The devastating and destabilising impact of terrorism is closer to home – literally. Fostering a more empathetic outlook and addressing the challenges experienced by families of perpetrators is a ‘taboo’ subject, but one that desperately needs confronting for the sake of these families and beyond.
When we hear the latest news story about a domestic terrorist attack or ‘travellers’ leaving their home to join terrorist groups, our minds naturally fixate on the individual. My guess would be that it is unlikely we consider whether this person has a family, or more generally, what their life was like before they made this regrettable decision; blinded by their reprehensible actions, we struggle to observe even a fraction of humanity and the human relationships that ensue from this. In the fleeting consideration that we may give to these questions, we are more than likely to conclude that any family must be complicit, or blameworthy at the very least; “for how else does someone become a terrorist!?” Perhaps this way of thinking has been embedded in our minds as a result of sensationalist media reporting or pre-existing, negative, stereotypes we hold about the perpetrators of other types of crime. But, are these attitudes always justified? Do we really acknowledge and understand the full plight of these families? Are the needs of these families being painfully overlooked to the detriment of their personal lives and even wider society?
Needless to say, we are playing ‘catch up’ when it comes to making sense of the phenomenon of new terrorism and developing effective strategies to counter this. Hence, it is perhaps unsurprising that families are given barely a second thought. By and large, research to date has focused on the individual in question; exploring socio-psychological factors of the individual, more so than personal relationships and family dynamics. Undoubtedly, the influence of families (or lack of) within the radicalisation process is a complicated and contentious area. From the limited research that has been conducted, the findings are positively ambivalent. To summarise the literary review of a recent paper in the Journal for de-radicalisation (Sikkens, van San, Sickenlinch, de Winter, 2017), it has been found that some parents were cited to have supported the cause of their children, some spoke out against it and others were simply oblivious to their child’s susceptibility. Some academics conclude that even “outstanding parental qualities” (Sikkens, 2017) are not a guarantee against radicalisation. Ultimately, it seems impossible to arrive at a causal link between parental influence on radicalisation, since there are a whole host of intersecting personal, external and psychological factors that may play into this process.
The lack of in-depth qualitative data and inconsistent findings are arguably a clear indication that we are in no place to make sweeping generalisations and form judgements in the way we have (unthinkingly) been doing. Instead, I believe that in-depth personal testimonies give us a richer insight into the nuances of family experiences and these should be taken at face value. By this I mean digesting and reflecting on them in all their entirety as real stories, rather than just data. From what I have seen, these are stories about vulnerability, destruction, loss and heartbreak and the fear of being overlooked, stigmatised and alienated by society is a very real reality. As a result of this, their wider needs to manage and move on from what has happened are being woefully forsaken.
Up until recently, I was also naïve, if not completely ignorant, of the impact and challenges confronted by families of perpetrators. This all changed when I met Micheal Evans. Speaking to and, in my case, working alongside someone who has been through this, enabled me to fully acknowledge and comprehend the ‘human’ side of this issue.
Micheal is the brother of Thomas Evans, who left his home in High Wycombe to join the terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab in 2011. He was one of the very few white British jihadists to go to Somalia and a senior member known as the ‘White Beast’, until he was killed by Kenyan security forces in 2015. When looking at images of Thomas standing with a sombre expression, wearing military fatigues, it is near impossible to visualise the ordinary, kind-hearted and warm family in which he came from. Yet these are the only words to describe Micheal and Sally Evans.
For families of perpetrators there is an emotional turmoil like no other; an overwhelming and complicated interplay of confusion, anger, guilt, shame, agony as they try to make sense of what has happened and why. Sally describes Thomas as a “happy, caring, funny and loyal child…who enjoyed all the normal things, little boys do”. To Micheal, he was not only a Brother but a best friend; they shared the same friend group, they went out on their bikes together, he looked up to him. The revelation that Thomas had joined a terrorist organisation tipped Micheal and Sally’s world upside down and raised endless, excruciating questions. ‘How did he make this transition? Did they miss something earlier on? Could they have stopped him? How is he capable of committing such atrocities?’ On one hand, families find themselves feeling revolted by and condemning the actions of the person they have become, but on the other hand, they are desperately missing and yearning for the person they were. Micheal and Sally describe the death of Thomas as both a relief – for he couldn’t cause any more harm to others – yet a tragedy – for the destruction and loss of his own potential. Not every family will know the fate of their loved one after joining a terrorist group, and so often these times are filled with harrowing uncertainty – for months, maybe years – until they hear of the clinching news that they paradoxically both want and dread.
