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Exactly a year ago, families from across Europe and the Middle East gathered in the heart of Paris to make a stand against violent extremism. Fathers of terrorism victims sat next to mothers of jihadists at the conference organised by Families Against Terrorism and Extremism (FATE). When Karolina Dam, a Denmark-based mother, started speaking about losing her son to Daesh, the simultaneous French interpretation suddenly stopped. Initially it was assumed a technical problem had occurred, but then the interpreter stepped out of his booth, tears running down his face.
The power of family members to deter their loved ones from engaging in terrorism cannot be overstated. For too long, families have been left to the way side as policy and security officials grapple at the issue alone. This must change. The family unit can play both a positive and, indeed, negative influence in relation to violent extremism and must now be at the forefront of discussions. Families are often demonised and victimised - seen as both part of the radicalisation problem, but also as victims of terrorism. Their potential to make a vital contribution in resolving some of today’s most pressing security challenges remains vastly underexplored. Proximity, Prestige and Passion are the three P’s that may, in fact, position families better than any other stakeholders to counter violent extremism.
Proximity to individuals vulnerable to recruitment into violent extremist networks is key to terrorism prevention efforts. Especially within the MENA region, where family bonds are critical, parents and siblings of at-risk-youth can help to identify and disrupt radicalisation processes. A study of young people’s attitudes towards violent extremism in the West Bank found that family influence was even more important than peer guidance. Research also shows that religiously inspired self-starters often exhibited ‘leakage’ to family members, either in expressing extremist views or in sharing their plans to engage in an act of terror.
The prestige that family members enjoy as intervention providers and counter-messengers puts them in a better position to prevent violent extremism than governments. Policymakers are frequently viewed with suspicion or lack contextual understanding. Military- and law-heavy responses to terrorism threats have undermined their credibility to engage in soft-end prevention efforts. Some countries additionally have ‘competing national security priorities’, and so the onus falls to civil society. The family, as the smallest unit of civil society, can benefit from its members’ roles as educators, role models, protectors and authorities to complement the role of the state in countering violent extremism.
As families are directly concerned by the consequences of violent extremism, they also have the passion that many other stakeholders lack. Policy makers, security forces and professional frontline workers can only respond to radicalisation with logic. Family members are uniquely placed to communicate emotionally to protect their loved ones from the social harms of extremism, and the security threats of terrorism. Their messages are visceral and intuitive, their voices credible and compassionate and their networks organic and self-sustaining. As a result their efforts tend to be more effective in the long run.
Parents are in an excellent position to provide education, guidance and counter-speech that resonate with their children, whilst humanising the impact that engaging in terrorism can have. While civil society empowerment initiatives have traditionally targeted mothers, our research in North Africa suggests that different family members can play different roles in prevention, intervention and deradicalisation efforts. Our focus groups with Moroccan and Tunisian family members stressed that mothers are best placed to act as safeguarders and intervention providers thanks to their intimate, regular contact with their children and their sensitivity and intuition to changes in behaviour. Fathers, often respected as the head of the family, may be able to positively shape youth behaviour and act as role models. Siblings, on the other hand, are excellent peer-to-peer counter-speech agents. Their closeness in age, shared interests and knowledge of social media equips them well to engage in counter-speech. In particular, older siblings can play a vital role as they are often idolised by younger offspring.
The notion that families can be frontline practitioners against violent extremism can be a daunting one for those involved, and so training is essential. Most of our survey respondents confirmed the need for more training to fill the gaps in their knowledge about radicalisation processes and extremism dynamics. To fully exploit the potential of family-led approaches, we will need to provide them with the tools, courage and motivation to safeguard their sons, daughters and siblings from being lured into violent extremist networks. Furthermore, building bridges between governments, civil society organisations and families will also be necessary. Once empowered, families can counter violent extremism with non-violent means and challenge hatred with compassion. Maybe they can even fill the gaps where intelligence and security forces are powerless.