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        Parents’ Associations, Support Group Interventions and Countering Violent Extremism: An Important Step Forward in Combating Violent Radicalization
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        Parents’ Associations, Support Group Interventions and Countering Violent Extremism: An Important Step Forward in Combating Violent Radicalization
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        Parents’ Associations, Support Group Interventions and Countering Violent Extremism: An Important Step Forward in Combating Violent Radicalization
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This article offers an introduction for constructing family self-help groups or parent associations in the field of countering violent extremism (CVE) and deradicalization. These support group interventions are an essential addition to recently developed family counseling CVE programs, which have been created in multiple countries since 2012. Based on interviews with parents of deceased foreign terrorist fighters, this article was able to identify the most pressing practical needs of parents and to suggest specific measures to address these. The most important needs voiced by parents are: loneliness, trauma, understanding, acquiring a death certificate, access to personal files, problems with child care (criminalization), and fear of the media. Support groups can be designed to address these issues with a specific CVE focus.


During the last decade many countries have introduced specially designed terrorist rehabilitation or “deradicalization” programs aiming to reduce the risk of (mostly) imprisoned offenders returning to violent activism. Hence these “risk reduction programs” (Horgan and Braddock 2010) have increasingly been recognized as valuable additions to more traditional kinetic approaches to countering terrorism and extremism, i.e. killing or apprehending identified members of radical or terrorist groups. Many experts, politicians, researchers and practitioners have stressed the fact that nobody can “bomb”, “kill” or “arrest” oneself out of violent radicalization and home-grown extremism. In addition, international political processes are highly complex and involve a myriad of different and conflicting interests and problems, of which the potential effects on violent radicalization – both at home and abroad – are but one small aspect to consider for policy makers (for example, see Pettinger 2015). In consequence the idea of “reversing radicalism” was seen as one of the most promising innovations for the new millennium by Time Magazine in 2008 (Ripley 2008). Since then much has happened. A number of studies have begun to shed light on processes of disengagement and deradicalization from terrorism, both collective and individual (for example, Ashour 2009; Bjørgo and Horgan 2009; Dalgaard-Nielsen 2013; El-Said 2015; Gunaratna and Bin Ali 2015; Harris, Gringart, and Drake 2017; Horgan 2009; Hwang 2015; Koehler 2016a). International organizations, governments and high-level governance bodies have started to involve countering violent extremism (CVE) practices and terrorist rehabilitation programs in their own counter-terrorism strategies. In January 2014, for example, the European Commission released a 10-point action plan to counter radicalization and violent extremism as a potential breeding ground for terrorism within the European Union (EU). Among the 10 recommendations for all EU member states, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs at that time, Cecilia Malmström, depicted the development of de-radicalization programs (“exit strategies“) as a high priority after the Commission had launched the “Radicalisation Awareness Network” (RAN) already in September 2011, which focuses on building strong networks between practitioners and policy makers in the field of CVE. In consequence, CVE programs became an integral part of the EU’s Counterterrorism Strategy (Council of the European Union 2014). To name just two more examples: in 2014, the United Nations Security Council released resolution 2178 and urged all member states to implement rehabilitation programs for returning foreign fighters (United Nations Security Council 2014). One year later, in February 2015, the U.S. government hosted a high-level international CVE summit in Washington, bringing together experts and policy makers from 60 countries.

These developments exemplify the growing importance of CVE and deradicalization programs in the EU, for the United Nations and the United States. Nevertheless, the field is still much under-researched and under-developed (Gill, Bouhana, and Morrison 2015).

As many Western states have introduced widespread CVE and counter-radicalization programs in the context of the global phenomenon of foreign fighters travelling from their home countries to Syria and Iraq to join the local jihadist factions, receive training, battlefield experience and sometimes returning home to conduct terrorist attacks, the new challenge is seen in handling potentially large numbers of returning fighters after the physical disintegration of the so-called “Islamic State” (or Daesh, ISIL, ISIS). In addition, organizations like ISIS have been particularly effective in spreading their propaganda via social media channels and building a global “fanbase” in numerous countries around the world. One of the most recent innovations in the field of early intervention, counter-radicalization and deradicalization are family counseling programs designed to help relatives and friends of radicalizing or radicalized individuals to recognize the threat and establish contact to external intervention providers (for example, Gielen 2015; Koehler 2016b; Ranstorp and Hyllengren 2013; Vidino 2014). These “associate gatekeepers” are of essential value for prevention and intervention programs in order to reach their target groups (Williams, Horgan, and Evans 2015). In this sense families, friends and colleagues are our “first line of defence” against violent radicalization, without implying the use of these emotional relationships for intelligence gathering or policing. On the contrary, partnerships based on trust and highly specialized expertise can provide effective and safe interventions in a pre-criminal space with the goal of safeguarding communities and families. Nevertheless, the academic and practitioner debate regarding these programs is still in its infancy. Another aspect, so far completely untouched, is how these gatekeepers can be stabilized and who should do it? While many Western countries have introduced family counseling programs in the last years, these initiatives focus on the radicalized family member and there are indeed many shortcomings when the needs of the families are concerned. In consequence, Western societies face a risk of losing this most important partner in CVE work, as well as their trust in government institutions and democracy as such. Sometimes a failure to address these highly specific family issues might cause additional radicalization in the families left behind. In addition, not only the families are at risk but also the surrounding communities. If families are left without specialized support in the crisis following a violent radicalization process and the loss of a family member in Syria or Iraq, this can have devastating consequences for the whole community, resulting in lost trust and willingness to cooperate with the authorities when necessary.

