Only Hard Choices for Parents Whose Children Flirt With Terror

Apr 10, 2016

Photo credit: Gabrielle Lurie

By Matt Apuzzo

The banging on the door jolted Sal Shafi awake. F.B.I. agents were looking for his son. “Where’s Adam?” they yelled. “Where’s Adam?”

Terrified, Mr. Shafi led the agents, guns drawn, up the stairs toward his son’s bedroom. He watched as they led his 22-year-old son away in handcuffs, backed by evidence of Adam Shafi’s terrorist ambitions.

He had come to the attention of officials not by a well-placed informant or a sting operation. His father, concerned and looking for help, had simply picked up the phone and led the government right to his son. For months, over the objections of his lawyer, Mr. Shafi had been talking to the F.B.I., believing he was doing the right thing.

“My God,” he thought, soon after the arrest in July. “I just destroyed Adam.”

Had things been different, Mr. Shafi, 62, a Silicon Valley executive, might have become a much-needed spokesman for the Obama administration’s counterradicalization campaign. Who better to talk to other parents about the seductive pull of terror organizations? Trust the government, he would tell them. They do not want to take away your children.

Despite nascent efforts to steer young people away from terrorism, the government’s strategy remains largely built on persuading people to call the F.B.I. when they first suspect a problem.

“Alert law enforcement,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in December. “It could simply be your neighbor having a bad day. But better be safe than sorry.”

For parents, particularly those who see their children as misguided but not dangerous, the decision to make that call can be agonizing. Do you risk sending your son to prison? Or hope things improve and he does not hurt anyone?

The Justice Department praised Mr. Shafi’s efforts to save his son, but said in court that his son was living a “terrifying” double life. Prosecutors said Adam Shafi was “such an unpredictable threat” that he was too dangerous to be anywhere but a jail cell. Mr. Shafi and others, though, say the case shows that there were never any alternatives.

“This is an abject failure, that there is no system in place that doesn’t result in spending 20 years in jail,” said Seamus Hughes, a former National Counterterrorism Center official who once helped implement the Obama administration’s strategy for countering violent extremism.

The Justice Department’s campaign against American supporters of the Islamic State is rife with examples of family members acting out of desperation. Mothers have hidden passports and money to keep their sons from traveling. In Minnesota, a fight broke out as relatives tried to keep a young man from flying out of the country. In Texas, a family lured a 19-year-old home from Turkey by tricking him into thinking his mother had fallen ill.

Mr. Shafi chose a different route. He did what the government asked. His story is a desperate search for someone to help his son.

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16 comments on “Only Hard Choices for Parents Whose Children Flirt With Terror

  • I really feel so badly for Mr. Shafi and all of the other parents who have been blindsided by the realization that although they have raised their children to be moderate Muslims, something happened along the way that they can’t really be sure about and now their child has become a fundamentalist Muslim. That brainwashed teen or adult is psychologically unrecognizable to their own parent and takes pride in dressing their parents down over perceived blasphemies going on in the home. When things get to this point, I really don’t know if anything can be done to reverse the trend.

    I don’t have any numbers to fall back on here but just from my observations, it seems to hold that there isn’t an extended family of Muslims that I can see who isn’t dealing with at least one young individual who has gone over to the dark side (in their mind). My (Algerian) in-laws are dealing with several of them at once.

    Last Christmas my Muslim niece from Montreal visited us and prompted several discussions with us – Aunts, her Mom and her Uncle, and a couple of same age cousins about religious matters. The generation older than her strongly disagreed with many of her views and told her so directly. Her same age cousins let her have it about her stupid hijab and threatened to leave her home rather than be seen with her wearing it and by the end of the visit there was not one single concession from her on any point made by any of us in our attempt to modify her fundamentalism. This really frightened us. We noticed that it was always her initiating these religious discussions and we now conclude that she has an agenda that is based around converting us over to fundamentalism. She considers it her duty to convert us even though her knowledge of the Koran is unimpressive. On several points I read the pertinent sections to her in English with my husband reading the Arabic to back me up.

