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Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World

Family Ties

Every Terrorist Has a Mother

How do parents deal with the guilt and pain inflicted by violently extreme children? Vicky Ibrahim shared her story at the Women in the World Summit.

Zacarias Moussaoui, a September 11 terrorist, had a mother.  So did the Boston bombers.  So does every man or woman who has ever strapped a suicide vest to his or her chest with the intent to kill or maim.  And so did Isa Ibrahim, who was convicted on terrorism charges in England in July 2009.  Ibrahim’s mother Vicky Ibrahim addressed the Women in the World summit on Friday morning under a photo of her smiling son, Andrew, when he was five or six years old.  “He was a regular sort of boy, really,” she said.  “He liked his bicycle. He liked his skateboard. He was a regular, rough and tumble boy.” 

And then everything changed.  Ibrahim explained how, at 19, her son was “radicalized by the Internet.”  She says there was no group that recruited him, no bully who pushed him into Islamic extremism.  He converted to Islam by reading about it online, and then changed his name to Isa and only then, after he had converted, found a group of friends who were also inspired by Islamic extremism.  “He would spend ten hours at a time viewing extremist sites, extremist speakers on the Internet,” Ibrahim said, warning the audience to be vigilant.  “Look at what your son is viewing on the Internet.  If the history has bee deleted, ask yourself what is he viewing that needs to be deleted.”

Ibrahim’s mother says that both her husband, a doctor and their other son, a lawyer, knew that Andrew was dabbling in something they didn’t quite understand, but she said they had no idea that it was something so dangerous.  “We never called him by his Islamic name,” she said.  “I wasn’t concerned at all because Andy’s personality was such that he would embrace something enthusiastically for three or four months and then get tired of it. To us it was just another fad and he would move through it like all the others.”

Ibrahim’s son did not kill anyone, but he wanted to.  He had made a crude suicide vest and had been experimenting with bomb building in his apartment when he was injured during a trial run.  When he went to the hospital to have his wounds treated, which included glass shards embedded into his leg and arm, someone called the police.  “It was the right thing to do,” Ibrahim’s mother said.  “It stopped him.”

As any mother knows, it is hard not to feel remorse for your child’s wrongdoing even if you play no role. Ibrahim says she lives that guilt every day. “I still accept some responsibility. I feel in a way I failed in some way and I have to live with that every day,” she said.  “He wasn’t going to live up to our expectations. He lived in the shadow of his brother.  All these things affected his thinking.” 

Ibrahim was joined on the panel by Dr. Edit Schlaffer, founder of SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism who has been working with family members of vulnerable children all over the world to teach them how to “parent for peace” and, above all, look for the warning signs that Ibrahim’s family missed.  “We can’t imagine what it takes to sit here and say ‘I am here as the mother of a perpetrator.’ You might have failed in a certain moment in the development of your son,” Schlaffer told Ibrahim.  “But the very fact that you are sitting here breaking the silence is not a failure.”

Ibrahim will never forget the day, in 2008, when the police came to her house just before midnight.  “They told us Andy had been arrested on terrorism charges,” she said.  “I couldn’t believe it.  This is not my son. How could my son be involved in something like this? We were an absolutely regular family.  We never thought for a minute our son could be involved, but he was.”

Ibrahim is currently serving a life sentence and his mother says her son has “denounced his warped ideology.”

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