This article aims to suggest a new and additional family support tool designed to complement the existing family counseling programs currently taking root around the world. Based on interviews with mothers who have lost their children as foreign fighters, the proposed model aims to address the most severe practical problems of these families in order to close a highly problematic gap in the current CVE landscape.


It is well known in criminology, terrorism research and sociology that the role of family, friends and the social environment can hardly be overstated in order to understand and intervene with deviant, criminal or violent behavior. In criminology, for example, extensive research over decades on the most important biographical factors predicting criminal activities – the so called “Central Eight” – has produced well-established knowledge on the negative effects of social support for crime and kinship ties into criminal milieus (Andrews, Bonta, and Wormith 2006; Mullins 2010). In addition, the importance of pro-social ties for desistance or deradicalization has been confirmed numerous times in various related fields, such as leaving violent youth gangs (for example, Deane, Bracken, and Morrissette 2007; Hastings, Dunbar, and Bania 2011; Huff 1998; Schneider 2001), “ordinary crime” (for example, Meisenhelder 1977; Sampson, Laub, and Wimer 2006; Vigil 1988, 2010), new religious movements (Bromley and Holstein 1991; Jacobs 1987) or terrorism (for example, Bjørgo and Horgan 2009; Fink and Haerne 2008; Horgan 2009).

Pro-social ties have been demonstrated as one of the most important aspect in sustained desistance (for example, Disley et al. 2011:36–7; Meisenhelder 1977; Sampson et al. 2006; Vigil 1988, 2010), and the successful treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, also heavily relies on the support of the patient’s family and friends (for example, Grossman 2009:288). In the field of terrorism or political violence the influence of relatives is well documented and established. Individual commitment to radical milieus and groups can be categorized into the moral obligation to participate in the organization (normative commitment), emotional attachment to it (affective commitment), and the expected costs of leaving the group (continuance commitment) (Klandermans 1997). Central to affective commitment are emotions of reward and “belonging”, which in turn also lead to increased participation in the radical group. Disappointment of these emotions logically leads to decreased participation. In addition, it was argued that continuance commitment can be influenced by altering the individual cost-and-benefit calculation for staying (Altier, Thoroughgood, and Horgan 2014). As pointed out by Dalgaard-Nielsen (2013:100) push-and-pull factors involved in leaving radical groups can be clustered into three corresponding sets: doubts in ideology (normative commitment), doubts in the group behavior and leadership (affective commitment), as well as doubts related to personal and practical issues (continuance commitment). Each field of doubts might cause a crisis in the related commitment and corrode the individually perceived bond to and with the group. Family and friends possess the direct opportunity to influence these individual commitments and cost–benefit calculations by their emotional relationship with the radical person. Accordingly, Rabasa et al. (2010:41) have stressed the point that targeted interventions need to include working on those three levels (affective, pragmatic, and ideological).

Beyond the family, close friends may be of high relevance in establishing a contact between intervention providers and the potentially radicalizing individual (Williams et al. 2015). Together these “associate gatekeepers” are crucial for programs countering violent extremism (CVE) as they provide an effective assistance in lowering the threshold or barrier in reaching out to early intervention support. This is also known from other reporting mechanisms for deviant or risky behavior (Borum 2013; Rowe, Wilcox, and Gadlin 2009).

