An extremist in the family

For more than a year Nicola Benyahia has hidden the truth about her son’s secret life and death.

Rasheed Benyahia was in a hurry. Like so many young adults going places in Britain today, he needed to get a move on.

If Monday 1 June 2015 had been a normal working day, he would have been out of the door before the rest of his family, running for the bus. That was his life as a 19-year-old engineering apprentice.

But he wasn’t on his normal journey to work in Birmingham. He was heading across one of the most militarised stretches of land in the world - the buffer zone between Turkey and Syria.

On one side, fading into the distance of time and memory, a happy, normal family life. A world of relative peace.

On the Syrian side, a world of war. A world from which Rasheed, volunteer foreign fighter for the self-styled Islamic State, would never return.

'A very gentle-natured boy'

Rasheed Salah Benyahia was born on 26 April 1996, the only boy among five children. His mother, Nicola, grew up in North Wales. She'd had a troubled childhood and converted to Islam as a young woman - finding the faith gave her peace. On marriage, she took her Algerian husband’s surname and the growing family settled into a happy life in Birmingham.

“Islam's part of our daily life," says Nicola. "We pray and fast but beyond that, not a huge amount. My family aren't Muslim and I have a strong bond with my siblings, and I believed in being quite liberal and open about faith. It’s about living alongside each other. I used to talk to my children about my family not being Muslim. It was important to me that they realised they may be part of a Muslim community but they live beside non-Muslims.”

Rasheed was full of energy. Football and karate weren’t enough for this growing young man. He got seriously into the adrenaline-fuelled world of free running - urban acrobatics in which walls, bus shelters and park benches become the gym apparatus. And he was good at it.

Nicola dutifully watched her son front flip, back flip and side flip his way around Birmingham and drove him to A&E every time something went wrong.

“The joke was that I would have taken him to Accident and Emergency so many times that he had an annual membership,” she laughs. “Very much a risk taker. It’s great when utilised in a good way - but when it’s not, it can take you down a bad path.”

After GCSEs, Rasheed went to college for A-levels - or rather, as his social media showed from the time, A-levels and pulling a few free running moves in the corridors when he could get away with it.

A year later he changed direction. The practical young man who’d built two PCs didn’t want to sit in classrooms all day. He opted instead for an electrical engineering apprenticeship in the city. He talked about how he could one day set up his own business.

Like every teenager, it was a period of great change. Styles came and went. Slick straightened hair and on-trend clothes were followed by tousled wild locks and scruffy urban chic. And he was becoming more aware of religion and politics, and how he wanted to express his views.

The Benyahia family wear their faith lightly and Rasheed grew up seeing traditional Friday prayers, which he attended with his father, as much a social occasion as a religious one.

The change began in 2014. His parents saw a shift in his
approach to the world that they put down to the transition from boy to young man. He drifted away from the local mosque, telling his family that he wanted to hang out with a younger crowd elsewhere. Out of nowhere he asked his mother if she would shorten his trousers - a sign of growing religious observance. She felt he’d look daft but didn’t question him too hard. It was difficult to pinpoint whether it meant anything or not.

“As a convert, I don’t have some particular tradition," says Nicola, a former care services manager. "I’m very Western as are my children because they were brought up here. That’s how we were as a family.

“I kind of knew that something was shifting in him. My husband and I were going through a difficult period - any long marriage will have its ups and downs. But I think this jolted Rasheed and he was trying to find out how he fitted in.”

Nicola saw her son withdrawing from family life, becoming more introverted. He was less prepared to share his feelings - but also more confrontational at times. So she would sit with him and try to talk through what was going on in the family and in his own life.

'Something had been ignited in him'

That year the family went on holiday to Turkey. For three years the news had been full of neighbouring Syria, its unrest and subsequent civil war. The focus of the story that summer became an austere-looking man in black, addressing the masses: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - the self-proclaimed leader, or caliph, of the self-styled Islamic State.

