Before They Were ISIS - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Before They Were ISIS

Before They Were ISIS

By Mairi Mackay

SourceNicola Benyahia


Because the lure of ISIS is complex, and something we need to understand better in order to curb it. 

By Mairi Mackay

In its two-night mini-series The State, which premieres Monday, Sept. 18 at 9/8c, National Geographic explores the appeal of ISIS to the many foreign recruits who join the terrorist organization. In the lead-up to the premiere, OZY takes a deeper look at the lives real-life people left behind for ISIS.

Rasheed Benyahia couldn’t bear the sight of blood — even the sight of it on television was enough to turn his stomach.

“If he saw Casualty [a British medical drama], he’d be going, ‘Oh, mum, I can’t eat this Pringle now,’ ” says his mother, Nicola Benyahia. “He just couldn’t stand it.”

It’s not that the young man, whose plump cheeks and wispy moustache made him look younger than his years, wasn’t brave. As a teenager he’d gotten into the adrenalin-fueled sport of free running, pulling awesomely gymnastic flips through the air on the streets of his hometown of Birmingham in the U.K.

Rasheed’s ever-present smile covered a gentle soul. “If he saw someone being treated slightly different … it would hit something in his heart,” Nicola remembers. After school, when he started an electrical engineering apprenticeship, he befriended colleagues he felt were being sidelined: “He felt sorry for them,” she adds.

He always kissed Nicola on the cheek when he left the house and when he came home. When he went to bed, he would kiss her goodnight. “I’ve got four daughters, and there was him,” says Nicola. “From when he was a little boy … he’d be the one you could cuddle and kiss.”

That’s how Nicola remembers Rasheed, her little boy, not as the ISIS fighter he became or the murderous monster that the media is quick to paint radicalized young men as.

“I am very safe and in good hands”

Rasheed disappeared on a Friday in June 2015. The 19-year-old left for work that morning and didn’t come back.

The family had been panicking all weekend when Nicola received a text message from him: “I am very safe and in good hands, please don’t worry about me. … I love you more than ever. …” Then nothing for two and a half months.

Meanwhile, the police identified him on security footage. He was wearing his work hoodie, some old chinos and a pair of boots.

He had flown to Turkey, and with help likely crossed the then-porous border into Syria by waiting for a gap and running across. It was hairy enough that Rasheed, who had bad asthma, dropped the bag holding his inhaler during the crossing.

Mother like a “madwoman”

Nicola, who was training to be a counselor at the time, was on her way to see a client when Rasheed next called. “I’m in Raqqa,” he said. “Then I knew who he’d joined, because it was the ISIS capital,” she recalls.

She remembers feeling sick and numb and pacing up and down the street outside her client’s house like a “madwoman.”

“I remember saying to him, ‘You don’t know what you’ve done. You don’t know the devastation you’ve left behind.’ ”

Early on, Nicola knew there wasn’t much chance of her son coming home from Syria alive, even though the police said they were doing what they could to get him back. Since losing her son, Nicola has founded Families For Life to offer grief counseling to other families affected by radicalization.

Rasheed was one of some 700 foreign fighters who have left the U.K. for Syria or Iraq since 2011, the majority joining ISIS, according to the U.K. Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism quoted in a 2016 International Centre for Counter-Terrorism — The Hague report.

He is also among 70 who are confirmed dead. He was killed by shrapnel in a coalition airstrike less than six months after he arrived in the war zone.

“Nobody’s doing anything”

“When he first went, I kept thinking, ‘Did he not love us? Did I not do enough? Did he not know how much I loved him?’ ” Nicola says.

But she is comforted by a present he left on her pillow shortly before he left. It was a diamond necklace, and the accompanying note said: “To Mama, No matter how much gold and precious stones are used, it’s never enough to show how precious you are to me. Love Rasheed xx”

Nicola thinks the trouble started in 2013, when she and her husband’s marriage went through a rocky patch and they separated for a time.

“I could see that [Rasheed] was finding it difficult to understand what was going on,” Nicola says. “He withdrew a little bit into himself.”

There were other signs that things weren’t right — he began fasting more, changed mosques and started hanging around with new friends who weren’t like his usual crowd — but the signs came in “little bits” over the course of a year and a half amid normal family life. More confusingly, some just showed greater adherence to Islam and didn’t signal extremism in themselves.