In addition, family and friends are also of high relevance in spotting violent radicalization early in order to introduce targeted intervention, as this affective social space is arguably one of the areas in which violent radicalization takes place and becomes visible in early stages. Even in regard to phenomena usually considered highly inaccessible by definition – for example, lone wolf terrorism – the social environment of the later perpetrators was far from unaware about the radicalization process:

“In 82.4% of the cases, other people were aware of the individual’s grievance that spurred the terrorist plot, and in 79%, other individuals were aware of the individual’s commitment to a specific extremist ideology. In 63.9% of the cases, family and friends were aware of the individual’s intent to engage in terrorism-related activities because the offender verbally told them.” (Gill, Horgan, and Deckert 2014:429)

This high percentage of family and friends knowing about terrorist intents (63.9%) is related to the role of kinship in causing or supporting the radicalization process in the first place. Marc Sageman (Sageman 2004), for example, found in his analysis of 172 jihadist terrorists that in 75% of the cases with reliable information, pre-existing friendship bonds and kinship were essential for the individual’s radicalization process leading to joining the Jihad (Sageman 2004:111–13). In a similar study of 242 European jihadists, Edwin Bakker (Bakker 2006) found that “in more than 35 percent of the sample social affiliation may have played a role in recruitment” (Bakker 2006:42). In other words, the close social environment is most likely the place to recognize violent radicalization early and prevent a further involvement or intervene with advanced radicalization. Not surprisingly, most deradicalization programs around the world have included modules or program sections including the participants’ families and social environment, for example, in Indonesia (Istiqomah 2011), Singapore (El-Said 2015:156; Ramakrishna 2014), or Malaysia (Harrigan 2012). Arguably the best funded and most extensive deradicalization program in Saudi Arabia has recognized the importance of participants’ families and strongly increased their involvement aiming to have families of detainees participating in the designing of the individual rehabilitation schedule and taking over an active role in the long-term aftercare as well as evaluation of the program’s success (al-Hadlaq 2015).

Next to deradicalization programs including the family and providing financial assistance for relatives, another type of CVE program has been developed and spread internationally in the last years. Family counseling programs focusing more or less completely on the family as partners in early intervention and rehabilitation have oftentimes taken the shape of governmental support hotlines with attached counseling providers to address the family of potentially radicalizing individuals. Such support lines have been established, for example, in 2012 in Germany (Koehler 2016), 2014 in France (Garreau 2015) and Austria (The Local 2014), in 2015 in Canada (in Montreal for Quebec only: CBC 2015), the Netherlands (Olmer 2015), Singapore (Osada 2015; Salleh 2015) and in 2016 in Brussels/Belgium (Solyom 2015). These highly specific programs need to be differentiated from individually focused deradicalization programs with a family component. The most important differences are the goal, target group and time aspect. While almost all individually focused programs start with a person shortly before or after the decision to leave a radical group and to disengage, family counseling programs are designed and structured to address the family of a person in the early or advanced stages of a violent radicalization process with the goal to slow down and stop that process as well as induce the deradicalization and disengagement decisions through the family as main partner (Koehler 2016). Although it is too early to assess the long-term impact of such programs, initial studies have seen promising results (for example, Gielen 2014, 2015; Ranstorp and Hyllengren 2013; Vidino 2014).

Family counseling programs are seen as highly effective at least in reaching a large proportion of the relevant target groups and approaching the problem of violent home-grown radicalization from a new and innovative perspective (see Gielen 2014, 2015; Koehler 2016; Ranstorp and Hyllengren 2013; Vidino 2014). In most cases where specifically designed family support programs are started, an immediate high number of contacts from families of persons across all radicalization stages can be observed. The German nationwide counseling hotline, for example, received more than 4,000 calls between January 2012 and January 2018 (Musharbash 2018), resulting in more than 1,700 counseling cases (Focus 2017). The Austrian hotline received 115 calls in the first 50 days after its launch (The Local 2015), the Dutch private helpline run by the Dutch Moroccan Foundation (SMN) got 100 calls and 30 counseling cases in the first 45 days (Pieters 2015) and the Spanish helpline resulted in 29 cases investigated by the authorities for jihadist activities within the first 24 hours of operation (Jones 2015). While these numbers do not say anything about the quality of the cases, threat levels, radicalization stages, and measures taken by the counselors, as well as the effects of the intervention, it still needs to be recognized that family counseling programs have not faced the problem of other deradicalization programs, which is lack of interest in the target group. However, more in-depth evaluations and methodological development are necessary to ensure the durability and sustainability of these initiatives (for example, see Gielen 2015).