June 2014: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declares the "Caliphate"

June 2014: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declares the "Caliphate"

To many his declaration of an Islamic state was an arcane development in a seemingly intractable civil war. But for Muslims who know their history, and foreign policy and intelligence chiefs around the world, it was significant.

Some Muslims, particularly young ones, wanted to know whether this man had any legitimate religious claim to lead the faithful. Or were he and his followers just another ragtag bunch of bloodthirsty maniacs?

Foreign fighters had already been heeding the call of jihad and flooding the region. When al-Baghdadi gave his organisation a branding upgrade from armed militants to nation-state, it triggered a new wave of recruits, including hundreds from the UK.

How did he set about recruiting them? Through a simple them-and-us narrative. Stand with me, we shall be strong. That rhetoric, wrapped up in religious quotes stripped of their time and original meaning, was doing the rounds online. Young people, inevitably curious and not hearing the answers they wanted at home, were looking for solutions. Some became obsessed with the hyper-violence that the IS social media machine began pumping out to the internet.

Rasheed was looking for answers and during the holiday, Nicola recalls, he became very exercised about this supposed birth of an Islamic state.

“Something had been ignited in Rasheed,” says Nicola, noting his impulsive character. “If you put anything in front of him he could get quite excited and jump ahead without thinking."

Rasheed's father urged his son to look carefully. He told him that throughout history many groups had claimed to represent Muslims - only to be found wanting.

Rasheed wasn’t having it. He remonstrated with his parents about the slaughter of innocent people in Syria and that someone had to do something. They pushed back. There was plenty one could do to help from the UK. Charity. Campaigning. Political pressure.

“I felt the excitement from him,” says Nicola.

And then, around New Year 2015, months after his boiling demands for action had come on, they evaporated.

“He suddenly didn’t have an opinion on anything. It just stopped.”

“I shared this with my husband and thought, ooh, I think that he’s come out of his phase. I felt relieved. Thank God.”

Rasheed’s mood had lifted - so much so that he bought his mother an extraordinary gift. Living at home while doing his apprenticeship, he had saved up some money. He spent it on a diamond necklace. Not just any diamonds, but ethically-mined diamonds.

The note he gave her said it all.

"To Mama - no matter how much gold and how many precious stones are used, it's never enough to show how precious you are to me. Love Rasheed xx"

"To Mama - no matter how much gold and how many precious stones are used, it's never enough to show how precious you are to me. Love Rasheed xx"

On Friday 29 May 2015 Rasheed dashed out the door of his family home early as normal. He would not be expected back until late. After work, Fridays were his time. He would hook up with friends and go to the mosque for prayers - then back to one of their homes for the evening. Sometimes his father would pick him up - but nobody would expect him back before 10pm.

Nicola didn’t think anything of the day until her husband said he couldn’t contact Rasheed. Maybe his phone had run out of juice - his parents were always nagging him about that. So they called Rasheed’s friends. None of them had seen him all day.

“I went into a panic,” says Nicola. “I thought he had been mugged and was lying bleeding somewhere in a ditch. It was just out of character for him - if he was going to be 10 minutes late he would call and let me know what was going on.”

They checked WhatsApp and saw Rasheed’s phone was definitely online. They tried to contact him.

“I got a message saying he was with his friend and I said, you’re not with your friend, we’ve just checked. Then it just went dead. I wasn’t convinced it was him. I thought someone has stolen his phone. I felt sick.”

When they tried to report Rasheed as a missing person at the local police station, the desk officer - drawing on experience of teenage boys who sporadically disappear for hours on end - dismissed their concerns. Probably, he'd got a secret girlfriend or something. He’ll be back.

Then they checked the hospitals. Nothing. They checked friends again. Still nothing.

And so it continued - a weekend of turmoil. Everyone was coming up with theories about where he could be or what had happened. None made sense. Nobody slept. Saturday came and went, as did Sunday. Monday was a work day. Still no word. Everyone tried to get on as if this was a normal family rather than one in crisis.

And then, as Nicola was going out the door to face the world that morning, the first message.

