Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci
Following my Father into the Islamic State Caliphate is the 79th counter narrative video in the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brandseries. This video features 22-year-old Belgian, Salma who was interviewed by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci in August of 2018 in detention facility in northern Syria run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The video clip was video edited and produced by Zack Baddorf and our ICSVE team.
We often hear how recruitment into terrorism can be a family affair, with siblings recruiting one another, or when it comes to ISIS, with whole families traveling to join the ISIS Caliphate, led by a matriarch, father or elder sibling. Family members often join together to express solidarity or a sense of shared purpose and identity. Likewise, many youth whom we have interviewed or spoken to their parents about, who joined ISIS, found themselves vulnerable to ISIS recruitment during or after their parents’ divorce. Facing the break-up of their families, they became vulnerable to seeking surety and comfort elsewhere.
In the case of Salma, her father, a Tunisian Belgian, had been very outspoken and expressive about the values to live by according to Islam and the Quran. In fact, Salma explained that he had moved with Salma after his divorce to Tunisia to accomplish exactly that. He wasn’t satisfied there, however, and the two returned to Belgium, from where her father ultimately left in 2015 to join the ISIS Caliphate, believing it would deliver him the most authentic Islamic lifestyle.
Salma said her father called her briefly from Syria to tell her that he had joined the ISIS Caliphate and that he was satisfied that they were actually building an Islamic State. Salma recounts that he told her, “Life is better here. You can wear your whole hijab. We’re not oppressed here.” Her father’s statement reflects how many European Muslims, particularly women who wear niqab (a full face covering) or a full hijab (covering their neck and shoulders), and Muslim men wearing short pants and beards, often feel discriminated against and marginalized by mainstream European society. Salma refers to this explaining, “[In Belgium], sometimes you feel targeted. You feel watched upon if you’re not the same like them. If your head is covered, you’re wearing hijab this big and everything, you’re watched upon.”
Over the past decade, ICSVE researchers have talked to hundreds of first and second generation European Muslims of immigrant descent, particularly in Belgium, who feel this sense of oppression. Some have told how they were turned away from jobs or renting an apartment based on their name, dress or other indicators of being a Muslim of immigrant descent. Most deal with this frustration nonviolently, but some become attracted to groups like ISIS that offer them dignity and purpose inside the ISIS “Caliphate” promising that every Muslim of any color or ethnicity is accepted and that Islamic ideals will be lived out.
When Salma’s father called to tell her about his journey into ISIS, he advised that he was going to embark on ISIS’s weapons training and would be out of contact during the next month. Salma responded with deep longing and recalls impulsively deciding to follow him, “Just that my dad said, ‘I’m not coming back,’was enough for me to come actually.” Salma’s Belgian mother, a nonimmigrant, was still in Belgium but Salma didn’t consult with her.
Salma was also naïve about ISIS. She admits, “I never watched [ISIS YouTube videos],” but, “When my dad called me,I tried to watch on YouTube. I looked up like ‘How’s life in ISIS?’” She found nothing illuminating, but with the help of someone she met on Twitter, she arranged to travel and cross into Syria. Salma was just 19-years-old at the time and brimming with hopeful expectancy.
Upon her arrival into ISIS, Salma was able to avoid being placed in the ISIS women’s house and went to live immediately with her father who had returned from the training. Upon return, Salma’s father was assigned by ISIS to collect “zakat,” the taxes of the Islamic State, and was at first happy with life inside the Caliphate. One of his Tunisian colleagues proposed his son in marriage for Salma, and they married—fulfilling ISIS expectations that young women do not stay unmarried.
Salma and her family, however, quickly realized that ISIS acted against Islamic principles and became deeply uneasy inside the group. They tried to escape twice but were caught both times. All were jailed, with the men tortured. On their second escape, Salma’s father talked her into trying to leave while her husband was being held in ISIS prison; this time imprisoned for refusing to fight for the group. The second attempt ended in tragedy, as they were caught and Salma’s father and all the men with them were gunned down in front of the women, even a small boy. Salma herself was hit with a barrage of bullets as she clutched her two-months old baby in her arms.
Salma continued to be disgusted by the group but was unable to escape. She recalls learning about the ISIS attacks on the Belgian Zaventem airport and at first being in total disbelief. When her relatives back home confirmed it was true, she recalls hoping that her family was not among those killed at the airport.
