Mothers against Terror

Families lead the fight against violent extremism at home

By Dr. Edit Schlaffer and  Dr. Ulrich Kropiunigg, Women without Borders/SAVE

Radicalization is a process that often takes place at home under the noses of parents and close family members. Parents are often unaware of what is going on with their adolescent or young adult child until it is too late.

When a son or daughter “changes,” it isn’t necessarily a warning sign. Adolescence is a time of change. Parents may ponder the seriousness of certain behavior patterns but assess them as harmless and within the undefined borders of adolescent “storm and stress,” as one mother of a foreign fighter put it. She was concerned and torn between tolerance and helplessness. “He wouldn’t talk with me as much as he used to. He stopped seeing his friends and spent more and more time in his room.” These were warning signs, but they were overlooked until the son went to Syria and soon after was killed.

What were the driving forces in his case? What pushed and pulled him away from his family? Interestingly, in general terms, we are much more informed about pull factors and recruiting methods than the deep dynamics that cause a child to turn radical in the first place. A clue might lie in what a Belgian mother was involuntarily forced to observe: “The recruiters gave him a sense of personal value that he didn’t have in his life. This is what brought him to Syria.”

Mothers are neglected

Experts have studied the underlying social and psychological factors that motivate individuals to adopt extremist ideologies, yet comprehensive conclusions have not translated into policies. The counterterrorism approach has largely consisted of reactive strategies, relying heavily on military and security forces to carry out actions meant to punish and deter. While this strategy has recently been scaled up, the incidence of terrorism is growing more critical. Theoretically, we know push and pull factors and many other root causes, but these theories have not been applied on a practical preventive level. One reason is that countering violent extremism (CVE) research has left out a key actor: mothers.

Nigerian women hold a protest demanding the release of schoolgirls abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram in April 2014. REUTERS

Nigerian women hold a protest demanding the release of schoolgirls abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram in April 2014. REUTERS

As a group, mothers hold valuable data on what makes individuals vulnerable to radical influences regardless of economic, political and socio-economic factors. In particular, mothers of radicalized youth view their children’s coming-of-age journey as navigating the uncertainty of adolescence and young adulthood, and as a result, provide unique insights into responses incomprehensible to outsiders. Furthermore, mothers are also strategically placed to serve as a buffer between radical influences and those targeted next. They are the starting point for building resiliency within their children’s early years of development, as well as the first to recognize and address signs of distress such as anger, anxiety and withdrawal. This dual capacity to pre-empt and respond to radical influences makes mothers essential participants in an effective security paradigm.

It is widely recognized that individuals are influenced by their social contexts: their hopes, aspirations, struggles and reactions are largely shaped by the environment in which they emotionally and psychologically develop. In examining these social and emotional variables, we can gain a clear picture of the common factors that lead people to adopt extremist ideologies, and therefore develop targeted prevention strategies.

A new research model 

Based on this understanding of the deficits of ongoing CVE approaches, and of the unique position of mothers, the nongovernmental organization Women without Borders/Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) developed a research project to collect evidence on mothers’ potential to protect at-risk youth. The organization’s “Can Mothers Challenge Extremism” study examined mothers’ perception of the threat of violent extremism and their understanding of their role in the radicalization and deradicalization process. The study draws on the subjective understanding of mothers on the causes, factors and realities of violent extremism as they experience them in their families, communities and, most importantly, in the lives of their children. The study focused on sons because, while daughters are increasingly joining extremist groups, boys remain the majority of those involved.

The study

The three-stage study was designed to collect, analyze and apply data from 1,000 mothers living in five troubled countries on three continents. In the first stage, 200 in-depth interviews were conducted in each country to gain an overall picture of the social and emotional environments of adolescent and young adult sons. The questions were grouped into seven areas: family background, the children’s lives, the mother’s role in their child’s upbringing, proximity to extremism, societal factors — especially in contexts affected by violence — existing coping mechanisms for violent extremism individually and collectively and future strategies.

Tajik mothers discuss concerns regarding their children and violent extremism at the inception of the Mothers School in Khujand, Tajikistan, in 2011. [Dr. ULRICH KROPIUNIGG]

Tajik mothers discuss concerns regarding their children and violent extremism at the inception of the Mothers School in Khujand, Tajikistan, in 2011.

In many communities, extremism and violence are taboo; therefore gathering data requires breaking through social barriers. Some women were reluctant to talk at first, particularly mothers whose children were already involved in extremist activities. Guilt, shame and fear initially inhibited them. They eventually opened up once they understood that they are valuable contributors and allies. Many subjects expressed relief after speaking out. From these interviews a number of themes emerged, and these were used to develop a questionnaire. Three key areas were explored: 1) how mothers see their role in reducing the attraction of extremist ideologies, 2) who they would turn to in a situation characterized by confusion, fear and alarm, and 3) what they need to be effective in recognizing and responding to the warning signs of radicalization.

