PARIS (Reuters) - Anthropologist Dounia Bouzar used to try religious arguments to turn young people away from militant Islam – and failed. So the 51-year-old grandmother developed her own techniques along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her main rule: Don’t try to reason with people.
“Characteristically, a young person who has been recruited ... thinks that he is chosen and that he knows the truth,” said the bleach-blond, discreetly watched by three police bodyguards as she sat in a Parisian café. “As soon as you use reason – knowledge – to tackle this type of young person, you are failing.”
Bouzar, a Muslim herself, instead uses memories, music and even smells to try to win young militants back. Recruiters have adopted techniques developed by cults, she says, so it takes different skills to break their hold.
Bouzar now works for the Ministry of the Interior to train local authorities in her methods. Pierre N’Gahane, the official in charge of a 6 million euro ($6.62 million) program to prevent radicalization in France, says Bouzar and her team are “giving results with which we are quite satisfied.” Neither Bouzar nor French officials suggest hers is the only answer to militant recruiting. But Bouzar says her tactics are the start of a process that can work.
France has lost more people to militant Islam than any other country in Europe, according to most estimates. Two bloody attacks at home this year have emphasized the risks. The French government estimates 1,800 citizens have joined jihadist networks in Syria or Iraq, or are on the verge of going. Another 7,000 are “at risk” of following that path. Bouzar works under police protection and changes location constantly.
About one in five French radicals in Iraq or Syria are women. And only a minority of the radicals Bouzar helps come from Muslim families, she says. About 80 percent were originally atheist or Catholic; some are even Jewish.
Her Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Trends Linked to Islam (CPDSI) has handled around 600 families in the last year and receives about 15 calls a week. It employs six people. She says she has failed in two or three cases but has “saved” about 50 young people.
Her methods are sometimes controversial. Her cases cannot be independently verified because she disguises them for the sake of privacy. Her critics say she is no expert on Islam, cannot speak Arabic, and is playing with amateur psychology.
But Bouzar, who was a social worker dealing with delinquent or at-risk young people for 15 years, has a team whose members have all experienced the loss or recruitment, and has plenty of experience with radicalized youth. In 2004, she started a project with 10 people who were radicalizing, and published a book about it.
Two years later, while working with an imam to convince young boys they were on the wrong path, she realized she was failing. When the imam spoke about religion, she says, the youths would reply: “‘Shut your face. That’s not what God says. I’m chosen. I know what God says.’”
Things got more complicated early last year, when Islamic State “brothers” began hunting online for wives. Many of their French recruits were well educated and came from stable backgrounds.
“These adolescents are undergoing a process of suggestion which is almost at the level of hypnosis,” said Serge Hefez, a family psychiatrist at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris who treats some of the recruits seen by Bouzar.
Islamist online recruiters are powerful worldwide. Earlier this year, a 14-year old Briton who found friends in a jihadist community almost persuaded an Australian comrade to behead police at a parade memorializing war dead.
French recruiters are particularly skillful, Bouzar believes. She has studied the recruitment process by examining phones and computers of hundreds of French adolescents, and heard it described by the young people and their families who have come to her for help.
“Recruiters show differing utopias to young people,” she said. “It’s by listening to how they get caught that we can undo the deception.”
The messages are not initially religious; sometimes adolescent alienation is the hook.
One online recruitment movie suggests the viewer is sleep-walking within a matrix of corruption and deceit. Starting with a young woman at a nightclub standing open-mouthed as alcohol is poured down her throat, it flashes images associating America with Freemasonry, exhorts the viewer to “wake up” the world, and ends with extracts from the movie, The Matrix, showing the protagonist choosing between a blue and a red pill for ‘truth.’
Recruiters mash up fantasy with news footage and idyllic scenes. One boy Bouzar has dealt with was captivated by characters from the Assassin’s Creed game; others have been drawn by figures in the Lord of the Rings.
Recruiters have multiple profiles in mind, she says, and use keyword searches to seek out personality types. Among fantasies they promote are girls seeking a protector, chivalrous would-be heroes, “Call of Duty” characters, and risk-takers who want to rule the world.
For Lea, as Bouzar calls one young woman who was preparing to attack a synagogue, compassion was the key.
Her Facebook profile made plain she wanted to do humanitarian work. Recruiters then showed her videos “saying I could do humanitarian work in Syria,” she says on a film produced by Bouzar’s center. “The videos showed the Syrian population being gassed ... bombed, and women taken to hospital in such a state, even without their veils.” The sights were so terrible, she said, “I wanted to be forgiven.”
Recruiters bombard their targets night and day with exhortations and orders. Some young people find themselves repeating religious phrases, almost as a shield from other influences.
“I heard myself saying the same thing over and over again,” Lea says in the video. “I still find it hard to believe I was indoctrinated. I still find it hard to believe I was that stupid.”
In Paris in early 2014 Bouzar met a group of families who had lost children to Islamists. One mother brought her daughter from Grenoble. The parents were desperate.
They had discovered their daughter had a secret Facebook profile plastered with Islamic State propaganda. The girl had made arrangements to leave for Syria in two days. She did not know her parents knew about the page; they did not know what to do.
Bouzar asked other families for help. They decided to meet the girl with her family. But they would not talk directly to her about her Facebook page. Instead, they would speak to each other about their own experiences of recruitment and loss. The girl listened, and eventually broke down and confessed.
The experience is akin to the shared stories in Alcoholics Anonymous. Bouzar has also borrowed an idea from French writer Marcel Proust, who wrote a masterpiece on memory which said how the flavor of a certain sponge cake – a Madeleine – revived an intense experience from his childhood.
She suggests families use emotional cues – music, pictures, places, scents, food – to “wake up” recruits. Only parents know how to do this.
“When the young person is touched by memories of his childhood,” she said, they come back to themselves “for a few instants.” That’s the start families need.
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Additional reporting and writing by Sara Ledwith; Edited by Simon Robinson
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