Nicola demanded Rasheed spell out where he was. He didn’t reply and the connection was lost. But Nicola knew in her heart. She followed the news - knew about boys disappearing from Birmingham to live out their video game fantasies on a desert battlefield.

She knew he was in Syria. In his message, Rasheed had said she would hear from him in 30 days. But itwould be more than double that before he called again.

And in the meantime, the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit began trying to piece together what had happened.

Looking for Rasheed

Nicola, her husband and one of her daughters were silent on the way to the police. This time, they went straight to the headquarters and, within minutes, were face-to-face with officers from the West Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit

A third of the nation’s counter-terrorism investigations emerge from the West Midlands. It has seen al-Qaeda bomb plotters, a neo-Nazi launch a bombing campaign against mosques and, in the last three years, a long list of young men and women disappearing to Syria to fight, or play a supporting role.

When the Benyahias began pouring out what had happened, the officers had heard it before. They instinctively knew what it meant because Rasheed had followed a pretty standard course.

He had disappeared on a day when he knew he wouldn’t be missed for a few hours, to increase his chances of making it to Turkey without being noticed.

Then he’d crossed the border - almost certainly with the help of IS-supporting smugglers, and been allowed to contact home to confirm he was safe and well, before being shipped off to a camp for military training and indoctrination. His phone was taken from him as soon as Nicola tried to get the whole story.

The police went into overdrive. Syria recruits tend to travel in groups - there may had been others preparing to leave. This wasn’t just a criminal matter - it’s a terrorism offence to take up arms in a foreign civil war. The officers had a duty to do what they could to prevent others throwing away their lives.

About a dozen officers took apart the family home. They searched papers, drawers, beds and cupboards.

“I told them, take anything that you need. They needed to help me find my son,” says Nicola.

“There was virtually nothing missing from his room. The dirty washing was still on the floor. He left his toothbrush. The only thing that was gone were the combat trousers he wore for work and his other work gear.”

In an investigation like this detectives download the hard drives of every device they can find. But they also need to download the memory of the family. The Benyahias began wracking their brains for clues.

It was weeks before the first real pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place. The family found a note written by Rasheed buried in other papers. It contemplated his own death. Nobody knew when it had been written or if, indeed, he had meant for it to be found. But he had not thrown it away.

"Remember me in your prayers and remember that deah will take everyone at some point. So worship Allah like he told us to worship him, and observe your prayers, for 'prayer is the key to paradise'. Never despair of Allah's mercy, He is all-forgiving no matter what you have done, as long as you turn back to Him and ask for forgiveness. We all want to see Jannah when we die, we don't want the frightening sight of hellfire and its huge roar."

"Remember me in your prayers and remember that deah will take everyone at some point. So worship Allah like he told us to worship him, and observe your prayers, for 'prayer is the key to paradise'. Never despair of Allah's mercy, He is all-forgiving no matter what you have done, as long as you turn back to Him and ask for forgiveness. We all want to see Jannah when we die, we don't want the frightening sight of hellfire and its huge roar."

And then came a knock on the door from the police. Detectives had identified Rasheed on CCTV.

"I could see his company logo,” says Nicola. “In the airport picture he was wearing different clothes. He was in a hoodie, had a suitcase and wearing chinos that he had owned since he was 17. Just looking like a typical lad. I don't know how he squeezed into those chinos. “

After Rasheed left home for the last time, that Friday morning, he had stopped by a cashpoint and then taken a train to the airport. By mid-afternoon he was in the air, en route to Turkey.

Other recruits from Birmingham had left an obvious trail. West Midlands detectives and their MI5 colleagues had managed to stop some from travelling thanks to a clear evidence trail.

But with Rasheed the police were struggling to find enough solid clues. For a start, he had removed his PC’s hard drive - one digital footprint covered up.

But the trail of events over the 12 months leading up to his disappearance began to emerge in Nicola's mind.

Weeks before his departure, there had been a bit of a family row, after it emerged Rasheed had been secretly planning a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. His parents persuaded him to cancel it. But was this aborted trip cover for his real plans – to go to Syria?

