- - Sunday, May 8, 2016

BRUSSELS — Saliha Ben Ali’s voice softens to a whisper every time her son’s name comes up.

In the summer of 2013 her second-eldest child, Sabri, left for Syria. Four months later his father received a phone call: an anonymous voice saying Sabri had died in combat. “As a martyr,” the man on the other end of the line said before abruptly hanging up.

Sabri, 18, was one of hundreds of young Belgians recruited by Islamist militants to fight in Syria and other Middle East conflicts. Per capita, no European country has sent more. Around 500 Belgians have gone since Syria’s civil war erupted five years ago, according to a recent report from the Netherlands-based International Center for Counter-Terrorism.

Islamic State militants recruited in Belgium formed the core of terror cells that planned and executed the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris that killed 162 people. But some Muslims in Belgium and across Europe are fighting back against the extremists who have lured away young people to fight and die with promises of excitement and holy war.

After her son’s disappearance, Mrs. Ben Ali founded Society Against Violent Extremism Belgium, or SAVE Belgium, one of a number of grass-roots organizations seeking to thwart the recruitment efforts of Muslim extremists.

“We’re not angry, we’re disgusted,” she said. “We don’t get how people can use religion to do evil.”

Her group aims to help families through parenting workshops targeted at mostly first- and second-generation immigrant mothers in the greater Brussels area.

“We offer tools to help parents educate their children the best they can,” she said. “We want to show kids that they can come to their parents with their questions and that everything can be talked about.”

Experts increasingly think community-based initiatives like SAVE Belgium can play a crucial role in countering the jihadi narrative.

“Every grass-roots initiative, every NGO, every initiative that is not government-guided, is much more likely to be successful than centralized government initiatives,” said Alexander Ritzmann, a Berlin-based senior policy adviser at the European Foundation for Democracy, which monitors radicalization.

That message is reaching governments.

“We are not going to succeed only by preaching, lecturing” but by a counternarrative, said Elisabeth Guigou, president of the French Parliament’s foreign affairs commission, during an online international security debate late last month.

“There is unfortunately no counternarrative silver bullet,” she told the Security Jam organized by Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. “We must invent the means, nurture the skills, build the approaches that the youth and the civil society itself needs to erect as a bulwark against political, religious and ideological violence.”

Belgian officials said many in the first wave of local youths heading to the Middle East were drawn in part by the democratizing promise of the 2011 Arab Spring, but have become increasingly radicalized with the rise of Islamic State and the increasing brutality of the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Once a pipeline is established, the process tends to feed on itself, experts say.

Supporting the parents

Ms. Guigou, a former French justice minister, stressed the importance of supporting parents whose children are targets of radicalization.

Mrs. Ben Ali said parents of young Muslims often feel powerless when confronted with the drive by faceless extremists to recruit their children. “It’s a terrible anguish, this feeling of ‘How will we be able to fight these recruiters?’” the 45-year-old social worker said.

The recruiters for Islamic State and other jihadi movements, she said, preempt parents’ attempts to talk sense into their children, grooming them to deceive and claiming parental opposition happens because they don’t want their children to be good Muslims.

At the time her son was recruited, Mrs. Ben Ali’s family was living in the Dutch-speaking industrial Brussels suburb of Vilvoorde. Although recent media attention has focused on the inner-city Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek — home to many of the Paris and Brussels attackers — Vilvoorde was also considered prime territory for jihadi recruiters.

Up to 2014 Vilvoorde is believed to have produced more jihadi fighters as a share of its Muslim population than any other town in Western Europe.

Since then, City Hall and community groups have launched prevention programs for at-risk youngsters, programs credited with halting the flow of jihadis from the town of red brickrow houses.

The prevention program was launched after officials stopped a 14-year-old local girl at a German airport on her way to Syria. Before her, 28 Vilvoorde natives had left, but none are reported to have gone since.

“The whole town got together, the schools, social assistance, the police, the Muslim community and, by extension, the other religious communities,” Vilvoode Mayor Hans Bonte wrote in an open letter after the Brussels attacks, urging the Belgian government to build on Vilvoorde’s example.

After 17 years in Vilvoorde, Mrs. Ben Ali, her husband and two youngest children left 18 months ago. Her former home overlooked Vilvoorde’s Heldenplein — “Heroes Square” — a meeting spot for young people. There were too many reminders of the child she’d lost. “It was too difficult for us,” she said. “People judged us as bad parents because [in their eyes] we failed to teach our son the proper Islam.

“It was really, really difficult for me,” she said. “I no longer go home with this knot I had in my stomach.”

Although her SAVE Belgium organization’s stated aim is to combat radicalization, she deliberately didn’t brand the classes as such.

“One of the things we need to tell the moms is that we’re not here to stigmatize them as mothers of radicalized youths, but to help them be more [proactive] and — why not? — help them detect signals from their children when they aren’t doing well.”

While most parents are aware of the dangers, Mrs. Ben Ali said many Muslim families refuse to recognize the radicalization threat. “I would say three out of 10 parents are in denial,” she said, adding that parents often refuse to acknowledge the problem in their communities.

Mrs. Ben Ali and her husband attended the trials late last year of two men accused of brainwashing her son and others. Jihadi preachers Khalid Zerkani and Jean-Louis Denis were convicted and sentenced to 12 and 10 years, respectively, for recruiting terrorists.

“They were just opposite us. What can you do? Punch them in the face?” she asked. “That we were face to face with these people, my husband and I, is a way of fighting them, is a way of saying: ‘We’re here and we’re defending the memory of our son.’”

• Paul Ames contributed to this report from Lisbon, Portugal.

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