No one can better explain what the deception of extremism is about than those who had direct knowledge of it, and thus came to realize that it is just a mere delusion. A delusion that, in reality, turns out to be a nightmare to escape, in order to wake up again and tell the whole world thadaily t the ideology and propaganda of ISIS and Al Qa’ida are nothing more than a huge “lie”, a path that does not lead to “salvation” but to hell, both on earth and in the hereafter.
There is a myriad of ex-militants, both men and women, who have publicly denounced their experience. Among them, Farid Benyettou and Laura Passoni certainly stand out.
Born in Paris and of Algerian origin, Farid used to be a recruiter of “foreign fighters”, and is known above all as a key figure in the “misguiding” of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the two brothers who carried out of the massacre at the headquarters of the magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015.
Laura is instead one of the many young Muslim women from Europe, precisely from Belgium (Laura has Italian origins), who went to Syria to join the ranks of the “caliphate of terror”, along with her “foreign fighter” husband and her little son.
Today, Farid and Laura are engaged on the front line in the fight against the virus of the false Islām spread by extremism, after having “repented” and successfully completed a process of de-radicalization. As Muslim “believers”, they speak out about the shocking and painful events that affected them during their militancy, warning all brothers and sisters in Allāh (swt) against falling into the trap of extremist proselytism, which is an evil work by Iblīs and his shayātīn.
THE DIABOLIC ESSENCE OF EXTREMISM
Iblīs had singled out Farid ‒ a highly intelligent, profound, and thoughtful teenager ‒ as an ideal “believer” to exploit for the execution of his evil schemes aimed at ” in the “misguiding” of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi ” young Muslims from the “Straight Path” (Sūrāh “Al Fātiha”, 1:7) and transforming them into dangerous terrorists, by closing their hearts and subverting in their minds the understanding of what Jihād truly is: no longer the “effort” of spiritual and inner perfectioning required by Allāh (swt) for salvation, but rather the use of violence to blemish Islām by sowing death and destruction in its name, while undermining the unity of the Ummah and driving Muslims to damnation.
Another ideal profile for Iblīs‘ evil schemes was Laura. The “divine” function of the Muslim woman as an indispensable tool for the perfectioning and the unity of the Ummah, is a major threat to his satanic goal of destroying the plan of “salvation” wanted by Allāh (swt) for humanity. Hence, the insistence of extremism in luring women into its trap, so as to make them the pivot of the blasphemous anti-Ummah gathered in the self-styled “Islamic state” in Syria and Iraq, as well as in the alleged virtual “caliphate” that connects ISIS militants and sympathizers all over the world, among whom an increasingly prominent role is played precisely by women.
As per Iblīs’ practice, he took advantage of some moments of existential crisis to insinuate himself into Farid and Laura’s life, thus “misguiding” them toward extremism. According to the story Farid recounted in the autobiographical book “My Jihād: Itinerary of a Repentant”, the beginning of his “misguiding” by Iblīs coincided with his father’s descent into alcoholism.
Farid used to regard him with great esteem and respect because he was an honest and devout man, a model for his religiosity and for the faithful observance of the principles of Islām. Therefore, Farid, who was just 14 years old, got shocked when he learned about his father’s behavior: “Since then, I felt that I could not care about him anymore, his authority was over. […] I no longer had a father”.
Driven by the impulse to be an upright and honorable person, morally “different from him”, he started looking for new reference points, and found Iblīs being ready to “misguide” him toward the deceptive shores of extremism.
In Laura’s case, the triggering event was her husband’s betrayal and the subsequent divorce, which caused her a deep depression. A Muslim “believer” since the age of 16, Laura used to live a “normal” life in Jumet, near Charleroi, with a stable job in a supermarket, a marriage, and a child. She did not know that Iblīs was already lying in wait for her to exploit the first favorable situation to take possession of her mind and soul. The condition of vulnerability determined by the breakup of her marriage, drove the woman to search for explanations and comfort in the spiritual wisdom of Islām, but on the internet she happened to come across one of the many professional “radicalizers” in charge of recruiting new followers to the false Islām of ISIS, within the huge pool of users provided by the web.