She condemns ISIS for targeting innocent civilians. “It’s like going to school and killing people. They don’t do anything,” she states. “If you wanna kill people, I don’t know, kill people that are doing something to you. Go kill people that are killing you.” She further adds, “killing people who are innocent, they don’t have anything. They’re just going there. It could have been me there. And what did I do?”
The fact that Salma kept in touch with relatives back home is not unusual. In our interview sample (n=101 ISIS cadres), ICSVE has found that most European men and women constantly called home, to their mothers particularly. For the men, ties with their fathers were often broken by their recruiters having condemned Muslim fathers for having brought their families to and for continuing to live in kufr (unbeliever) lands, and often the ISIS fighters replaced fathers as role models. But ties with mothers are rarely broken and could have been—or could in the future—be used to convince their offspring to quit the group and escape if possible. In this case, Salma was separated from her mother, but many are not, and mothers, if coached by professionals, may become a powerful force in rescuing their offspring from the clutches of terrorist groups like ISIS.
While Salma is still young and lived a sheltered life inside ISIS, she came across as extraordinarily naïve about global politics and terrorism and didn’t seem to comprehend that ISIS considers their attacks on Western countries as revenge attacks for the U.S. led coalition airstrikes on ISIS. “I don’t … . Did Belgium really kill? Did Belgium really send people? I don’t know,” she asks herself. “Did I send the alliance [to Syria]? Did I say to Belgium go bomb people?” Her answer is, “No. Most people in Belgium don’t even know. They don’t really follow [the news] that Belgium allied to kill ISIS. I didn’t even know ISIS in 2014. We heard sometimes about them but we didn’t really,” she states.
Her words highlight the need for more preventative education among vulnerable populations in countries like Belgium. Clearly, in 2015 she lacked a clear understanding about ISIS and what the group stood for, and like other Europeans we have interviewed, may not have believed anything in the Western press that showed negative images of, or spoke against the group, simply discounting it as Islamophobic Western propaganda.
This is one of the reasons we at ICSVE believe that our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos are powerful tools for breaking through denial in vulnerable sectors of society by using actual insiders to tell what they saw and experienced inside the group and to use emotionally evocative images to help open up youth to discussing things they might generally try to avoid speaking about with those who might guide and protect them from terrorist recruitment.
Salma appears naïve about many issues, but she is clear about what constitutes Islamic “martyrdom.” She states, “Self-suicide for killing people, it’s not even allowed in Islam. So, I don’t know from where they got that [justification].”
Salma finally did manage to escape from ISIS, and her husband later made it out as well. Both escaped into Kurdish held territory in northern Syria and are now held in separate detention facilities run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Salma states, “Of course, I wanna go home. I wanna go to my mother.” Belgian authorities, however, are refusing to take back their citizens from among the ISIS foreign fighters that they have caught, despite the SDF arguing that it is their responsibility to do so.
While arguments can be made for prosecuting them in place, as opposed to taking them to their home countries where evidence might be lacking to procure successful prosecutions, Salma—like most of the captured ISIS wives—now has two young children who are caught in the middle. Salma was seven months pregnant at the time ICSVE researchers interviewed her and feared needing another Cesarean section, and the camp seemed to be an extremely uninhabitable place in which to raise a newborn. The mothers live with their small children in worn out tents and it’s cold in the winter. There are no vaccinations. Medical care and nutrition are lacking. Some children in this camp have already died of typhoid. All the mothers fear winter conditions for their children’s well-being and survival. Some had Western passports before their parents took them into ISIS, others were born in Raqqa, or like Salma’s baby, were born in detention.
Salma ends her video warning youth not to be taken in by terrorist propaganda, stating, “They know how to make everyone think that you’re happy. And, they know how to brainwash people.”
What do you feel watching this video?
Do you believe Salma didn’t know what kind of group she was going to join?
What do you think of her claim that her father going was enough to make her follow without investigating it well?
What do you think of Western Muslims not believing the mainstream media when it condemns groups like ISIS?
Do you think Salma is at present—or will be in the future—a danger to Belgian society or would ever return to ISIS after her father was killed by them?