Another theoretical aspect of relevance for family counseling and deradicalization are so-called “self-help” or “mutual aid” groups. Based on the extensive literature regarding this method, which is more or less used as additional treatment in almost every form of mental health disorder (for example, PTSD, depression), addiction or other forms of life-challenging sickness (for example, cancer, severe surgeries), these groups are generally defined as “an organization of individuals sharing a common concern who meet regularly to provide and receive emotional support and to exchange information” (Klaw and Luong 2010). In addition, they are typically “peer-led, address a common problem or condition, have a voluntary character and little or no connection with professionals” (Hatzidimitriadou 2002). Probably one of the best-known examples would be “Alcoholics Anonymous“ founded in 1935. Having gained widespread popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, a large variety of group types and styles exist today (Hatzidimitriadou 2002; Katz and Bender 1976; Klaw and Luong 2010; Kyrouz and Humphreys 1997; Levy 1976, 2000; also, for example, Trojan 1989). Their therapeutic value is generally accepted and based on numerous evaluative studies (for example, Hatzidimitriadou 2002; Trojan 1989). One specific result of these support groups based on shared experience is empowerment (Hatzidimitriadou 2002). Additionally, five socio-psychological mechanisms related to healing or behavioral improvement associated with self-help groups are social support (having a community for physical and emotional comfort), experiential knowledge (obtaining of specialized information through others who have had similar experiences before), social learning (through acquiring role models), social comparison (individuals with similar illnesses or experiences bound together to establish a sense of normalcy), and helper experiences (through helping each other persons feel competent and valued) (Solomon 2004). All in all, self-help or mutual aid groups have a strong track record of increasing the participants’ confidence, their emotional stability, as well as compliance with other external treatment or intervention. This does mean in consequence that self-help groups should never be a stand-alone effort but additional support side-lining a more specialized expert-led intervention (Trojan 1989).

Summing up, this theoretical overview has established very strong theoretical support for the potential benefits of establishing a specially designed mutual aid group in the area of deradicalization, counter-radicalization and early intervention.


In order to answer the research questions for this chapter the authors conducted a series of problem-centered semi-structured interviews (Witzel and Reiter 2012) with members of the international “Mothers for Life” network ( These interviews used a questionnaire focusing on central aspects of the interviewees’ perception of relevant practical problems, support or other important elements related to their role as a mother of persons who was radicalized into violent jihadism, joined the conflict in Syria/Iraq as foreign fighters and were killed. Interviews were only conducted with those mothers who were already active in counter-radicalization work and spoke regularly about their experiences, which was seen as an indicator for the psychological safety regarding potential negative backlash on the interviewees. All mothers were informed about the content and goals of the interviews and gave their consent beforehand.

In total, nine interviews were carried out with mothers of deceased foreign fighters. These mothers came from four different countries (France, Denmark, Belgium, and Canada) and all of their children (all male) were members of ISIL and were killed in action. All interviewees had extensive contacts with governmental and non-governmental agencies during the radicalization process (including after their children had left to join ISIL) and after their death. All interviewees started their own national support organizations and are very active in supporting other affected families.

In addition to the interviews two case studies of international parents’/mothers’ networks in the field of counter-radicalization and deradicalization will be presented to assess the current state of how effective the stated problems of the mothers are addressed.


During the interviews – which were the first of their kind in the field of counter-radicalization and deradicalization – numerous practical issues were revealed to be highly important, painful or even dangerous for the parents and other family members. After having introduced these issues and their effects on the families, we proceed to propose solutions and a new organizational structure to safeguard and strengthen the associated gatekeepers in order to prevent a critical breakdown of trust in CVE policies and governmental authorities on the side of these – extraordinarily important – partners in countering radicalization.

Loneliness, Trauma, Meeting other Parents

All mothers described the most terrible pain of learning about the death of their children or the fact that they had travelled to Syria from police and intelligence officers in their private homes, workplace or elsewhere. In many cases these officers were neither prepared nor trained to handle that situation. In addition, the mothers were subjected to first interrogations through these officers, as it was deemed necessary to gather all remaining information about the radicalized family member. Personal communication, cell phones, computers and other personal belongings were confiscated for processing by the authorities. Oftentimes these officers also conveyed to the families that their children had been under surveillance for some time and their progression into the jihadi movement was known within the security agencies. These situations caused immense trauma, shock and – sometimes described as even more devastating – the feeling of loneliness. In consequence, mothers described how they developed feelings of guilt, blaming themselves for not having been able to stop their children’s descent into radicalism or sometimes thinking to have “done something wrong”. Not surprisingly, all mothers described their deepest incomprehension and anger towards the police and intelligence. Not having warned or informed the parents – which from the perspective of the authorities might have put the investigations at risk – was seen as betrayal or worse by the families. Their trust in governmental institutions was completely shattered. There is not one mother in the interview sample who had any basic trust in security agencies left, which is a highly alarming development.

All mothers also described their immediate wish to meet other parents and mothers who had gone through the same process. In most cases, however, it was left up to the parents to find these contacts and reach out to them. Trauma therapy was necessary for all mothers interviewed, but only a minority was able to acquire it. In fact, most Western countries have blocked financial assistance for these mothers. Depending on the structure of the healthcare sector these mothers either had to apply for reimbursements through health insurance or special statutory services. The majority of mothers described that technically the only way to get financial support for trauma therapy in their cases was to be classified as “victims” of terrorism, which in their eyes was clearly the case. In reality, however, the majority of mothers have been fighting for years to get any kind of support for trauma therapy. Having these traumata untreated significantly raises the risk of additional radicalization of other family members, suicide, or criminal behavior.

