VIENNA — Edit Schlaffer, a jolly, petite woman, has seen many crying and terrified mothers of radicalized Muslim boys. Often the women have lost their children to the so-called Islamic State, to jihadist suicidal attacks, to violent battles.
Today, Schlaffer and her unique group called Women Without Borders (Frauen Ohne Grenzen) know exactly what their mission is: to help mothers around the world to stop their children from radicalizing, from joining international extremist groups.
It is a hard job to teach a mother who is often too stressed to listen, to watch, to feel the concealed emotions of her son. But Schlaffer and her Women Without Borders are building confidence among the mothers they train so they stop feeling helpless.
Schlaffer, a mother of two, founded Women Without Borders in 2002. Today they are five women working in a cozy office in Vienna with a few Central Asian carpets on the floor.
“Parenting for Peace!” is the main slogan of the Mothers Schools they have opened in nine countries and are expanding in the Balkans, in Macedonia.
“I started the Mothers Schools because I realized over many years working in regions affected by terrorism that women were the missing building block in a sustainable security architecture; they have unique access and need to use it, they are the frontline of defense,“ Schlaffer, a veteral social scientist, told The Daily Beast.
The Mothers Schools have trained over 1,500 mothers around the world. In every country where they worked, including Kashmir, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Tajikistan, and Zanzibar, Women Without Borders teamed up with local teachers and social activists.
This month, a new project began in Vienna: The Mothers School has admitted 25 Chechen mothers who escaped from Russia to Austria during the period between 1994 and 2004 and whose sons may fall prey to jihadist propaganda. Classes with Turkish and Bosnian women also are in preparation. The joint graduation ceremony will take place in December. Women Without Borders also is preparing programs in the United Kingdom and Germany.
How do violent jihadist ideas creep into a family?
Schlaffer believes that often it begins with domestic violence that the children witness at home. “Kids I see now, ISIS kids, are used to domestic violence as a normal part of their lives, on a daily basis,” says Schlaffer.
After the 9/11 attacks, Women Without Borders worked with affected and concerned mothers to understand who the women trusted, besides their family members. One of their case studies was Zakarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who had studied at flight schools in Oklahoma and Minnesota as part of the 9/11 hijacking plot, but was arrested before it took place.
Moussaoui’s mother, Aisha Al-Wafi, conceded that her son the future terrorist had witnessed her husband beating her, and even once attempting to kill her by throwing her out of a window.
“Boys often side with the side of power, identify themselves with the perpetrators, leaning towards the world of masculinity, strength, promise, being strong and big; it is often about kids longing to have their own empire,” says Schlaffer.
Mothers can be a huge influence on their sons, and not always in a positive way.
In the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, the Chechen-Dagestani brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, that was certainly the case. After many emotional scandals and violent scenes between Zubeidat Tsarnaeva and her husband Anzor Tsarnaev, they drifted away from each other.
“I hated my husband! We parted when we lived in America,” she told me angrily in a long sitdown interview in her home town of Makhachkala soon after the tragic marathon attack. What did she think of her sons? In her eyes they were perfect: “gentle, loving, and tender, like girls.”
The mother admitted that together with her sons she listened to the same Muslim preachers on YouTube.
Could Women Without Borders have helped prevent her sons’ radicalization? It is hard to say now. “We would assume all mothers wish their children good,” Schlaffer told The Daily Beast.
A unique survey by Women Without Borders involved one thousand Muslim mothers concerned about their sons’ radicalization. They were in several countries affected by violence including Pakistan, Nigeria, Israel, Palestine, and Northern Ireland.
The monitors asked the mothers how they felt, who they trusted, and what they needed.
Most mothers talked about dangerous recruiters hunting for their sons; but in terms of trust, the mothers trusted each other, they trusted their family members and, outside their families, they trust their children’s teachers.
“Although sometimes talking to teachers they felt concerned that their kids would be reported to authorities, we still realized that we had to bring teachers to our side and build the bridge to mothers,” Schlaffler said. The group’s experience showed that a majority of teachers had good intentions, and that they also felt alarmed by the large number of children affected by the radicalization process.
Before the study, the group’s monitors assumed that the mothers would trust their religious leaders. “But on the contrary, I found it really interesting that the mothers felt suspicious, realizing that a lot of recruitment for radical groups took place around the mosques,” said Schlaffler.
Many women around the world would benefit from studying at Women Without Borders’ schools. In Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, I interviewed several mothers whose sons went to Syria; two of them were teenagers who their mothers believed went to school until the day both sons disappeared and later reappeared in ISIS-land.
Last November, Aminat wept over her boy, Muslim Kushtanashvili, who had gone to Syria and then to Iraq. He was only 16 years old. When I interviewed Aminat, her phone rang—it was Muslim calling her from his ISIS base. She begged him to come home but his answer was: “Never begin this talk again, mother.” Aminat knew that it was too late for her to learn how to stop her son from running away from home. When she did not find time to listen to her son better, to watch him every day, his recruiter found enough time.
When Women Without Borders mobilize mothers, they help women to feel a part of one strong community. The Mothers Schools’ classes continue for three hours at a session, some meet once again for several hours together with two teachers and one note-taker.
“During our training we want to see how much women and trainers understand each other, what sort of feedback they have, how to help the mothers to feel more self-confident,” Schlaffer told The Daily Beast. “We recently made a film about Chechen and Afghani gangs fighting in Vienna, with two fathers and their sons from Chechnya and Afghanistan, who say that no matter what they do, how hard they work to become Austrian, Europeans still continued to ask them a question: ‘But where are you really from?’”
There were over 20,000 Chechen refugees in Austria. According to Women Without Borders, about 100 Austrian Chechens have joined ISIS and there are altogether about 250 Austrian Muslims fighting in Syria.
Women Without Borders contends that Western countries receiving the refugees have to pay more attention to embracing children. “In America, when you ask an ethnically Chechen kid who he is, he would often say that he is an American, and in Austria they often say that they are Chechen” Schlaffer said. Even now, after 16 years of working with mothers of Muslim boys, Schlaffer believed that recruiters of radical groups are still in the lead. “We are still behind the curve,” she said.