She was simply trying to save the life of her child.
Instead, Leena al-Qasem fell victim to the first rule of any successful cult: Turn your followers against their friends, their family, and most importantly, their parents.
This being one of the most destructive cults in history—Leena, 45, was not simply cut off when she suggested escaping from the self-declared Islamic State; she was gunned down by her own son.
The brutal, execution-style killing was carried out in the center of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS, in front of hundreds of onlookers.
Leena was reportedly condemned to death when her son, Ali Saqr al-Qasem, snitched on her to hardline Islamist officials in Raqqa. Sources told the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that she was accused of “inciting her son to leave the Islamic state and escaping together to the outside of Al-Raqqah.” She was also said to have warned her boy that “the Coalition will kill all members of the organization.”
Leena al-Qasem, who lived in nearby Tabaqa on the banks of the Euphrates, was shot dead outside the main post office in Raqqa on Wednesday. A spokesman for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told The Daily Beast that she was killed in order “to scare people in Raqqa” who may want to pull their families out of the danger zone.
The battle for the soul of vulnerable young Muslims—between their parents and sadistic Islamist recruiters—has become a central theme in the rise of ISIS.
Daniel Koehler, director of the Berlin-based German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, echoed decades of research on cults when he described the way ISIS recruiters draw young people into their control.
“It is all about gaining trust, building a relationship, and then slowly distancing the recruit from his or her family," he explained.
By emulating Norman Bates in Psycho and slaughtering his own mother, Ali Saqr al-Qasem can now be considered the poster child of that twisted doctrine.
Former Islamist Alyas Karmani, who appeared in the British documentary Exposure: Jihad last year, explained how he would recruit impressionable teenagers by attempting to replace their parental figures. “When someone for the first time starts to understand you, emotionally support you—put that arm around you to show compassion and love for you—that’s unbelievably powerful and compelling,” he said.
Like Leena al-Qasem, Canadian mother Chris Boudreau tried to pull her son back from the brink. She also failed: Her son, Damian Clairmont, a convert to Islam, was killed in Syria in 2014.
Despite his death, Boudreau has continued the battle through Mothers for Life, a group of women trying to confront ISIS propagandists with a vibrant countermessage. “We’ve got to fight fire with fire,” she said.
The group posted an open letter, which quotes the Quran extensively, on many of the social-media sites where ISIS recruiters try to warp young people’s minds.
“We, your mothers, brought you in this world, loved and cherished you. ‘Allah has enjoined on man kindness to his parents; in pain did his mother bear him, and in pain, did she give him birth’ (Quran: 46:15),” the letter reads.
“Remember that even the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said: ‘Paradise lies at the feet of your mother.’”
In Raqqa, it was the crumpled body of a mother lying at the feet of her son.