Women

04.03.14

When Your Son Is a Suicide Bomber

Andrew Ibrahim was arrested as a suspected suicide bomber. His mother’s love helped bring him back from the brink.

At the trial, Andrew Ibrahim’s attorney recounted what the 19-year-old exclaimed when he was arrested for possession of homemade explosives and a half completed suicide vest.

“My mom is going to kill me!”

Mom is Vicki Ibrahim. She was sitting in the spectator’s section in Winchester Crown Court in Hampshire, England on this day in 2009 with her husband, who is a pathologist, and her older son, who is an Oxford graduate. She was herself an administrator at a medical school.

When her younger son took the stand, the mom listened to him recount a slide into drugs that began with pot when he was just 12. Andrew had been asked to leave a series of schools, and he had started using heroin. 

For a time, he had a girlfriend, but she left because of his narcotics use. He had developed a keen interest in women’s feet and mounted an Internet search for photos of Kiera Knightly below the ankles. He also surfed the web for information about Osama bin Laden and bombs.

“I didn’t like football,” he testified. “It’s difficult to know how to put it, it made me feel cooler. I didn’t have friends or a social life, and it made me feel better about myself. I felt not such a sad loser.”

In the summer of 2006, around the first anniversary of the 7/7 suicide bombings that killed 52 in London, Andrew converted to Islam. He began sporting Muslim attire. He looked up a recipe for the same explosive used on 7/7 and mixed up a batch with ingredients purchased at local shops. He made video of a test explosion in his apartment, injuring his hands.

Some fellow Muslim who observed the injuries and heard him speak of mixing chemical alerted the police. The resulting raid produced a biscuit tin of explosives in his refrigerator. There was also the half completed suicide vest, which he insisted to the court had been just a way to stay busy.

“I had been off drugs for a while and I was finding it harder and harder,” he said. “I thought it would occupy my time, the same reasons I made explosives. I wanted it to look good because I was going to film it like I did with the explosives and put it on YouTube.”

‘If you are not vigilant, if you are not going to go out of your way to protect your child, you will shed the same tear.’

He allowed, “I was planning to set off an explosion,” adding, “but not hurt people.”

The prosecution contended otherwise, charging that Andrew had in fact been planning to martyr himself and take a considerable number of people with him with the aid of ball bearings and screws he had collected as anti-personnel additives. The police testified that he had reconnoitered a local shopping mall, making notes.

“Food court dense area,” he had observed.

After deliberating overnight, the jury found Andrew guilty of attempting to use an explosive device to commit a terrorist act. He was sentenced to an indeterminate term, with a minimum of 10 years.

He still had his mom, who visited him regularly. She had not been able to keep him from landing in prison for terrorism, but the continued importance of mom to him had been proven by his exclamation when he was arrested. She now stood as a reminder that he was loved and as a touchstone to help him find his way back to himself.

In 2010, Andrew joined her in endorsing a 20-minute film produced by the police that offers his life as a cautionary tale. The film, called Conviction, opens with the video he himself shot of his test explosion.

”I would like to offer my support to the police for the work they are doing to prevent young men making the same mistakes I made,” he said in a statement after viewing the film. ”It is of significant importance that we all come together to root out extremism and the poisonous propaganda that is in our communities and on the Internet.”

That same year, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula escalated its Internet effort with an online magazine called Inspire. The first issue had an article with the particularly perverse title, “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” The instructions were apparently used by Tamerlan Tsarnaev to build the devices used with such deadly effect at the Boston Marathon last year.

By then, Vicki Ibrahim had joined a group of other mothers in an effort that might be called “How to Unbuild a Bomber in the Psyche of Your Son.”

The group is part of Mothers Opposing Violent Extremists, an applied research program also known simply as Mothers MOVE!. It is part of Sisters against Violent Extremism, or SAVE, headed by a social scientist from Vienna Austria named Edit Schlaffer.

The driving principle of Mothers MOVE! and SAVE is that women—mothers in particular—occupy the center of the family and are therefore in a unique position to prevent radicalization of their children before it occurs as well as to deradicalize those who have already been seduced by violent extremists. They are the first to notice a change and the most likely to know what to do about it.

“Times of crisis often are times of opportunity and we look to include more players at the table,” Schlaffer said this week. “We need to include women in the security arena.”

Schlaffer suggested that mothers have more power than they imagine and that they could have a transformative effect.

“If they become more outspoken, if they turn to each other, if they overcome blame and shame,” she said.

She said her group has formed Mother Schools that impart working knowledge gathered and imparted in Palestine and Kashmir and other trouble spots in the world. She has discerned a universal truth that is also what could make a mother such a force for good.

“There’s this passionate urge to protect their children,” Schlaffer said.

One educational tool is a film in which Vicki Ibrahim joined other women in offering a mother’s corollary to her son’s message in the police film.

“If you are not vigilant, if you are not going to go out of your way to protect your child, you will shed the same tear,” Schlaffer said.

Schlaffer and Vicki Ibrahim both flew into New York on Tuesday in advance of a joint appearance at the Women of the World symposium. They had breakfast together in their Manhattan hotel on Wednesday morning, and Ibrahim spoke with a mother’s pride of the great progress her son has been making. Andrew has been studying engineering and learning German and he seems determined to make something of himself, if not everything he otherwise could have been.

“She said she wished he would have thought along those lines a few years back.” Schlaffer reported.

Vicki Ibrahim made clear that Andrew does not forget why he is in prison.

“He’s confronted with overwhelming feeling of shame for what he did,” Schlaffer said.

But Schlaffer suggested this is a good thing.

 “It’s a very humanizing start,” she said.

Schlaffer has no doubt that Andrew’s return to himself has been greatly assisted by a mother’s great weapons against violent extremism.

“Patience … empathy,” she said.

Schlaffer believes that when Andrew does finally come out of prison, he could serve as an important voice of reason with a been-there-shouldn’t-have done-that authority.

“He’s still locked up, he’s still locked away, but he’s building up his future,” Schlaffer said.

Schlaffer emphasized that the mother herself does not minimize the seriousness of the crime that landed her son behind bars.

“She said, ‘He made the mistake and he has to pay the price,’” Schlaffer reported. “She also said, ‘I love my son very much.’”

As he goes from arrest to conviction to what appears to be an honest attempt at redemption, Andrew can exclaim, “My mom loves me!”

Watch the Women in the World Summit live on The Daily Beast starting Thursday, April 3 at 6:30 p.m. EST.