In the troubled Brussels district of Molenbeek, politician Sarah Turine is on the frontline of her own war to stop the sons of Belgian families going off to Syria to join Islamic State fighters.
The first step is often to send a sociologist and psychologist to try to re-establish the link between the troubled young man and his family. The next is to flag up the dire consequences of the choice they seem to be about to make.
“We must try to defuse this anger among the young,” Turine, who oversees a radicalisation prevention programme in Molenbeek, told AFP over tea at an upscale Arab cafe.
“We have to assure them they have a place here, that they are not second-class citizens, and to undermine the recruiters’ arguments,” said Turine, a member of the leftist Ecolo party.
Belgium has come under fire for failing to crack down on the radicalisation of its youth since the Paris attacks this month saw 130 people killed by jihadists, many of whom lived in or had links to the impoverished immigrant district of Molenbeek.
For families it can be hard to know where to turn in the tiny northern European country, already the region’s top recruiting ground for jihadi “foreign fighters” in Syria and Iraq compared to the number of people.
Community leaders say Molenbeek presents a toxic mix of reasons its youth are becoming radicalised: high unemployment, lack of career prospects, drug abuse, petty crime and isolation from Belgium’s non-Muslim majority.
Compounding that is poor political engagement and lax security oversight.
Bilal, a 21-year-old Muslim resident of the district, says recruiters from the Islamic State group that claimed the Paris attacks convinced around a dozen of his male and female friends to join their cause in Syria.
He said recruiters played on his friends’ guilt over their “craze for nightlife,” their relations with the opposite sex and “brushes with the law” — a wayward lifestyle in a conservative and poor immigrant community.
They also whipped up a sense of injustice over the perceived Western meddling in Middle East events, said Bilal, who himself resisted repeated recruitment bids.
“Recruiters target the weak,” he told AFP.
– ‘Fertile ground’ –
Jamal Habbachich, who chairs a council of 22 mosques in Molenbeek, said extremist recruiters have started distributing leaflets in the streets and the markets.
And he said Molenbeek — cut off from the rest of Belgium like a “ghetto” — offers recruiters “fertile ground” to lure in young people with the false promise of a more righteous life.
“The Islamic State conducted a diabolical, satanic strategy,” he told AFP in his office at Attadamoun Mosque.
“It won people slowly with its pitch: ‘Help the poor and end injustice’. And once they get over there, they pass to the war phase.”
The mosques work with people like Sarah Turine to try to stop the young from becoming radicalised, but they need far more people and resources, Habbachich said.
“There is also prevention work that we do with the imams,” he said. “The imams warn the young… ‘If you take this path, you are going to destroy your life.'”
Olivier Vanderhaeghen, an administrator for Turine’s prevention programme, said he and his colleagues, working with schools, social workers and others, try to restore the community and family ties that young people break when they are lured by radicals.
“First, the young person will break with his or her network, he will break with his friends, he will break with his school, his sporting club,” he said. “Second, he will no longer frequent the same public places.
“In the third and last phase, he will break with his family,” he added.
Turine said she is certain the programme has helped “dozens and dozens and dozens” of young Muslims and has prevented some going to Syria.
But Habbachich said much more work needs to be done to professionally train and help the young find work, including outside Brussels, as well as give them an outlet to express themselves.
“Nobody listens to them, nobody speaks to them,” he added.