“The recruiter saw that I was very depressed and that my ex-husband had abandoned me. He relied on these weaknesses”, Laura admitted in the book “At the Heart of ISIS with My Son”, where she talks about her terrible misadventure with extremism.
FROM THE DECEPTION OF MILITANCY TO THE TRUTH OF REPENTANCE: THE EXPERIENCE OF FARID BENYETTOU
What is the path traced by Iblīs that Farid paid for with six years in prison, from 2005 to 2011, as a recruiter and indoctrinator of “foreign fighters” on behalf of Al Qāʿida in Iraq?
Following the incurable rift in the relationship with his father, the young man got completely engulfed by the radical circles of his neighborhood in Paris, the 19th arrondissement. In a very short time, he assimilated the extremist “discourse” and habits, which radically manipulated his way of being, mindset, and behavior. He began to regularly wear the qamis (long dress) and the kufi (headdress) not as traditional Muslim clothing, but as a display of an identity being opposed to the French society, in line with the strategies of extremism to hinder and prevent integration. Farid believed to be “the most Muslim of all” and, surrounded by figures who had replaced his father as a reference point, he did not realize to be just a puppet in the hands of Iblīs.
After dropping out of school, the conflict unleashed by the extremists of the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, which Farid supports, and the perception that the West in general was at war against Muslims, triggered his definitive transformation from being a budding radical ālīm to an Al Qāʿida’s militant. A symbol of this transformation was his new type of clothing, which became more militaristic with the use of the keffiyeh.
An avid user of Al Qāʿida’s websites and galvanized by the 9/11 attacks, hailed with “immense joy” and “profound euphoria”, Farid developed his own approach as to extremist preaching, which was particularly warlike and focused on the use of violence as a religious duty.
At the peak of radicalization, owing to his charisma he was able to attract a circle of followers, the “Buttes-Chaumont network”, named after the park of the 19th arrondissement where the would-be terrorists fascinated by Al Qāʿida used to run and train for the battlefield, learning how to hold a Kalashnikov and listening to Farid’s sermons, in view of their journey with no return to Iraq.
Although he was not a true imam and military trainer, Farid was given the title of “emir”. Among the young men under his leadership was Chérif Kouachi. Probably due to the common Algerian roots, Farid established a strong bond with Chérif, which also involved the latter’s brother, Saïd. For a certain period of time, the three allegedly lived together in the same house in Paris.
The “Buttes-Chaumont network” was dismantled in 2005, and Farid ended up in prison on the grounds that he had sent at least a dozen “foreign fighters” to Iraq. Chérif was arrested as well, right before he could manage to leave. They were sentenced to jail respectively for 8 and 3 years.
Unlike Farid, who had second thoughts and a crisis of conscience while in prison, Chérif found in the Fleury-Mérogis penitentiary a new mentor: the Algerian militant Djamel Beghal, mistakenly considered a “myth” by radicalized young people. The nefarious influence of Beghal was key to preventing Chérif’s detachment from the extremist dimension, rather favoring the continuation of his tragic and bloody “career” as a terrorist, up to the Charlie Hebdo attack.
On the other hand, Farid’s experience in prison laid the groundwork for his full de-radicalization. The decisive factor was the creation around the “emir” of the 19th arrondissement of a “healthy” environment, not contaminated by the virus of extremism. With the passing of the months, the absence of contacts with radical inmates, and the interaction with the prison staff and with inmates unrelated to militancy, triggered in Farid a process of introspective reflection, which led him to question his previous ideological beliefs and ways of being, thinking, and acting.
“What are the suicide bombings for? Are they of any use?”, he asked himself: the answer he reached was negative, “the first flaw in my certainties”, he wrote in his book. He also began to question the reason of his “indifference toward the death and the suffering of so many people”. “The reality is that little by little they totally dehumanize us”, he said a few years later in an interview.
Farid thus opened up to the world with which he used to be at war, starting a new path of life with passion and a positive spirit. He resumed his studies, obtaining a high school diploma, while playing sports and socializing with other inmates. Away from the unhealthy influence of the extremist ideology, he felt better and better. He was finally freeing himself from radicalization, although he was always a true Muslim “believer”: an unacceptable development for his old group of “bad teachers” and militants from the 19th arrondissement.