Overall, a consensus emerged regarding perceptions of a mother’s role in countering extremist influences. The data from both the interviews and the surveys strongly conveyed mothers’ concerns about the risk of their children becoming radicalized. A majority of mothers expressed confidence in their own abilities to prevent their children from becoming involved with violent extremism in the first place and to recognize early warning signs. Moreover, in many of the interviews, the mothers expressed a sense of urgency and eagerness to collaborate with similarly concerned mothers in combating the growing problem of extremist recruitment.

A mother’s fear

The mothers believe that extremist agendas are disseminated primarily through the Internet, radical religious leaders, political organizations and television. These sources are not surprising, but the overall picture that emerges is noteworthy. These four diverse sources are given almost equal significance, indicating that on an average day, youth are confronted by radical messages from many different angles: the media, the Internet, schools and social networks. The breadth of these sources indicates that some communities have very little protected space, leaving youth highly vulnerable. Therefore, the pervasiveness of extremist messages, reported by the mothers in the study, provides strong support for a security approach that focuses on building resiliency within and around the home.

Moreover, this data is particularly important because this information — collected within a private realm — is largely inaccessible to local authorities, intelligence and other actors involved in terror research. From their unique position, these mothers’ perspectives on the initial source of extremist influence is likely to be the most accurate. As researchers and policymakers have widely acknowledged, gaining a clear picture of the initial entry into extremism has important implications for effectively addressing radicalization at its origin. Mothers’ insights help to elucidate the most intricate details of this picture.

A mother’s trust

Where do mothers turn when they have concerns about their children’s safety and well-being? What people or institutions do they trust to provide support? The primary answer was other mothers, at 94 percent. Fathers were listed next, at 91 percent, followed by other relatives, at 81 percent. In a crisis, the family circle is the primary source of support. Teachers, listed fourth with a trust score of 79 percent, and community organizations, at 61 percent, are the first institutions they turn to outside of immediate social networks. Religious leaders earn a 58 percent trust score, suggesting a level of some ambivalence. State organizations earn among the weakest trust scores, with police at 39 percent, the army with 35 percent, and local government with 34 percent. International organizations earn similarly weak trust scores of 36 percent. The national government, however, earned the lowest trust score overall: 29 percent.

The most important piece of data, corroborated by other evidence in the study, is that mothers trust themselves along with other mothers first in protecting their children. This is notable because the existing security approach currently focuses implementation within national and local authorities, two groups that seem to evoke significant distrust. Moreover, the lack of trust in the state is a critical finding and reveals a trust gap between the private and the public spheres as they relate to security.

What do mothers need?

How then do mothers assess their own needs? What kind of support do they need to protect their children from radicalism? First, the data indicate strong radicalization concerns. This emerged during our interviews and during the survey. Of all needs provided in the survey, 86 percent of mothers considered increasing their knowledge about the warning signs of radicalization to be of highest importance. This was followed by training in self-confidence, parenting skills and computer skills. Moreover, a majority of mothers favored connecting with similarly concerned mothers and speaking up together against radicalization.

This reveals two important conclusions. The first is that mothers are confident in their own security potential if equipped with the right tools and knowledge. Second, their awareness of their needs indicates they are already confronting radical influences and feel as if they are responding less than effectively.

Overall, these findings suggest that there is an immediate need for a more diversified approach to counterterrorism — namely one that includes the expertise and strategic position of mothers. Their voices and capacities are essential to develop new strategies and partnerships. But this requires mothers to be recognized as key allies; as long as they are excluded, so is this most valuable point of intervention. The gap in the existing security paradigm, seeking to address recruitment at the root, requires the involvement and active engagement of mothers.

The Mothers School model

The Mothers School seeks out mothers as an embedded security ally and arms them with the skills to be an effective foundation of community resilience. This model targets and optimizes a pre-existing, underutilized resource, and is inherently a grass-roots approach. The curriculum, implemented through trusted community partners, includes specific exercises that facilitate dialogue, exchange information and use critical reflection through context-based techniques that apply to participants’ daily lives. This model creates a formalized space for mothers to improve their knowledge of early-warning signs and strategize how to be effective barriers to radical influences. Together they can deconstruct social barriers and have open dialogue about their children’s struggles, as well as their own.

A displaced Iraqi woman forced from her home by jihadists walks with her son at the Harsham refugee camp west of Erbil in February 2015. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A displaced Iraqi woman forced from her home by jihadists walks with her son at the Harsham refugee camp west of Erbil in February 2015. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Mothers School has been tested in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Indonesia, India, Nigeria and Tanzania, and evaluations show that it has been embraced. Mothers report that participating in the school with similarly concerned women builds self-confidence, improves parenting skills and provides them more credibility in their homes and communities. As one school participant from Kashmir stated: “We always think that such discussions can only be among the educated and elite people from high profile societies. But now we believe, after exploring, that our skills were with us always but unfortunately on sleeping mode and that we can also become friends with our children and help them to deal with any kind of support so that they don’t feel the need to look for any violent alternatives.” The pilot findings also indicate that the curriculum provided the mothers with substantive information and targeted skills, better preparing them to identify and respond to radical influences.

