There is nothing stronger than a mother’s love. And Dutch mother Monique Verbert proved this adage recently when she rescued her 19-year-old daughter from the Islamic State (IS) after traveling there disguised in Muslim dress.
Verbert’s daughter, Sterlina Petalo, had previously gone to Syria to marry a Dutch jihadist, a former member of the Dutch military. Verbert’s safe return to Holland with her child, a feat of bravery in and of itself, also represents the first time that a girl who had voluntarily gone to the Islamic State to marry a jihadist has returned home safely to the West.
“She basically saw him as a sort of Robin Hood …that he was a nice man and fought against Assad,” Verbert said in an interview on Dutch television that was reported in Die Welt. “She said again and again: “Mum, look at that guy. Isn’t it good what he does?”
Petalo’s story is not an unusual one for the dozens of girls from Western countries who have travelled the same path to the Islamic State to wed a jihadist. Die Welt relates the Dutch teenager converted to Islam at age 18 during a spiritual quest and soon became radicalised. She started calling herself ‘Aicha’, covered her hair, shunned friends, and read the Koran and Islamic websites, “hardly leaving her room.” Petalo’s mother, who is separated from her father, said her “greatest scare” occurred when her daughter appeared for the first time completely veiled.
“Then I truly asked myself: ‘girl, what are you doing’?” Verbert said.
But Die Welt reports that the “decisive day” occurred last January when Petalo saw her future ‘husband’ on a television program. She contacted him via the internet and subsequently decided to travel to him in Syria. Warned by a friend of her daughter’s intended departure, Verbert was able to prevent this first attempt to leave the country by contacting the police, who put Petalo’s name on a list of potential terrorists and took her passport away. Petalo, however, successfully left Holland for Syria on a second try, using different identification.
Finding the police and Dutch authorities powerless to help get her daughter back, Verbert took matters into her own hands, appearing on a television show in an effort to contact her. Later, Verbert discovered her child had separated from the Dutch jihadist and was now together with another IS fighter in Raqqa, the IS’s main city. Verbert then travelled to Turkey, but could not get over the border to Syria and returned home.
After receiving a call for help from her daughter, Die Welt reports Verbert decided to return to Turkey to try and reach her again. After locating her child, she crossed into Syria, completely covered in Islamic dress, and successfully brought her out and back to Holland safely. Details concerning how this was accomplished, however, are unknown, since Dutch authorities are remaining silent. Petalo is currently in custody, as she may still pose a security risk and may also face charges for aiding a terrorist organization.
French anthropologist Dounia Bouzar has studied the phenomenon of young people in France who are suspected of wanting to leave, or have already, like Petalo, left their families and country to join the Islamic State. Last spring, Bouzar set up a center to prevent such departures and was also hired by French police, seeking assistance in this area.
From her work with the 130 families that have contacted her, Bouzar published a book last October titled, “Ils cherchent le paradis, ils ont trouve l’enfer” (They Are Searching For Paradise, They Found Hell). Of the youths at risk, Bouzar told the French newspaper, Le Figaro, that as many as 80 percent were atheists with many coming from atheistic homes, an astonishing 60 percent of their parents were teachers, and 90 percent came from the middle and upper classes. Bouzar estimates about a dozen females have made it to Syria from France, but French authorities are monitoring 90 families of girls in danger of leaving. About half of these girls are converts and even include Jewish girls among their number.
Also in the Le Figaro interview, Bouzar gave a detailed account of the radicalisation process Petalo probably underwent and what she likely experienced in Syria as a jihadist’s bride. Bouzar related the radicalisation of these girls, some as young as 14, is “like lightening hitting the house.” The majority are not of North African origin, France’s main source of Muslim immigration, and “have nothing to do with Islam.” But they are “passionate.”