Farid was then approached by radical inmates, who reproached him for having abandoned Jihād, becoming an “unbeliever”: a betrayal that he would have paid with “hell” and eternal damnation. Moreover, they rekindled in him hatred and resentment toward the French society and the west. Strongly affected by such a psychological pression, Farid rejoined the ranks of extremist militancy, but he surrendered only outwardly. Deep inside of himself, the “greatest battle”, as defined by a major Hadīth of Prophet Muhammad (saw), was underway: this is the inner Jihād, the real one, which Farid was fighting to defeat once and for all the virus of extremism that did not stop attacking him.
Between ups and downs, steps back and forth, Farid followed through with his “greatest battle” out of prison, which he left 2 years earlier in 2011 for good behavior. The circumstances brought him back to the 19th arrondissement. He had sworn that he would have never seen his ex-fellow militants again, but he had not yet fully metabolized his experience to make a clean break with the past. So he returned to the starting point: it was actually there, in the enemy’s camp, that Farid was called to win his final “battle” against extremism, son of Iblīs.
Back in the extremist fiefdom of his neighborhood, Farid began to teach in a local mosque, but he was no longer the young “emir” imbued with ideology who used to preach violence as a religious duty. Thanks to a more careful reading of the Qu’rān and of the Prophet’s (saw) Sūnnāh, he discovered that the suicide bombers, and all the propaganda of the radical discourse he had fanatically supported, were absolutely antithetical to Islām. Therefore, with courage, he openly questioned the extremist theses, criticizing the indifference of the militants toward the death of so many innocent people. He was not one of them anymore, and decided to severe his ties with those radical circles forever, finding a fundamental ally in the French state.
As “Swordless Jihād” repeatedly emphasized, the “ignorance” of the ideological ultra-secularism typical of the French tradition has significantly contributed to the radicalization of generations of Muslims, ending up supporting the evil schemes of Iblīs. Just think of the insistence on the banning of hijab, and on the staunch defense of Charlie Hebdo, which is the result of a misunderstood notion of laïcité and freedom of expression. On the other hand, the French state has so far shown its willingness to support young people such as Farid in their “battle” against extremism in the best possible way, in order for them to complete their path of de-radicalization and fully integrate into the society as Muslims.
Farid thus decided to take the extended hand of the French state, which motivated him to continue his studies and to specialize as a nurse. Moreover, he met his family and also his friends from high school, feeling to have “reconciled” with the surrounding and to “have a homeland now”.
“Despite my past, they welcomed me with open arms”, he explained. Extremism was definitely out of his life. However, with the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the past came back to knock on his door, as the media immediately identified him as the head of the “Buttes-Chaumont network” and the “mentor of Chérif Kouachi” (it should be noted that the French media have not placed the same emphasis on the role of Djamel Beghal).
Farid was not overwhelmed by the polemics, demonstrating to have gained the necessary strength to face and fight on the front line the “monster” that in his life he managed to defeat, but was giving no respite to the French society. Therefore, he turned to the authorities, eager to offer a contribution both to the investigations relating to the attack, and to the de-radicalization programs that he himself had benefited from. Further, he initiated an unceasing campaign of awareness, made up of interviews, documentaries, television appearances, and publications.
At the trial of the 14 militants accused of having helped the Kouachi brothers and Amédy Coulibaly, the attacker of the kosher supermarket in Paris, Farid was the witness who drawn more attention from the media. Before the court, Farid reiterates what he had already repeatedly stated, namely that he considered himself the “moral responsible” of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, due to the role he played in the indoctrination of the Kouachi brothers, and of Chérif in particular, asking the relatives of the victims for “forgiveness”.
FROM THE DECEPTION OF MILITANCY TO THE TRUTH OF REPENTANCE: THE EXPERIENCE OF LAURA PASSONI
The online recruiter who, under the evil influence of Iblīs, made Laura sink into the black hole of ISIS and the alleged “Islamic state”, was Oussama Rayan, a militant of Tunisian origins. The man easily manipulated both Laura’s faith and feelings, as he managed to marry the woman and then to convince her to leave Belgium and reach the “caliphate of terror”, along with her 4-year-old son.