The Mothers School Curriculum

The central components of the curriculum are building confidence and self-esteem, increasing knowledge and reflection of parent-child dynamics, and delivering specific training in countering radicalization. The curriculum includes 10 modules spanning three stages, guiding participants through a process of gradual awareness-building. These stages move successively from the self, to the family, to the community, and then to one’s role in security.

The first four workshops aim to collectively create a safe and comfortable environment in which barriers can be deconstructed and productive dialogue can take place. The exercises guide them through critical reflection of themselves, including identifying their strengths and weaknesses, along with analyses of their communities and their roles within them.

Feedback from participants suggests that the workshops are meeting these needs. As one mother stated: “Once you encourage someone here who shares her sad story or about the problems in their lives, just a word of encouragement makes them feel strong. They think they are not alone. They get the feeling of acceptance.”

The crucial adolescent phase is a small window of opportunity for two key actors. Radical recruiters appeal to disaffected youth at this time of heightened vulnerability with promises of honor, community and paradise. But it is also a pivotal point for mothers to instill counternarratives and positive alternatives. The next stage progresses from addressing barriers to emphasizing targeted skill training. Primarily, it aims to address the need of improving parenting skills and focuses on education and analysis grounded both in theory and on the social political realities of the community.

For example, one mother explains how she applied this knowledge in her home: “It is a common belief that you don’t give much importance to the children and listen to them every time, and instead you should be strict so that a fear is maintained and they have respect. But, in this class, I came to know that the fact is something else. … It is just a notion and it is very important to acknowledge the problems of our children.”

The last stage focuses on how to establish and continually reinforce resilience in the home. Mothers are provided with specific instruction on recognizing and reacting to the early warning signs of radicalization, including instruction on the role the Internet plays in spreading extremist messages, as well as how to engage fathers in looking out for and addressing concerning behavior.

Moving Forward

As the study findings show, mothers are instrumental in implementing targeted intervention at the previolence phase. And they are a valuable source of information, not only about the intricacies of youths’ social and emotional environment, but also as a reflective lens. Mothers of radicalized youth provide a perspective most salient to developing a new security approach. Mothers are the common thread to youth who vary in background, religion and political involvement. As the emotional link to their children, they have the unique ability to piece together common denominators.

To give prominence to this key data, Women without Borders brought a group of mothers from Europe and Canada to share their insights about the radicalization process of their children, who had all departed for Syria. In sharing their experiences, they painted a picture of their children’s personalities, struggles and the changes observed in the early stages of the radicalization process.

As one mother whose son died in Syria in 2012 explained: Recruiters “mislead children because they tell them they are selected, that they are chosen. These ideas tell them that Allah will take care of them.” Another mother shared: “My son was very immature. He had no real information about religion and no real intellectual perspective about religious questions. This is why he was radicalized so quickly.” Most importantly, the mothers felt they lacked support that could have helped save their children. “I hid my concerns from everyone. … I was too afraid to talk. … If I had known where to turn, maybe I could have stopped him.”

The conference’s positive feedback from the mothers and the government and community representatives supports the need to explore ways to formally include mothers’ insights into security dialogues. Mothers returned to their homes inspired and equipped to help other at-risk families.

In establishing robust security, closing the information gap is the first step. This is accomplished in large part by including mothers’ insights in the preradicalization phase, followed by the development of prevention strategies that address these early concerns, and the use of mothers as the primary implementers. However, for these initial fortifications to have an impact on curbing violent extremism, mothers must have support within civil society.


Mothers sit on the front line. We would argue that their position is even more vital than that of local authorities who are tasked with reacting to, rather than pre-empting, processes of radicalization. In the absence of our ability to eliminate the sources of radical messages, our only option is to build resiliency from within. Inevitably, addressing the internal, emotional forces that leave one vulnerable to extremist ideologies, such as anger, resentment, resignation, or lack of purpose and belonging, requires individual attention and support from trusted, willing individuals.

Mothers are at the center of the home; they are the first to recognize changes in their children, such as anger, anxiety and isolation. They have unique access and a continuous connection with their children, which remains consistent throughout their growing interactions with the outside world. They are a crucial element to building resilience into the social fabric. Indeed, tapping into mothers’ preventive potential and establishing mothers as key security allies is an essential part of effective and cost-efficient security. Overall, it is not only the mothers, but the world at large that stands to gain the most from this effort.