Death Certificate

The second most important problem described by all interviewees is the question of how to acquire a death certificate from the responsible authorities. This certificate does not only hold practical relevance for these parents, such as being required for legal issues, accessing life insurance, cancelling contracts, or deleting the Facebook page of the deceased, but is also of high emotional and psychological value. In almost all cases the death certificate will be the only real object left for the families relating to the death of their son or daughter. As it is completely impossible to transport the body or any other remains back to the home country of the deceased person, a death certificate will provide a first start for the family to find closure and start with the mourning and healing process. Surprisingly, it was highly difficult and sometimes remains impossible for these families to get such a certificate. In all countries of the interviewees government authorities refrained from officially confirming the death of a presumed foreign fighter. It is generally argued that such a confirmation can only be given if death is determined by responsible and recognized personnel, such as medical doctors. As most evidence regarding the death of these individuals is seen as circumstantial (typically including pictures of the body, a declaration of reaching martyrdom on various social media sites, abrupt silence in communication, videos praising the death of the person and, rarely, telephone calls or other contact from other fighters to “congratulate” the family for their son’s/daughter’s martyrdom), governments fear to be held legally responsible for any financial damage or liabilities in the case of an (unlikely) false death confirmation, should the presumed deceased return somehow nevertheless.

As a consequence, these mothers were put in the paradoxical situation to legally fight for the government to declare the death of their children, which it refuses to do, after it had informed the parents about the presumed death of their children. This situation is another aspect enforcing and intensifying the psychological trauma in the families and causing even more distrust and anger towards government institutions.

Access to Files

A problem related to the death certificate is the question of how to access the deceased children’s files at police, intelligence, school, social services or other institutions. Accessing these files does not only provide practical information for the parents in order to settle remaining obligations but also additional opportunity for closure and healing. Typically, access to these files is only granted if a death certificate exists.

Understanding and Knowledge

Immediately after learning about their children’s death or travel to Syria all interviewees expressed their strong desire to understand “why” and “how” this process leading to involvement in jihadi groups had happened. Seen as a form of healing, all mothers took it up to emerge themselves in jihadist propaganda and websites or any other material that would help them to understand why their children had decided to travel to Syria and how exactly that happened. Many parents became very knowledgeable on travel routes, recruitment techniques, borderlines between the different factions and so on only because they felt the need to understand every step in the radicalization process of their children.

Child Protection and Criminalization

Another highly problematic aspect described by the majority of the interviewees is the threat of criminalization of the family through government institutions and the wider public. In many cases child welfare services attempted to take remaining children out of the family because it was assumed the parents had violated their fiduciary duty. The fact that the killed child had left for Syria was oftentimes seen as sufficient proof. Based on a lack of knowledge regarding the processes of radicalization and typically without direct communication with the security agencies it is almost impossible for child welfare services to know how the family could have or could not have done anything to prevent the departure of their relative. Although it must be seen as a possibility that families exist who actively send their children to Syria/Iraq and play a leading role in their radicalization, this universal suspicion without any expert assessment has caused tremendous additional trauma and pressure for the families.

Sometimes even the security authorities have engaged in criminalizing the family. In one well-documented case from the United Kingdom a sister read al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine to understand the radicalization of her brother. Even though the court determined that she was not radicalized at all, possession of terrorist propaganda material was still illegal and she was sentenced to prison and mandatory deradicalization treatment (Qureshi 2015). In recent months some parents trying to get their children to defect from ISIL or paid for medical care, etc. have been charged with material support for terrorist organizations (for example, BBC 2016).

Fear of the Media

In addition to the highly traumatic events of losing their children, fighting for a death certificate, access to files and trying to understand how the radicalization of their children happened, in all cases the interviewees reported high pressure from the press who eventually had learned about their names and addresses. Attempting to get an interview or show “crying mothers”, some reporters even approached the mothers at their workplace and showed them pictures of their dead children without any preparation or warning. Oftentimes the families (including remaining children) of killed foreign fighters were harassed by the press, which came as an additional enforcement of the trauma and prevented any healing or closure.