However, that did not explain how he had been radicalised in the first place.

Nicola continued to piece together how Rasheed had changed subtly, but progressively, during 2014. The family had had the arguments about the “Caliphate” and the civil war in Syria. They’d heard his excitable views that more should be done to “help”.

But there was more. He had talked about going to late night Islamic study circles miles from home.

He had also talked about attending a so-called “dawah stall” in the city - men and women who stand in the street handing out literature. It is a form of missionary work seeking converts to Islam.

There are two types of dawah. The first is no different to the kind of public religious zeal displayed by some minority Christian sects. The second, however, has long been linked to extremist politicised groups who use it as part of their them-and-us rhetoric. Anjem Choudary, the radical preacher jailed earlier this year in the UK over support for IS, was a past master at using such stalls to pick off vulnerable, impressionable recruits to his cause.

Anjem Choudary, jailed for inviting others to support IS

Anjem Choudary, jailed for inviting others to support IS

The family had challenged Rasheed’s desire to attend both the classes and a stall, having no idea who he was involved with, what the people represented or where it would take their son. It didn’t look or feel right and, after some argument, he appeared to accept their counsel.

But he clearly hadn't.

It became ever more clear that during 2014 Rasheed had been wrestling with what to do over Syria. And his struggle to reconcile the competing world views in his head manifested itself in a series of petty arguments that his family had previously dismissed as teenage angst.

But what had made him receptive to the jihadist ideology?

There could have been many factors - but two stood out for Nicola. Firstly, Rasheed may have been targeted during a low emotional ebb, as his parents navigated a path through their marital problems.

Secondly, Nicola had been caught up in the so-called “Trojan Horse” allegations in Birmingham schools whereby it was alleged there had been attempts by some Muslim governors and teachers to impose an austere Islamic ethos on students.

The former Parkview Secondary School in Birmingham, where Nicola was a governor

The former Parkview Secondary School in Birmingham, where Nicola was a governor

Nicola was a governor at one of the schools in the spotlight and says she stuck it out, despite her concerns, because she had wanted a progressive Muslim female voice to be heard.

Where does this fit into Rasheed’s story? Nicola believes recruiters may have used the affair to convince Rasheed that a good Muslim should leave Britain behind.

Although he was now a young man, rather than a boy, in his parents' eyes he was still quite unworldly. Could he really have planned such a trip without any help?

The family learned that while Rasheed appeared to have travelled alone, he may have been planning to go with other young men, whom the BBC is not naming for legal reasons. One of these teenagers later disappeared abroad, seemingly following an overland route to Turkey taken by some recruits.

Nicola now believes her son resolved his “inner conflict” over whether to go to Syria during New Year 2015. Why? Because suddenly he was emotionally calm and, out of the blue, bought her the diamond necklace.

“I think that was his goodbye present to me. At that point he had made the decision to go - and that was his way of saying so. I think that was how he was saying goodbye to me.

“That calm, I now know, is one of the tactics that the recruiters deploy. They tell their recruits to avoid tension, to be placid, to not bring attention to himself and just go along with what his parents wanted.

“He was over decision time and into preparation mode.”

The new 'normal'

When he crossed the border into Syria, Rasheed had promised in his message home he would be back in touch in 30 days. Sixty-four days passed. The family was living in torment. Then, at 12.30pm on 4 August, Rasheed Benyahia called his mother. She was furious with him.

Nicola now faced a choice.

The boy she had raised was physically gone yet, emotionally, through his long-distance communications, he still appeared to be there, calling her, as he always had done, “Mama”.

She could rage at him and risk that he would never contact her again. She could reject him out of fury. Or she could try to keep the relationship alive in the desperate hope he’d ultimately see sense. Nicola chose the third path. She had been training to become a counsellor - and she knew that if she did not keep talking to Rasheed, there would be no way back.

In the weeks leading up to the contact, she had also found an expert from Germany, who guided her in how to handle Rasheed if and when he reached out.

