Olfa Hamrouni with a picture of her daughter Rahma. All photos by Costanza Spocci

'They Were Preparing Their Souls to Die': When Your Daughters Join ISIS

Olfa Hamrouni was initially happy that her daughters had rediscovered Islam. Then they ran away from home to a jihadist training camp.

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Sep 15 2016, 1:45pm

Olfa Hamrouni with a picture of her daughter Rahma. All photos by Costanza Spocci

Olfa Hamrouni wipes the tears away from her face with the corner of her floral hijab. She points at the photos laid out before her on the table. Two young faces stare back up at her—her daughters, who are currently being held by anti-Islamic State militia in Tripoli, Libya after being radicalized by violent extremists.

"Nobody talks to me from the neighbourhood," she says, glancing over to her two younger daughters who watch her from the kitchen in their modest house in a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia. "Other families don't let their children play with mine. They say they're terrorists."

Tunisia is the largest exporter of jihadi militants in the world. According to the UN, more than 5,500 nationals between the ages of 18 and 35 have joined militant organizations, including ISIS and al-Qaeda's affiliated al-Nusra Front, across Syria, Iraq and Libya. Of this number, 700 are women.

Women's motives for joining a violent extremist group are often scrutinized far more closely than those of a man. But Dr Erin Saltman, a senior counter extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London, calls this a naive, sexist response.

"Women have long been part of violent, extremist movements, from far right to far left, whether as combatants or logistics or communication," says Dr Saltman. "We don't understand why women from a variety of backgrounds and ages would join violent extremist Islamist movements because we think of them as being very gender-oppressive towards women."

Read more: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most

"However, the propaganda that is being disseminated towards women is actually very empowering and takes on narratives that talk about sisterhood, belonging, empowerment, spiritual fulfillment, and it's something that Western audiences have a hard time relating to. It's more of a powerful utopia-building narrative, like the Soviet and Nazi tactics."

Dr Saltman explains that the reasons for the radicalization of both men and women are varied. "When we look at the women who have gone [to extremist groups], we see a huge age range between 13 and 45. Some with husbands, some by themselves, some with friends. Some with boyfriends, some wanting to get married upon arrival, others were going because they thought they could fight as combatants," she says. "It's a little like pick'n'mix, and what recruiters and propagandists will do is they take very localized, personalized grievances and they manifest it into their ideology."

Hamrouni's daughters became vulnerable to recruitment by Islamic extremists in 2012, a year after Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution toppled dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his secular regime. The North African country's dynamics changed dramatically as religious extremists were now able to proselytize openly. Salafi preachers set up dawah Islamic education tents around the country, from which they delivered their sermons.

At the time, the Hamrouni household was troubled. Hamrouni divorced her husband in 2011 and was struggling to maintain control of her four girls on her own. Her eldest daughter, Ghofran, now 18, defied her mother by wearing make-up and cutting her hair, and Rahma, a year younger, was expelled from school for arguing with the teachers.

In 2012, a marquee appeared outside their house and Ghofran entered to find out more. She emerged wearing a niqab and soon Rahma followed suit. They destroyed their CDs of the rock music they'd previously loved, and Rahma threw away her guitar. Western music was taboo in the world that now consumed them.

Hamrouni shows Rahma's last text message. All photos by Costanza Spocci

Hamrouni says she was initially happy her daughters had found some sort of purpose in their lives, but this quickly turned ugly when they began to criticize the family for being infidels. The girls began to radicalize their younger sisters, Taysin, 11, and Aya, 13, and stopped them from going to school. They talked of jihad and Syria, and the torment caused Aya such consternation she stopped eating.

"They were preparing their souls to die," says Hamrouni, straightening the photos on the table. "When they heard about [an ISIS fighter] dying in Syria, they would go to that person's house and congratulate their mother."

