministry, more young people from France have radicalized and gone to war zones in Syria and Iraq than from any other European country. About 1,500 French citizens have gone or tried to go. Approximately 700 are still there. Celine wanted to make sure her son would not be among them.
Bouzar says that ISIS, unlike al-Qaida, tailors its radicalization tactics to individual profiles. For example, girls are particularly attracted to the idea of taking care of children hurt by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad or finding a God-fearing and faithful Muslim husband. Recruiters play to these desires. They even have different videos geared to speak to the different motivations for wanting to join ISIS.
“For girls, there’s a kind of myth of a Daesh-[ISIS-]land utopia where no one will be cold or hungry and everything runs on divine law,” says Bouzar. “The recruiters make them believe they can become a nurse and be running a hospital wing in just a couple of months.”
One of Bouzar’s methods for treating young people seduced by ISIS involves re-establishing links between radicalized individuals and their former lives. She counsels parents to try to bring them back in touch with their childhood — through old pictures and videos or food.
Celine tried this with her son and had little success at first, but she persevered.
“I made all his favorite meals that he loved as a child,” she says. “And I took him to places he liked when he was young. I did everything to reconnect him with his childhood.” Eventually, she noticed he was becoming more open to discussion. He took an interest in school again. The empty look vanished from his eyes.
Bouzar says a person can only be brought back with the help of someone close, like a parent or other family member — or by a reformed jihadist himself.
She has used allegedly reformed jihadists in counseling sessions to try to break through to some of the young people who are radicalizing. “We get them together without the young person realizing who this person is,” says Bouzar. “But then they begin to recognize their own story out of the mouth of the reformed jihadist, because he was lured for some of the same reasons. And slowly, doubt begins to set in.”
Bouzar says there is no such thing as a radicalized youth who wants to be de-radicalized. “He thinks he’s been picked by God and he sees things no one else does, because [everybody else is] indoctrinated,” she says.
Bouzar’s methods have been controversial. Some say her use of allegedly reformed jihadists is dangerous. (In some cases, it can be challenging to ascertain whether they’ve really reformed or are pretending.) Others accuse her of self-promotion. Many more say treating radicalization as purely brainwashing is to underestimate geopolitical and social factors, and the role that radical Islam plays.
Benjamin Erbibou, who works with an organization called Entr’Autres (Among Others), a group that works with radicalization issues in the southern city of Nice, thinks only a small percentage of radicalization cases are linked to brainwashing.
“Mostly,” he says, “it’s linked to a complete rupture and rejection of French society and Western values.”
But Marik Fetouh, deputy mayor of Bordeaux and head of the city’s de-radicalization center, says it’s easy to criticize efforts to deal with radicalization because it’s a poorly understood new phenomenon.
“Bouzar came forward with real ideas to fight this complex phenomenon when pretty much no one else had a clue what to do,” he says.
Although her contract with the French government is over, Bouzar’s association still counsels families affected by radicalization. Bouzar and her teams have counseled more than 1,000 young people and their parents — from Muslim, Catholic and atheist backgrounds.
Normandy mother Celine credits Bouzar’s methods with saving her son’s life. She says he’s still a Muslim, but now he’s begun to think for himself. And most important, she says, he no longer wants to go to Syria.