Rasheed and Nicola talked every couple of days - by text and phone. Nicola asked about his welfare and avoided asking specifics about IS. She didn’t challenge his thinking. She just talked to her son as if he had moved to the next town - almost as if he had gone to university.

He talked about his lifestyle in Raqqa - portraying it as somehow normal. He didn’t talk about the well-reported barbarity of IS. He did talk about airstrikes from its enemies.

When Nicola detected a rasp in his voice, he confessed to having lost his asthma inhaler in the border crossing. She hassled him to sort it out with a doctor.

Rasheed eventually spoke to his father who put the question Nicola didn’t want to ask - when would he be going to fight? Rasheed didn’t know. He was waiting for the call.

His sisters became bolder and started probing Rasheed for answers to his radicalisation - whether there were other young men and women in Birmingham who would follow him.

“You don’t need to know the answers,” Rasheed said. “You’re just going to spoil it for other people.”

Eventually he buckled and named two other men from Birmingham who were, in his words, “of like mind”. While Rasheed's sisters demanded answers, Nicola was struggling to hold herself together every time she spoke to her son.

When Rasheed sheepishly told his mother that a senior IS leader was proposing to find him a jihadi bride - an Algerian teenager - Nicola had to dig deep to keep her head.

“He actually asked me what I thought of it and I remember saying, ‘You’re asking me now? You’re over in Syria, you’ve made this decision and you’re asking me now?’

“Although he had made this huge decision and gone into a man’s world, he still was that little boy who needed his mum’s approval.

“So… I joked to him about the girl, saying make sure you see what she looks like properly because you can’t see them being veiled in black. I took the mick. He was more nervous about meeting the girl than going out to battle.”

Daniel Koehler, a leading expert on deradicalisation, says Nicola was “extraordinarily brave and smart”.

For years Koehler worked on turning around the thinking of neo-Nazis in his native Germany. Since the rise of the Syria conflict, he has focused at countering jihadist ideology.

As Nicola searched for answers, she came across Koehler’s work online - and he confirmed her fears that she would push Rasheed away if she was angry and raging. She had to try to be calm. It was the only chance she had of keeping hold of him.

Much of Koehler's work is secret, advising governments, intelligence agencies and fearful communities. But most of all, he advises parents on how to approach an extremist in the family. Deradicalisation is tough work, but he argues that it is families that have the best shot at it because only they understand their loved one and what motivates that individual.

“It’s a long process - it's a back and forth game," says Koehler. "Whatever we do as counsellors and the family, there's always another side. The recruiter, the jihadi group, will try to push back and try to counteract whatever you have done.

“It’s psychological warfare and can take months and years for the parents of the family to win that psychological battle for the hearts and minds of their own children.”

'If I’m wrong about this choice... pray to God that I’m guided away from it'

Koehler warned Nicola there was little he could do to pull back Rasheed as he had taken the final step along the path to extremism. Even if her son had wanted to get out, he probably couldn’t. But Koehler urged her to continue talking to him.

In September 2015, four months after his arrival in Syria, Rasheed announced he was going “offline” again - this time for a month. Everyone assumed he was being sent to fight. When he came back online seven weeks later, he had changed.

Rasheed admitted to his father he had been to visit “Bashar al-Assad” - code for an attack on the Syrian ruler's forces. He’d been in a bunker and, the family guessed, seen death.

When he called on the phone, the conversations were intense.

“One conversation went on for quite some while and I said I was going to put his father on and he said, ‘after I’ve spoken to Baba can you make sure you come back on the phone? Mama please, please come back on the phone’.

“He was clingier to me, he needed that connection to me, it was almost like he needed my voice to be the last that he heard each time we spoke."

He asked his mother if she had been having strange dreams about him. This seemingly bizarre question was loaded with meaning - jihadi folklore is full of tales of premonitions of martyrdom in dreams.

And then he made the strangest of comments to one of his sisters: “If I’m wrong about this choice that I have made, pray to God that I’m guided away from it.”

Was this an opening? Did he want to get out?