Money was tight, so Hamrouni took the family to Libya in 2014 to find work as a cleaner. Within weeks, Ghofran travelled to a jihadist military training camp in Sirte, an ISIS stronghold in Libya. Hamrouni brought the family back to Tunisia but Rahma soon escaped to join her sister.

Hamrouni rubs her eyes, wearied by reliving the harrowing events. Taysin watches her closely, silent, as a mother would observe a child. Her gaze remains steadfast as Hamrouni continues her story—that Ghofran married an ISIS fighter and became pregnant. Rahma married Noureddine Chouchane, a man alleged to be one of the masterminds behind the 2015 attack at a tourist resort near Sousse, Tunisia.

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US airstrikes this February in Sabratha, Libya killed Rahma's husband and she sent her mother an impassioned text message: "The situation is dangerous and I may die. Pray for me to be a martyr." Hamrouni called her, but still Rahma refused to come home. Ghofran's husband was also killed in an airstrike and the sisters, along with Ghofran's baby, were captured and remain in the custody of an anti-ISIS militia in Tripoli.

Hamrouni is desperate to get her daughters and grandchild back to Tunisia. She's contacted the authorities about her situation and made pleas on national television, but this has further alienated the family from the community because of the stigma attached to being associated with terrorists—especially for women. "Our country doesn't care about children," she says. "My daughters left and lost their future."

One man who has campaigned tirelessly by Hamrouni's side, and for other families who have also lost their children to violent extremist groups, is Mohammed Iqbal Ben Rejeb. He runs an organization called RATTA (Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad), which lobbies the government to facilitate the return of Tunisian citizens to, at least, be tried on home soil. He's also campaigned for rehabilitation programs for those who have been radicalized by Islamic extremists.

Ben Rejeb founded RATTA in 2012 after his brother was radicalized and went to Syria. He came back a week later when he realized he'd made a mistake. Ben Rejeb says it was seeing his mother's tears that spurred him to launch RATTA and provide support to other parents suffering similar circumstances.

Although Ben Rejeb has worked hard to keep RATTA going, he will be closing the organization this year due to a lack of support. It's a blow to those who rely on him to help battle the seeming intransigence of the Tunisian government to open up a dialogue with these families. He's also disappointed in the lack of investment in anti-radicalization and rehabilitation programs, which Ben Rejeb says are sorely lacking in Tunisia.

Pictures of Hamrouni's daughters.

Instead, the Tunisian government launched an anti-terrorism bill in response to the attacks in Tunis's Bardo Museum in March 2015, with the view to better police mosques controlled by extremists. But many Tunisians complain of increased harassment, which can make people more vulnerable to extremists.

"I think that communication and dialogue is crucial in this space," says Dr Saltman. "You only listen to who you want to listen to and when you're being radicalised, one of the first things that happens is people tell you not to listen to mainstream media or talk to different people about it. Just having dialogue has been shown to plant that seed of doubt much more effectively."

In her work, she runs the ISD's Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN), which has launched Youth Innovation Labs that bring together young activists and creatives to develop their own counter-narratives against hate speech and extremism. "These initiatives can trend among a peer-to-peer network rather than a top-down approach, which tells young people not to become terrorists," she says. "It's much better for young people to tell other young people to be part of the positive counter culture. These projects give me hope for the world."

Read more: The Muslim Women Creating and Leading Their Own Places of Worship

The ISD has also been working with Extreme Dialogue, an anti-radicalization programme for schools that has launched in Canada and the UK, and will soon be rolled out to Germany and Hungary. One of its strategies is to discuss violent extremism in the safe space of a classroom, using the stories of former extremists and survivors of attacks to create an emotional context.

However, in countries like Tunisia, where many people lack access to basic services, it's harder to implement these kinds of programs.

For Hamrouni, it's about getting through each day and trying to keep her family intact. She fears her elder daughters have made Aya and Taysir vulnerable. The thought of losing them as well is too much to bear. "I like my religion," she says, "we are all Muslims, in the end. I want them [my daughters] to pray, but I don't want them to become extremists."