“These are brilliant girls, who are getting ready to study medicine, political science or altruistic professions…,” Bouzar stated. “They had the misfortune of talking about this on Facebook. It’s as if the terrorists have psychological head-hunters who locate the personality profiles of those who wish to change the world and fight against injustice. One would say that they are specifically looking for the elite.”
The same holds true for girls of all classes. Even among working class or less privileged sectors of French society, the jihadist “head-hunters” search out only “very good students.” As for the boys, it is just the opposite. Bouzar says recruiters look for unemployed males who have adjustment difficulties in society.
After contact, Bouzar states the girls are then methodically manipulated mentally over a period of time by their recruiters to the point where, almost cult-like, they become the only ones, with whom they communicate. First, all confidence in adults, including parents, and society is removed. Then videos are received, telling the girls that they are being deceived and “secret societies are manoeuvering to kill people in order to hold on to their power.” Societies that only Islam can destroy.
“It’s the theory of conspiracy,” said Bouzar. “They ask them ‘Which side are you on? Are you going to let people be massacred? Wake up?’ They make them reject the real world.”
Next, photos are sent of brutally killed babies, claiming they were murdered by Assad, and the girls are told to leave school and come and rescue them. They are also told their parents are not the “elect of God” and not to watch television any more. Eventually, the girls targeted are cut off from all their former bases of reference and come under the control of the recruiters, or “bearded prince charmings,” as Bouzar calls them. The mothers, Bouzar says, describe their daughters as having been “robotised.”
“When one analyses their telephones, one sees they receive 100 messages a day,” Bouzar told Le Figaro. “This starts at five o’clock in the morning. Sometimes, they don’t sleep anymore.”
Like Petalo, the girls eventually don the niqab or jilbab. Bouzar says the girls call it “my security blanket, my best friend, or my comforter and use it like a cocoon, in a form of regression.” She adds that, when deprogramming girls prevented from leaving France, the most difficult part is getting them to shed the Muslim dress.
“I counsel parents to search under the beds, since these clothes are the first signs of danger,” Bouzar warns.
Also included in the radicalisation process, the French anthropologist says, are promises of marriage. And this promise, Bouzar states, is acted on almost as soon as the girls arrive in the Islamic State. With marriage, a girl becomes her husband’s “inheritance,” living with three or four of his other wives in a house, polygamy apparently the norm. Her only job now is to look after the children under the supervision of a “boss” or older woman who monitors her telephone calls home.
“It’s all an organization,” said Bouzar. “When they are not married, they are herded together. One knows of a house where 17 girls are waiting for ‘distribution’. For some time now, it is worse, since they get them pregnant as soon as possible. They say they will be less tempted to flee, if they have a baby”
But, according to Bouzar, this tactic of quickly impregnating the girls in order to ground them in the Islamic State may sometimes backfire. She told Le Figaro that becoming pregnant is one of the three things that sometimes serve to shake girls out of their cult-like mindset.
“One notices that the moment the baby starts to move, they (the girls) once again have a normal voice on the telephone,” Bouzar says.
The parents’ repeated evoking of childhood memories can also lead to their daughters “de-programming themselves,” and to feeling and thinking again. The third factor that can lead to an awakening from the brainwashing, Bouzar says, concerns the girls having personally witnessed, or heard talk of, “the slitting of a Syrian Muslim’s throat.”
“They begin to cry and want to return (home),” Bouzar says. “It is at this moment that they speak of terrorists and realize the difference between the talk and the reality. But here, it is too late. In truth, no girl has yet succeeded in returning.”
It is not yet known what made the Dutch teenager reach out to her mother and call for help. Like Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister and originator of the following quote, Petalo did not recognise “the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” Hopefully, she will be allowed to tell her story soon. Petalo’s testimony would serve as a valuable aid to parents and a powerful warning to other suggestible and vulnerable young people, opening their eyes to that hand. But if she is ever permitted, and desires, to help prevent such evil from hijacking other innocent lives, Petalo should always emphasize in her story how love saved hers.
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