It was July 2014. From Venice they arrived in Izmir, Turkey, with a cruise ship, and from there they took a taxi to Syria. At the border, they were picked up by militants, who drove them to the final destination: Al Bab, in the governorate of Aleppo, where Laura discovered the true “face” of ISIS.
Based on Oussama’s descriptions, she thought that in Syria she would have found “heaven on earth for the brothers and sisters of Islām”. But it took her two months to realize that “he only told me lies”, and that “ISIS propaganda videos were fakes disconnected from reality”. The international public opinion was generally aware that women had no rights in the “caliphate of terror”, but “he had put things in my head that made me change my mind: ISIS propaganda is very strong, I fell for it, and I got radicalized”.
“He told me that women enjoyed a prestigious status and were regarded as precious, that they could work as nurses and help orphans”, Laura recalls. “He told me that I would have had a villa, horses, and everything I wanted”, pointing the finger at how ISIS, for recruitment purposes, also leverages on “materialistic” incentives that do not correspond at all to the principles and the spirit of Islām. “He told me I would be rich, even with diamonds. He sold me a dream, but everything he told me was a lie, nothing he promised me was true”.
To Laura’s eyes, therefore, the reality of the alleged “Islamic state” turned out to be completely different from the delusion that she had been presented by her husband-recruiter. “Women were prisoners”, she explained, “they had nothing, no rights”. “I was forbidden to do anything. I did not have the freedom to leave the house except with my husband. Not even for shopping. Without him, I could not decide anything. We had no money. The rules to follow were very heavy, and women were there only to procreate”.
Besides giving birth, the role of ISIS women was limited to the indoctrination of children, the new generation of extremists, and to domestic duties, with regular mistreatment, violence, and exploitation as sex slaves. With the escalation of the conflict that led to the end of the “caliphate of terror”, ISIS employed the women most driven by fanaticism and hatred as spies, couriers, cops, fighters, and even suicide bombers. However, this is a development that Laura did not see.
“I was not well. Nobody was well in Syria, and I did not want my son to become a terrorist”. A wish also shared by her husband, who regretted to have joined ISIS and to have betrayed the path of the authentic Jihād, the spiritual and inner one, killing other Muslims and innocent civilians. After a first failed attempt, the family (Laura was expecting a second child) managed to reach Turkey again.
Laura and Oussama were arrested by the local police and extradited to Belgium. Back home after 8 months, the judges acknowledged Laura’s repentance, sentencing her to 5 years but on parole. Moreover, they returned the custody of the children to the woman, while Oussama was sentenced to 4 years with no penalty discounts.
Laura turned the “resentment” that “radicalization” had instilled in her mind and heart toward “my parents, my society, and Belgium”, against ISIS barkers, engaging herself publicly as Farid Benyettou in denouncing extremism through interviews, conferences, and publications.
In addition to the book that tells of the tragic “reality” she experienced as a woman within the alleged “Islamic state”, Laura authored another book, “How to React in Front of a Radicalized Person?”, where she offers insights and recommendations based on her own experience, on how to relate to people who have fallen into the trap of extremist proselytism set by Iblīs, with the aim of de-radicalizing them.
THE MESSAGE OF FARID AND LAURA FOR ALL MUSLIMS
The “repentance” of ex-militants such as Farid and Laura can be often subject to doubt and criticism. Farid, above all, was accused of giving a false testimony during the trial for the Charlie Hebdo attack.
In particular, the account of his vain attempts to persuade Chérif to abandon the extremist militancy in the years that preceded the massacre, was questioned by the families of the victims, as well as by a large share of the French media and public opinion. According to them, such attempts had never taken place, while Farid’s “repentance” was nothing more than an opportunistic operation aimed at laundering his own image.
Only “Allāh knows best what is hidden in the heart” (Sūrah “Al ‘Imrān”, 3: 154), therefore only Allāh (swt), “the Best of judges” (Sūrah “Al An’ām”, 6:57; Sūrah “Al A’rāf”, 7:87), can establish the authenticity of the faith and of the “repentance” of any person. Therefore, from a limited human perspective, the possibility that Farid, Laura, and other ex-militants “repented” only or mainly out of convenience, cannot be totally excluded.