Do you believe that having a close family member already involved in a violent extremist group can serve as a predictor of an individual becoming involved in violence or violent extremism? If so, why?
What do you think about collective punishment—that is, holding children of ISIS parents in detention with them?
What do you believe should be done with ISIS wives who did not fight or engage in violence, and their children?
What do you believe should be done with male foreign fighters caught in Syria and Iraq?
Islamic Scriptures Related to this Video
Transcript of Following my Father into the Islamic State Caliphate
Wife of ISIS Soldier[In Belgium], sometimes you feel targeted. You feel watched upon if you’re not the same like them.
If your head is covered, you’re wearing hijab this big and everything, you’re watched upon.
TEXT: Salma was born in Vilvoorde, Belgium. There, she was a practicing Muslim, wearing a hijab and praying regularly.
My dad, he wanted to live the really Islamic life.
My dad came first [to the Islamic State] and then he called me [in July 2015].
He just said, ‘Life is better here. You can wear your whole hijab. We’re not oppressed here.’
Just that my dad said, ‘I’m not coming back,’ was enough for me to come actually.
I never watched [ISIS YouTube videos].
When my dad called me, I tried to watch on YouTube.
I looked up like ‘How’s life in ISIS?’ but there wasn’t really anything on YouTube.
And, he convinced me to come. So I came.
TEXT: Just 19-years-old, Salma flew to Istanbul without telling her mother. With the help of someone she met on Twitter, she then crossed into Syria.
TEXT: Salma then spent several years in ISIS territory.
TEXT: However, Salma and her family quickly realized that ISIS fighters were not good Muslims and acted against Islamic principles.
TEXT: Salma condemns the ISIS attack against the Belgium Zaventem airport.
It’s like going to school and killing people. They don’t do anything.
If you wanna kill people, I don’t know, kill people that are doing something to you.
Go kill people that are killing you. First thing, I was like, ‘I hope my family is not in the airport.’
I didn’t actually believe it, because there were so many rumors [about] attacks, attacks.
I contacted my family, and they were like, ‘No, it’s true.’
I was like, ‘No, it’s not the airport of Zaventem! How will they enter Zaventem, you know?’
I was like, ‘It should be Charleroi, a little airport,’and they were like, ‘No, it’s Zaventem.’
I’m like, ‘Whoa.’
TEXT: ICSVE asked Salma whether she knows that ISIS considers these revenge attacks
for the U.S.-led coalition bombings of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
I don’t … . Did Belgium really kill? Did Belgium really send people? I don’t know.
And even, self-suicide for killing people,it’s not even allowed in Islam.
So I don’t know from where they got that [justification].
Killing people on the battlefield, I find, it’s not the same as killing people just passing by, you know.
Killing people on the battlefield, they have guns shooting at you.
If you kill him, ok, you’re defending yourself.
But killing people who are innocent, they don’t have anything. They’re just going there.
It could have been me there. And what did I do?
Did I send the alliance [to Syria]? Did I say to Belgium go bomb people? No.
Most people in Belgium don’t even know.
They don’t really follow [the news] that Belgium allied to kill ISIS.
I didn’t even know ISIS in 2014.
We heard sometimes about them but we didn’t really.
TEXT: Salma says people should question ISIS propaganda.
They know how to make everyone think that you’re happy.
And, they know how to brainwash people.
TEXT: Salma tried to escape ISIS control multiple times.
TEXT: After ISIS killed her father and tortured her husband, Salma managed to flee ISIS heading for Turkey, despite being pregnant.
TEXT: She and her son were arrested while passing through territory controlled by the Syrian Defense Forces (YPG).
TEXT: They were detained at Camp Roj, Syria.
TEXT: Salma gave birth to her second child and remains with her newborn and toddler in the camp, which is desolate and unsuitable for children.
TEXT: There are no vaccinations. Medical care and nutrition are lacking. Some children in this camp have already died of typhoid. Especially as winter approaches, all the mothers fear for their children’s well-being and survival.
TEXT: It is uncertain if Belgian authorities will allow Salma and her children to return to Belgium.
TEXT: Of course, I wanna go home. I wanna go to my mother.
TEXT: My sister got so many kids. I don’t even know them. My family doesn’t know my kids.