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How ISIS Radicalized My Son

Nov 05, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Noémi Varga

In June 2015, 19-year-old Rasheed Benyahia left for work at the engineering firm in Birmingham, England, where he was an apprentice. He never returned home.

“I immediately knew something was very, very wrong,” says Rasheed’s mother, Nicola Benyahia, in Noémi Varga’s short documentary And It Was the Same With My Son. “He was the type of boy that, even if he was going to be 10 minutes late, he would always phone me.”

Ten weeks would pass before Nicola learned of her son’s whereabouts. When Rasheed sent a text to notify his mother that he was in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa—at the time, the de facto capital of the Islamic State—Nicola “knew he had a death sentence.” Six months later, she was notified that her son had been killed by shrapnel in a coalition air strike, less than a week after he arrived on the front lines of the war zone.

In Varga’s award-winning film, premiering on The Atlantic Selects today, Nicola recounts the harrowing story of her son’s radicalization by ISIS. Where another documentarian might have turned to talking-head interviews, Varga instead depicts Nicola’s emotional journey through poetic re-creations that accentuate her grief and isolation.

“I knew I didn’t want to make a traditional documentary,” Varga told me. “It was more about creating an immersive experience where you can really empathize with her situation.”

Varga was surprised to learn how gradual the process of radicalization can be, and how widespread the issue is on a global scale. (“Radicalization is subtle,” Nicola says in the film.) According to a recent United Nations report, 40,000 identified foreign ISIS members are currently in Iraq and Syria, with youth fighters originating from at least 34 countries.

In an interview with the Independent, Nicola admitted that “not a day goes by when I don’t ask myself if I could have, or should have, done more to spot the signs that my son was at risk.” In hindsight, clues emerged. At the time, though, Rasheed’s behavior seemed consistent with that of a normal teenager—he was easily excitable, impulsive, adventurous, and sometimes dismissive of authority. But he wasn’t intransigent. And no matter what, he openly expressed a deep affection for his mother.

“The scary thing is that Rasheed had a lot of friends, a supportive family, hobbies, and dreams which he pursued,” Varga said. “Contrary to preconceptions, radicalization really can happen to anyone—there is not just one way into it.”

Following her son’s death, Nicola didn’t speak openly about his radicalization. In time, however, she realized that her experience might help raise awareness or empower families to intervene if they suspected their child might be affected by extremism. In 2016, Nicola founded Families for Life, an organization that offers nonjudgmental advice and helps build critical-thinking skills and resilience strategies to combat dangerous ideologies.

“Silence actually protects the recruiters,” Varga said. “I made this film hoping that it might help someone to take that initial step if they feel that someone they know might be getting radicalized.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.