For the sake of completeness, we cannot omit to report some Farid’s gestures, such as the display of a “Je suis Charlie” pin, to be considered excessive and even harmful, as it did not contribute at all, from a Muslim perspective, to raise awareness among the French public opinion of the “misguided” approach to freedom of expression underlying the publication of the cartoons on Prophet Muhammad (saw). Was Farid driven by the frenzy of rehabilitating himself in the French society, adapting his behavior to the current trends? On this issue, the families of the victims, engaged in a difficult “effort” to process an experience of great suffering and pain, could be right, at least to some extent.
At the same time, there can be no doubt over the veracity of Farid’s witness, and of Laura’s as well, in unmasking the ideological, psychological, and spiritual deception perpetrated by extremism. Similarly, no doubt can be cast over the importance of the role of the “repentant” as valuable resources for the prevention of radicalization, countering the extremist “narratives”, and the success of the de-radicalization efforts.
Their experience as ex-militants is a living message, addressed as a warning and a teaching especially to young Muslims at risk to be “misguided” by Iblīs. Ex-militants can be able to re-orient perceptions and to inspire behaviors in a positive direction, thus strengthening the antibodies to the virus of extremism at both individual and community level.
“When I embraced the radical discourse”, Farid said in an interview, “I really thought it was the only credible alternative to change the world, against all injustices. The reality is totally different”.
“What drove them to all this is only ignorance”, referring to the Kouachi brothers, but Farid is also candid in admitting he was an ignorant himself: “My knowledge of religion was very limited, the behavior of Muslims in their daily life did not interest me at all and, in reality, I did not even care about the relationship with Allāh (swt). All I was interested in was fighting, the whole discussion revolved just around fighting”.
This is a demonstration of how Iblīs had succeeded in removing the spiritual and inner perfection from the horizon of the Jihād that Farid was called to perform as a Muslim “believer”, replacing it with the most absolute indifference to the deaths and sufferings caused by extremism, and with the cult of violence and of one’s own death, although the Qu’ran clearly forbids suicide: “Do not kill yourselves” (Sūrah “An-Nisā'”, 4:29).
“We need to make people understand the message that Islām condemns all acts of violence that are carried out in its name, with no exception. Do not believe that Islām legitimizes your acts, on the contrary it condemns them”.
Farid’s words are echoed by Laura. In order to prevent radicalization, “it is crucial spread more information about true Islām“, while “greater efforts must be made toward the youth who are liable to become victims of ISIS manipulations and be recruited, clarifying their misconceptions about religion in order to de-radicalize them”.
Her message is straightforward: “ISIS is not the true Islām, but it is against Islām, and its militants are not true believers. They are not there for religion, but only for power”. “I am always a Muslim”, she says, “and I know that ISIS is not Islamic because it kills innocent people and only tells lies about what really happens inside. ISIS just wants to trap you: do not make my same mistake, do not join ISIS, because I have ruined my life, endangering my sons and making my family suffer”.
“Do not leave, think before you do it: once there, it is almost impossible to go back”, this is Laura’s appeal to all Muslims, by birth or converts, who are all potential preys of the proselytism of the terrorist organization. “Even if they make you believe that everything is easy, trust me, it is not. Do not get brainwashed, and talk to someone about it before taking any decision. Avoid making the mistake I made, because my life is spoiled now”.
To defeat extremism and turn the page is a “possible” mission, as both Farid and Laura’s experiences confirm. This encouragement is addressed to the militants of today, who are called to look deep inside themselves in order to become aware of the wrong path they have taken.
Hence, “repent” and start walking again along the “Straight Path” (Sūrāh “Al Fātiha”, 1:7) of Allāh (swt) the Most High, fighting Iblīs and his unceasing work of “misguiding” Muslims through extremism.
Do they not know […] that Allah accepts the repentance of His servants […]? (Sūrah “At-Tawba”, 9: 104).
From those who repent, mend their ways, and make the truth known, I will surely accept repentance […] (Sūrah “Al Baqara”, 2: 160).
Muslim brothers and sisters, listen to the call of Allāh (swt) the Merciful and return to Islām. Join the Ummah again, you will be the most welcome.