One network that was established in 2014 and used as the main facilitator for interviews for this study is the “Mothers for Life” initiative, which brings together (mostly) mothers of deceased foreign fighters from currently 12 countries (United States, Canada, France, United Kingdom, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Tunisia) aiming to provide a safe but international network for exchange and mutual support amongst persons with similar experiences of highly advanced violent radicalization in their families. As a completely independent network, there is no funding provided by any external source. In addition, the initiative aims to provide expert training and counsel for those mothers, as most of them have themselves been approached by other families and parents affected by radicalization. In this way specially trained members of the network can act as a first contact point and advisor to other active case families, provide support and contact to other more extensively trained and experienced counselors or even start own counseling programs. One program directly resulting out of that network is the “Hayat Canada Family Support Foundation“ based in Calgary and being run by a mother of a deceased foreign fighter. In addition, the network has started to create and disseminate counter-narrative projects in order to raise the profile of mothers and their specific needs as well as voices against violent extremism. One of the first campaigns was called “Open Letter to the Islamic State”, which was released on social media sites in June 2015. Consisting of a detailed theological and emotional description of the mothers’ position during the radicalization process the letter urged active foreign fighters to reconsider their involvement and return, as well as addressed those thinking of travelling to Syria to change their minds. On the network’s own account, the letter was picked up by 1,785 news outlets worldwide, was shared about 7,000 times on Facebook alone and was translated into eight languages within the first month after the campaign’s start.

When looking at the findings from the interviews and the practical issues named by the interviewees as most severe, one can conclude that currently no institutional structure specialized to effectively care for these parents exists. On the international level the “Mothers for Life” network comes closest to a traditional self-help group, but does not advance beyond the interpersonal exchange and emotional stabilization due to the lack of funding and organizational links to government institutions. This in consequence prevents the network from financially supporting trauma therapy or legal advice for its members or coordinating and pressing government authorities for file access or death certificate on behalf of affected parents.

On national levels a number of new family counseling programs have been created and started in many countries around the world in recent years. However, these mostly government-run programs focus on identifying potentially dangerous radicals and gathering information, as well as inducing deradicalization processes or early interventions. Only very rarely have these family counseling programs included elements of self-help groups, such as parents meetings to discuss the shared burden of having lost a child. The Danish Aarhus model has, for example, built a specific family support unit, which aims to provide targeted assistance to affected parents, although it is unclear if parents’ groups are included as well (Agerschou 2014). Hence, the following part will discuss a new tool developed in Germany to address that gap.


As mentioned above, Germany has been one of the first countries to implement wide-reaching and comprehensively structured family support programs in the field of counter-radicalization and deradicalization. In 2012 the German government – more specifically the Federal Office for Refugees and Immigration at the Ministry of the Interior – launched a nationwide counseling hotline for parents and other concerned persons. In addition, a network of initially four non-governmental organizations, which has been expanded since then, received funding from the government to conduct the long-term counseling operations, after having received the case referral from the official hotline. The recently completed first internal evaluation of the project judged it to be predominantly successful in establishing a comprehensive and target group-reaching counseling service, albeit the need to further professionalize the non-governmental partners was pointed out (Uhlmann 2017). In the years following the launch of that nationwide hotline several German states have reproduced local versions of that approach and attached their own counseling networks to the country-wide network. As a part of this development some states have recognized the need for building specifically designed coordination centers and hubs for steering, evaluating and improving all relevant CVE activities as well as the counseling services in their jurisdiction. One of the first states to implement such an expert coordination center was Baden-Württemberg in the south of Germany. Neighbouring Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg is the third largest German state regarding population and geographical area. Being one of the wealthiest German states with an exceptionally low unemployment rate, the state government in 2015 recognized the need to coordinate all CVE initiatives and strengthen the counter-radicalization efforts in the aftermath of the two Paris attacks in January and in November that year. Although Baden-Württemberg is not the state most affected by jihadist radicalization and foreign fighter travel, the newly established “Competence Center against Extremism” (“Kompetenzzentrum gegen Extremismus in Baden-Württemberg”; konex) was also tasked with developing new methods and tools to counter the threat of home-grown violent radicalization. The center started to work in December 2015 and initially included two academic experts and two senior police officers with experience in counter-terrorism. Since its start, the center has been expanded from focusing on Islamic extremism to all forms of violent extremism and has significantly increased its personnel.

One of the outputs of the center’s task to develop new methods and tools in the CVE field is this theoretical framework for specialized parent associations in the realm of counter-radicalization and deradicalization, designed to complement the existing family counseling and individual deradicalization initiatives available. One of the major goals of these associations is to establish a direct link between parents in need and statutory as well as non-statutory service providers from the government and civil society in addition to creating a network for emotional support, like a classical mutual aid group. With the added factor of bringing in government representatives and experts in various fields this association will become a totally new type of self-help group, which are usually peer-led with only marginal involvement of external actors.

These associations could be attached to already existing international networks like “Mothers for Life” but are designed to be more than simply a local chapter, even though some leading mothers from other countries can actively be involved to provide the legitimacy and emotional expertise for local parents. Other permanent members of these associations by default are to be representatives from the Ministries of the Interior, Social Affairs, and Cultural Affairs, as well as experts in trauma therapy, and legal experts.