He argued with his parents about the war in Syria and President Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities: “Nobody’s doing anything,” he would say.

art 2

Nicola Benyahia and her son Rasheed.

Source Nicola Benyahia

“I thought he was just clinging on to religion more because he was grappling with his feelings, so I dismissed it as that,” Nicola says.

Now, Nicola believes Rasheed was upset and confided in the wrong people — and that’s when she thinks ISIS recruiters began nurturing a relationship with him, selling him a lie about adventure and a utopian life while drip-feeding him their extremist ideology.

There’s no one type of person

Dr. Anne Speckhard, the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, has been interviewing terrorists for 15 years and has spoken to more than 500 militant jihadists, their family members and others, including tens of ISIS returnees. She says it’s important to realize that in the confused early days of the war, it wasn’t clear to a lot of foreign fighters that they were joining a jihadi group. She also notes that no one “type” of person is more likely to become a terrorist, but she adds that most of their families have experienced some problem like divorce.

“There’s at least 50 vulnerabilities that I can list [that make someone easier to radicalize],” she says. Among them are a desire for justice, the allure of adventure, mental health issues and longing for personal significance or meaning.

She adds that while someone who is a sadist is going to love a group like ISIS, reasons for joining can be “quite pitiful.”

Canadian Christianne Boudreau’s son Damian Clairmont was among the first North Americans to travel to Syria to fight. He left Canada in 2012, age 21, and fought with Jabhat al-Nusra before switching to ISIS.

He was a bright boy who was troubled after a series of knocks in early life — Christianne split with his father when Damian was young and when he was 10, the family was devastated after his half-brother died of SIDS at a month old.

Damian struggled to find his place in life, dropping out of school at 16. He converted to Islam after a suicide attempt.

“In the beginning it was fantastic,” says Christianne. “He was much more easygoing. We could talk and laugh and he’d sit and drink coffee.”

But he became private and cut off again after he moved across town and had to change mosques because of transport issues. He grew a beard and wouldn’t even sit at the dinner table if there was a bottle of wine on it.


For a while, Christianne Boudreau’s son, Damian, found solace in Islam. Then he became targeted by recruiters.

Source Christianne Boudreau

Like Rasheed — and most ISIS fighters — he stayed in regular contact with his mother after joining. Christianne pleaded with him to come home, but he told her that women and children needed to be protected and that no one else was doing anything.

“[He said] he was finally doing something productive with his life,” she remembers. 

Speckhard says Damian — who was lonely and confused — was a prime target for recruiters: “Here comes a group saying you can escape all of that and you can belong. You … can deliver justice and make sure other people don’t feel the pain you felt.”

“You will always be my little boy”

While Rasheed was in Raqqa, Nicola tried to keep her relationship with him as normal as possible. The only way she could get through it was to try to pretend he was at college, which she says almost drove her crazy at times.

They also communicated by text every few days, with Nicola striving to maintain a closeness with her son. Rasheed often confided in her, probably more than he should have for his own safety, telling her all sorts of details from his new life, like the fact that the commanders had found him a jihadi bride.

Later, when he’d been away fighting, he started asking Nicola about her dreams: “Mum, have you had any funny dreams lately? Have you dreamt about me?”

“I knew exactly what he meant,” Nicola says. In Islam, it’s believed that sometimes dreams can be premonitions of death or other events. “I think he’d seen stuff and he was scared.”

Nicola, a sleepwalker, glossed over it: “Oh, you know me, Rasheed. When do I not have funny dreams!”

But it was clear that Rasheed was having doubts — ISIS fighters are usually very rigid and tunnel-visioned, but on one call he said to his sister: “If I’m wrong about this, pray to God that they’ll guide me away from it.”

Nicola remembers how she and her daughter looked at each other afterward: “That’s not somebody who’s convinced,” they agreed. Shortly after, he was sent back out fighting. He was killed two weeks later.

After he died, Nicola heard from a journalist who’d been researching Rasheed’s story.

He’d managed to make contact with the ISIS fighter who sorted foreign recruits when they came over the border into Syria: He said he knew Rasheed: “I remember him because he looked so young. He looked a bit lost, to be honest. He was a tough one — we found it hard to break him.”

Watch National Geographic’s two-night mini-series drama, The State, about the path to radicalization at the hands of ISIS, premiering Monday, September 18 at 9/8c.

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