De-radicalizing the Extremists
Bloomberg Businessweek|October 18 - 25, 2021
Parents for Peace enlists ex-believers to help families win back loved ones drawn to Islamism, QAnon, and other ideologies. Demand has never been higher
By David Yaffe-Bellany and Sophia Cai

One morning in November 2018, Amy awoke before dawn to the sound of pounding on her front door. Clad in a T-shirt and underwear, she leaped from bed and rushed outside with her husband. On the front steps stood three FBI agents; behind them were several others, armed with guns. The agents pulled Amy and her husband away from the house and ordered them to stand underneath a raised deck that overlooks the front yard. They’d come for the couple’s teenage son.

Jack had been diagnosed with autism at age 3, and like many children on the spectrum, he was prone to obsessions: He loved learning about snakes and tried to catch them whenever he could. His parents were protective; they limited his access to the internet and wouldn’t let him play violent video games. But in seventh grade a group of classmates had started showing Jack videos of Islamic State fighters beheading prisoners, and the clips piqued his interest. Soon he grew fascinated with radical Islam. He purchased a copy of the Koran and asked his teacher to find a place for him to pray. He found more videos online and used material from Amy’s sewing kit to make an IS flag.

Amy and Jack are pseudonyms; the family asked to remain anonymous to protect its privacy. At the time of the FBI raid on their home in the southern U.S., Jack was 16, but he operated at the developmental level of someone years younger and had trouble understanding complex emotions. He saw the world in black and white, which seemed to explain his attraction to extremist ideas. Although Amy was worried— the family was Christian, and she couldn’t understand why her son was obsessed with radical Islam—Jack’s therapist dismissed his interest in jihad as a phase. But neither Jack’s parents nor his doctors were aware of just how radicalized he’d become. In violent messages posted to online chatrooms, he was threatening an assault on the White House and the Washington Monument. “We are planning for guns and body armor,” he’d written a few days before the FBI showed up. “It will take years of preparation.”

The FBI found little during the raid to suggest that Jack was capable of launching a terrorist attack, according to a report later filed in court. No bomb-making kits, no secret trove of weapons, only some matches he’d filed down, possibly for use as an incendiary device. “He was just talking big online,” Amy says. “Like a big, tough jihadi or whatever he thought he was.”

Jack was charged in juvenile court with making terrorist threats against the federal government and tampering with evidence, because he’d deleted a chat app from his phone when the FBI arrived at the house. A judge sentenced him to a year of probation. But the legal consequences did little to diminish his commitment to radical Islam. After all, he considered the U.S. government a force for evil. Amy sent Jack to a residential school for children with behavioral issues and introduced him to new doctors and therapists. At times, Jack seemed to express remorse. “I should’ve stayed with the good Muslims online,” he wrote in a journal in late 2018. “Why did I choose the bad ones!!!” Before long, though, he’d drift back into extremism. “Answer the call,” he wrote in another journal a year later. “Kill them all … it is now time to rise … slit their throats … watch them die.”

Amy felt helpless and overwhelmed. Memories of the early morning raid haunted her. Over and over she asked herself, “Where do I go, who do I call, to get this taken out of his head?”

Years earlier, Melvin Bledsoe had wondered the same thing. His son, Carlos, once a bright, happy-go-lucky hip-hop fan, had fallen in with Islamic radicals as a college student in Tennessee. He’d dropped out of school and moved to Yemen before returning to the U.S. to help his father expand the family’s regional tour bus business into Arkansas.

One spring day in 2009, Bledsoe set out from Memphis to Little Rock to look for Carlos, who hadn’t been answering his phone. As he sped west on the highway, Bledsoe got a call from an FBI agent: Carlos had shot and killed a soldier at a U.S. military recruiting office in Little Rock. “I felt my heart drop to my shoes,” Bledsoe says. “It was the most difficult thing in the world to pull that car over and to tell my wife what this agent just told me.”

Carlos was sentenced to life in prison. As the family struggled with a mixture of anger and grief, Bledsoe kept returning to a tantalizing hypothetical: What if he’d found someone to help Carlos before it was too late? “We didn’t know where to turn,” he says. “We had no help.” In 2015, Bledsoe founded Parents for Peace, a nonprofit that specializes in deradicalizing people who are drawn to extremist ideas, from jihad to QAnon.

The group’s services have never been in greater demand. During the pandemic, Parents for Peace has seen a threefold increase in calls to its national hotline. MSNBC aired a short segment on the nonprofit in April, leading to a burst of 25 calls in four days. Researchers at Harvard and Boston University are studying its methods, as academics, therapists, and social workers nationwide grapple with combating extremism in an increasingly polarized political environment. Much of that work has focused on identifying and combating the roots of extremism in the Internet Age, such as the misinformation proliferating on social media. But Parents for Peace is focusing on a narrower, more pragmatic question: how to respond when a loved one subscribes to a radical ideology. “We’re not well-equipped to know what to do if a person walks in with this kind of a problem,” says Ellen DeVoe, a social work expert at Boston University who’s been observing Parents for Peace. “They’re absolutely onto something.”

Run by a five-person staff and a rotating cast of volunteers, the organization has refined a treatment approach that sits somewhere at the intersection of family counseling, addiction recovery, traditional therapy, and cult deprogramming. Five years ago, Bledsoe handed control of Parents for Peace to Myrieme Churchill, a fast-talking French Moroccan whose history in social work dates to the 1980s, when she counseled prostitutes in Marseilles.

To develop a treatment strategy, she conducted interviews with former extremists and the families of radicalized people. Partly, she realized, she needed to find a way to talk about extremism that didn’t stigmatize families wrestling with it. “As parents, we all make mistakes,” she says. “I started really kind of building compassion, being less judgmental.” These days, Churchill spends hours on the phone each week with extremists’ parents or siblings. She often repeats the same deceptively simple-sounding instructions: Never argue with extremists; ask them probing, open-ended questions. Treat them with respect, not derision. And work on your own problems: Sometimes the key to helping a family member is addressing the household’s broader dysfunction.

In these conversations, Churchill compares extremism to an addiction. Like an alcoholic reaching for a bottle of liquor, she says, an extremist turns to internet conspiracy theories or violent hate speech to numb a deeper pain. Often she’s found that young people become susceptible to radicalization as a result of underlying social anxieties, loneliness, or past traumas. A developmental disability such as autism can make children desperate for a sense of belonging, she points out, leaving them vulnerable to predatory recruitment. Extremism becomes “the drug of choice,” Churchill says. “It’s really trying to find a way to be somebody, to have control.”

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