Regarding the identified issues, the concept of these parents’ associations has included specific solutions to all of them.

Meeting other Parents

It was expressed by all interviewees that they wished to get in contact with other affected parents almost as early as learning about the death or travel of their own children. In addition, it was seen as an exceptional burden to be interrogated by the police and intelligence in that situation. Although sometimes police forces in Western countries include psychologists and trauma experts who can be sent along with the officers to convey a death message or conduct interrogation on highly traumatic experiences (such as rape), so far parents of foreign fighters have not benefited from that option. In Germany, for example, all police forces have possessed so-called “negotiation groups” since 1971, when the first hostage situations appeared in banks. Consisting of specially trained and highly experienced police officers, the task of these negotiation groups today goes beyond the negotiation with the hostage takers to include suicide attempts, kidnapping, extortion, as well as victim and family support in these cases. A first step to improve the handling of families in the case of foreign fighters or other violent radicalization is therefore to include these specialized units and officers in the family support association in order to familiarize them with the specific needs and perspectives of the mothers and parents. A second tool must be the establishment of specialized first response teams for the event when a family must be informed about the death or confirmed travel of one family member to Syria. In these first response teams specially trained volunteer parents from these parents’ associations can be sent alongside the police to the families so that an immediate connection to someone with similar experiences exists. This wish was directly expressed by almost all interviewees. It is hoped – as so far no practical field experience has been made – that the involvement of parents in the first response teams will significantly decrease the initial trauma and shock, as well as increase the cooperation with the authorities and the external counseling provider. Because there will be no time gap between receiving the traumatic message and the first support being provided through someone with a strong credibility, feelings of loneliness, anger towards the authorities, guilt and helplessness can therefore be effectively mitigated.

Trauma Therapy

As part of the concept behind these parents’ associations, a central aim is to acquire funding and expertise for long-term trauma therapy in those cases where health insurance and public health services do not apply or reject taking over the costs. These associations will be able to apply for dedicated government funding and must include experts in trauma therapy, as well as have established links with national umbrella networks for psychotherapists. It is also a possibility to cooperate with the psychological trauma therapy centers of the armed forces, which have specialized in treating PTSD of veterans.


All interviewees have expressed the strong desire to understand why exactly the radicalization process and travel to Syria/Iraq happened. In order to find closure many mothers have spent much energy in researching online about the routes to Syria, training of IS fighters and other aspects. In consequence, this mechanism has forced the parents to stay focused on the traumatic event and not start with the healing process. Hence, these parents’ associations must also include experts in the field of jihadism and radicalization, who can explain every detail to the parents when necessary and helpful in the process of finding closure. As government agencies are included in the associations’ design, experts from the intelligence or other branches can talk to the parents and even without revealing classified information convey a highly credible explanation to them. In this way it is hoped that the security agencies can act as a more positive explanatory agent for the families and be seen in a cooperative position.

Legal Advice

Many parents experienced that after they had learned about the death or travel of their children, numerous highly complex legal questions needed to be urgently addressed. Oftentimes without access to adequate funding or their own expertise these parents had to find their own ways to handle the situation, which came as an additional psychological pressure to them. To address this problem, these parents’ associations aim to build a network of pro bono lawyers and law firms willing to “donate” a limited number of counseling hours on specific questions raised by the parents. The associations will not provide the legal counseling themselves but merely connect the mothers to those lawyers willing to help.

Death Certificate

In Germany, only judges have the right to declare a person dead in the case this could not be certified by a doctor. In these cases, relatives have to fill out specific forms and request the court’s decision. In many cases relatives have to go through a lengthy legal process and “prove” the likelihood of their family member’s death. This process is described by all interviewees as one of the most painful and terrible consequences of their children’s involvement in the jihadi environment. As a consequence, a parents’ association will hold all required forms, help with filling them out, conduct all the relevant communication with the courts and authorities and also assist with collecting necessary information. In this way the associations will try to relieve the affected parents as much as possible of that bureaucratic process so that they can concentrate on finding closure.

Similarly, the associations will conduct any communication with government bodies regarding accessing files or obtaining other relevant information about the deceased or missing children. As some key ministries are represented in the mutual-aid group it is expected that this communication will be much more effective compared with the case when parents directly and alone request a certain service or information from the government.

Child Protection

In cases where child protection and welfare services attempt to remove other children from the family the associations are supposed to bring together the parents with all relevant authorities in round-table meetings to discuss the situation and consequences from many different perspectives. It is especially relevant in these cases to include the assessment of trauma experts, child psychologists, police, social affairs and radicalization experts. It needs to be scrutinized – without placing more psychological stress on the family – if indeed the parents violated their fiduciary duty, if other family members are radicalized or even might become radicalized, if the child welfare service takes out remaining children.