Nobody knew but everyone thought Rasheed was having doubts. Nobody knew if his calls were being monitored - so nobody could ask him what he really meant. All Nicola could do was try her best to get the message across that she would move Heaven and Earth to help get him out if the time came.

In late October, Rasheed used Skype to speak to both his parents at once. He looked scruffy and had lost weight. The conversation was light-hearted. There were smiles.

And then he confirmed he was receiving new orders to go to the central mosque in Raqqa - the rallying point for the foreign fighters.

The next day, Rasheed tried to call Nicola but couldn’t reach her. He began to panic, messaging his sisters and father, asking: “Where’s Mama? Where’s Mama?”

Nicola broke away from work and managed to get him on the phone.

She followed their conversation with a single text saying they would see each other again one day. The little blue ticks in WhatsApp told her he had read it.

On Friday 20 November, there was news.

Rasheed had been killed near to Sinjar, a key IS position over the border in Iraq. He had been hit by shrapnel in a Coalition drone strike. The caller from Raqqa was another jihadi fighter. He spoke briefly to Nicola, only confirming Rasheed’s death. He did not use Rasheed's real name, rather his IS name, the "Martyr", Abu Huraira Albritani.

It’s now a year since Rasheed Benyahia died. The self-proclaimed Islamic State is shrinking under sustained military attack. It may soon implode.

Two things could happen. Experts like Daniel Koehler and other deradicalisers in the UK believe foreign fighters fleeing from IS are likely to be disillusioned. Many will be full of anger and pose a huge security threat to the West as they try to return home. The so-called threat of “blow back” attacks by returning fighters is not a theory. Paris and Brussels show that.

But other recruits may have regrets. They may want a way back to their families and former lives.

This is the huge dilemma facing the West, and there isn’t a single credible security expert anywhere who believes the problem can be solved by simply locking up returning foreign fighters. Prison contains the individual - but not the ideology.

Nicola Benyahia says it is now time for Muslims to speak out. She wants to use her son's death to prevent some other mother’s son doing the same.The jihadist ideology is alive and well and other groups will continue to recruit, even if IS crumbles.

So she’s launching Families for Life, the British arm of the network that German deradicaliser Daniel Koehler has been building. She’s appealing to people across the country who have suffered the way she has to work with her to challenge extremism, in whatever form it is found.

Tell their stories, show young people what extremism does, get those young people to think for themselves.

Rasheed Benyahia was once a laughing, happy young man back-flipping his way around Birmingham. He died a jihadist. By the time he travelled to Syria everyone knew what IS was doing: rape of women, murder of hostages, street executions of Muslims who didn’t agree, and death and carnage on the streets of Europe.

In the last year of his life they ruined him. They lured him into something that he knew little about

Didn’t Rasheed simply get what he deserved?

“People have said that to me. And, yes, he made that decision. He went and paid the consequences. If I could have got him back I remember saying to the police he should be punished. He needs to pay for the decision he has made.”

But, at the same time, she says punishment isn’t enough. There needs to be a concerted effort to find the triggers to de-programme people who have been sucked into the death cult of jihadism, she says.

“We call what happened to Rasheed radicalisation, but it is very similar to grooming," says Nicola. "His softer nature and that vulnerability was manipulated on the back off an idea: ‘This is the caliphate and if you don’t do this journey you are not a believer, not a good Muslim’.

“In the last year of his life they [recruiters] ruined him. They lured him into something that he knew little about.”

Nicola has already started her work. When, by chance, she spotted across a Birmingham street one of the young men close to Rasheed whom she long suspected of sharing his views, she didn’t run and hide.

“I went straight up to him. I was right in his face and said: ‘You obviously know about Rasheed. Do not do it to your mum. Do not do it to your family.' He kept looking, nodding."

She knows that street confrontation isn’t going to win a battle for hearts and minds, which is why she is speaking now.

“Unless we start talking to our youth and young people they are going to get those answers elsewhere - the recruiters are waiting.

“My son was a victim and I am going to end up being a victim. I refuse to be a victim to ISIS. We’re going to start talking about this.”