On top of this complex emotional trauma, families are also confronted by many unforeseen practical challenges in their everyday lives. This could be anything from, economic or legal concerns, dealing with the inevitable and relentless press enquiries, to worrying about any risk to their other children. Furthermore, anxieties may vary between different family members, who are processing and reacting to the situation in different ways. Because of this, there is potential for a breakdown of relationships within the close family, as they struggle to understand and comfort each other, alongside their own personal battles. Who is there for these families to talk to, who really understands? Who is there to actively address these practical challenges on behalf of the family? Without a doubt, leaving these unresolved has profound implications on the personal, social and economic wellbeing of families, making the prospect of re-building their life almost impossible.
No matter how much reasoning, it is almost inevitable that families will hold themselves somewhat accountable for the actions of their loved one. Tormented and tortured by the constant question of ‘what if?’, a part of them will always think they could have done more. Given this immense amount of self-inflicted pressure, the backlash from outsiders is futile, if not even more damaging. It discourages families from even trying to speak out and ask for help during these distressing times, sending them further into emotional turmoil and seclusion. Of course, it is easy for an outsider to make judgements or say what they would have done differently with hindsight; but, can you ever really know unless you have had this experience? More critically, what use is this judgement for anyone moving forward? On the contrary, empathy – and by this, I mean, ‘to fully put oneself in the shoes of the family’ – goes a long way in showing support, but also re-building the confidence of families to overcome negative emotions and challenges.
On first impression, the experiences of these families appear far-fetched in comparison to our everyday lives. However, on further inspection, this is in fact something that everyone can relate to in some capacity. Micheal and Sally’s journey with Thomas, captured on the award-winning BAFTA documentary ‘My Son the Jihadi’, was described simply as “a story about when someone you love makes a decision that you don’t agree with”. This is by no means to make light of the process of radicalisation and acts of terrorism, but rather it evokes a human feeling that I imagine we have experienced or at least will come to at some point in our lives. That feeling of complete powerlessness; when you can’t see any other way that you can help or change the person you love; when they have chosen their path and there is no retrieving them from it. Ultimately, in these situations, we (whether as family or friends) cannot be held responsible and judged for the decisions and actions made by this individual. This is the feeling and rationale that I think is important to remember, when thinking about the families of terrorists.
It is worth mentioning that a significant reason why this issue is not openly addressed, is the fear that this will be misinterpreted as undermining or competing with the experiences of families who have lost a loved one in a terror attack. Of course, the ongoing grief of these families is unimaginably painful. However, it is inappropriate and unhelpful to frame the discourse around ‘families of perpetrators’ and ‘families of victims’, as a rivalry between ‘victims of terrorism’. As hopefully this paper has demonstrated, although distinct, families like Micheal’s also go through excruciating trauma. Recognising this and extending compassion to these families does not by any means detract from or forgive the actions of the individual. Hence, it should not be viewed as disrespectful or insensitive towards the families who have lost a loved one in a terror attacks. Quite simply, there are no ‘sides’ to be taken, other than the one against terrorism. In fact, Micheal has met with some of the parents of those killed in the Paris attacks, to demonstrate that a collaborative and unified response by those affected by terrorism from all angles is our best chance of countering it.
It is estimated that in the U.K. alone, over eight hundred foreign fighters have left to join terrorist groups in Syria or Iraq; nearly four hundred of these are said to have returned and are either on trial or incarcerated. These statistics only shed light on part of the terrorist threat and impact. There is no saying how many Mothers, Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and extended family of these individuals have also been affected by this. First and foremost a change in mindset towards these families, i.e. not treating them with undue, equal suspicion, rather understanding their plight in all its complexity, is the first and most vital stage to offering them much-needed support, whether from a friend, neighbour or more formal support agency, to help them stabilise and re-build their lives. However, there is also a far broader implication of this change in mindset: greater empathy for families could help shape more effective de-radicalisation and counter-terrorism strategies. With the right support and skills, families are the key to preventing other vulnerable individuals from making the same bad decisions. In other words, as opposed to viewing families as part of the problem, we should be looking to them as an integral part of the solution to terrorism.
Sikkens, E; van San, M; Sickenlinck, S; de Winter, M. (2017) Parental influence on radicalisation and de-radicalisation according to the lived experiences of former extremists and their families. Journal for De-radicalisation.