Fear of the Media

In addition to the issues discussed above, parents of foreign fighters belong to a prime target for press and news agencies, which sometimes employ very problematic methods to acquire a highly selling story. Even if parents are not harassed by tabloid press and other media, reading the story about their own children – sometimes with inaccuracies, errors or in a hurtful interpretation – can cause additional trauma and psychological damage to these families. One way to deal with that problem is to initially shield the families off from the media and prepare them for what might happen. Also, past experience from the Mothers for Life network has shown that many parents find that the opportunity to tell the story in their own words and in their own way is an important step towards healing. This also provides significant protection from abusive press reporting, as the story has already been told and involved more credible sources. In consequence, this step makes the story unattractive for other media. In order to conduct this proactive and healing storytelling, parents’ associations like described here must build a network of high-quality journalists from leading German newspaper and magazine publications. In addition, trauma experts, family counselors and other parents must advise when and how to make that step. Full control about the content of the publication and every detail will be a standard requirement and fulfilled in close cooperation with the journalists.


One additional need of the parents expressed in the interviews was knowledge. Many parents felt that they wanted to learn more and acquire specific skills that would help them to assist other affected families in the same situation. Hence, these associations must include opportunities for specialized advanced training in specific fields, such as psychological counseling, emergency trauma response, psychology of radicalization, etc. This needs to be done with great caution and after sufficient preparation in cooperation with trauma therapists and other parents in order to find the right timing and field of activity for those who want to engage the topic in a more proactive way.


This short concept paper about the role of families in preventing and intervening with violent radicalization, as well as these parents’ specific needs and burdens, did not only aim to clarify in more detail the effects of radicalization on these mothers and fathers. Although so far only very little research on these associated gatekeepers exists and therefore the present work offers only a short glimpse into that area, some specific tools to complement CVE and family counseling programs were suggested. These specialized family self-help groups with institutionalized connection to third parties and government agencies might provide an essential support network for our first line of defence: the parents of potentially radicalizing individuals. Currently, most of these parents are left alone, risking further radicalization in their families, deterioration of trust into democratic forms of government, damage to the communities’ resilience against extremism, and many other highly problematic consequences. Especially since Western countries – on which this chapter is focused on – pride themselves in having the best social and health care infrastructures in the world, as well as strong and active civil societies, it is very hard to understand some of the extraordinary stress being put on those families in addition to their loss due to the lack of structured support.

Purely self-organized self-help groups, however, do not promise to acquire enough resources and institutional capabilities in order to solve some of the problems discussed above. Hence, a structural interlink between a parent self-help group and specially selected service providers from governmental and other non-governmental agencies must be included. While the suggested framework is merely a start for enhancing the family support structures in the field of CVE, one of the foremost tasks that Western societies will face in the next years is to recognize the importance of families, parents and especially affected mothers in the struggle against violent radicalization.


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Daniel Koehler studied religion, political sciences and economics at Princeton University and Free University Berlin. He specialized in topics such as terrorism, radicalization, and deradicalization. He worked as a deradicalization and family counselor in multiple programs and developed several methodological approaches to deradicalization, especially family counseling programs around the world. Daniel is also the co-founder of the first peer-reviewed open access journal on deradicalization (, which he created together with the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS) in 2014. In June 2015, he was named a Fellow of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. In 2016, he was appointed to be the first court expert on deradicalization in the United States of America at the District Court in Minneapolis. He has since then conducted risk assessment and deradicalization evaluations of terrorist offenders in prison and trained expert personnel from various U.S. Government agencies. Since 2016 he also has worked with the Ministry of the Interior, Digitization and Migration in Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart, to help coordinate the state-wide prevention network against violent extremism and radicalization (“Competence Center against Islamic Extremism”; “Kompetenzzentrum gegen Extremismus in Baden-Württemberg”; konex). In July 2017, Daniel became a member of the Editorial Board of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.

Tobias Ehrt studied sociology, comparative religion and civil law at the Eberhard-Karls-Universität, Tübingen. He also worked for ‘Team meX’, a project against extremism, coordinated by the State Office for Political Education Baden-Württemberg. After graduating he worked at the Federal Office for family and civic duties as a lecturer in political education. As a research fellow in the department of right-wing extremism he gathered experience at the Office for Protection of the Constitution Baden-Württemberg. Since December 2015, he has worked at the Ministry of the Interior, Digitization and Migration Baden-Württemberg for the “Competence Center against Islamic Extremism” (“Kompetenzzentrum gegen Extremismus in Baden-Württemberg”; konex).