    There is always a claim of shoddy translation with these people but nine times out of ten the Arabic version straight from the Koran is much more harsh than the English translation. ~eye roll~

    Several times in the discussion, when the older generation was hammering her on some theological fine points, she couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance and clapped her hands over her ears and repeated, “No, no, no….” until we paused! I couldn’t even believe it! At that point we changed the subject to something more pleasant and sure enough – she’d bring up another fucking sura to discuss! then we’d hammer her again on the real passage and what was going on in S. Arabia at the time and what the prophet Mo (shitstorm be upon him) was really up to at the time, -things like maneuvering to marry his daughter in law or acquiring females for his collection of sex slave wives or making political deals by accepting gifts of females, etc. This stuff really knocked her for a loop (cognitively).

    Her parents, two very checked out moderate Muslims, are completely baffled by this outcome. They never took her or her sister to the mosque at all. Now that she’s an adult they can’t prevent her from going there and meeting with her fellow fundamentalists on a daily basis. I tell this story because it’s extremely common and extremely discouraging.

    The idea that religion is something that families ought to do so that their children will be good people results in their laying down a foundation of blind faith that will lie dormant in these indoctrinated individuals, but then, when certain variables come together, the old programming becomes activated again and reinforced to the point that it overtakes any attempt to modify it through rational thinking. But just try telling these families to keep their kids away from the mosque or even to block their child’s access to religious ideas and keep a strong secular ethos alive in their family. It’s a nonstarter of a conversation but that’s what it will take to inoculate these kids from the vile and predatory proselytizers out there. Wolves in sheep’s clothing is what they are.

    I remember being sternly warned about predatory cults and their devious ways when I was a teen and college student. Why can’t we do this for standard religions too? I don’t see much of a difference really.

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  • Observing from across the pond it seems to me that in the US putting people in prison is just business, a way of making a buck.
    Law enforcement agencies are being kept busy, DA’s get extra notches on their belts, prison companies make more money and politicians have extra enemies to scare voters with. That’s a win-win-win-win situation if there ever was one. Did I forget anybody? Probably……
    In the mean time prevention is not considered gung-ho enough to be bothered with. “We want a war on something…..”
    Of course there are people actually paying for all of this, but all that money simply gets them perpetuation of the status quo.

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  • Why would someone become a terrorist?
    1. they are a sadist. They relish the idea of killing and raping. They are looking for any outlet.

    they have heard tales of the atrocities the west has perpetrated on the people of the middle east, and they feel obligated to put an end to it, or at least to revenge it.
    they have been convinced God wants them to kill people because they are not pure enough. They fail to follow some set of rules sufficiently scrupulously.

    The one thing we have control over is (2). We should be careful not to kill, maim or torture civilians.

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  • Laurie #1

    Your account made me think of this!

    During the 1950’s many parents did not like Rock and Roll because they
    thought that it caused juvenile delinquency. At the time the music
    contained sexual connotation, this vulgarism and suggestive choice of
    words made the teens want to listen to it more because their parents
    did not approve and teens felt like they had something to belong to.
    Many parents at the time gave their children ultimatums to stop
    listening to the music but it was unsuccessful. Parents feared that
    their children would start to act and dress like these musicians. So,
    parents tried to ban Rock and Roll music from many radio stations at
    the time. Bruce Tucker author of “Tell Tchaikovsky the News:
    Postmodernism, Popular Culture, and the Emergence of Rock and Roll”
    say in his journal “Urging juke box operators to purge “immoral”
    records…brings out animalism and vulgarity”

    With greater risks of course.

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  • Olgun
    That’s a great paragraph. I feel like I lived it! It was wonderful to come of age in the seventies. The sex and drugs and rock and roll was a utopia that I always remember when in the present, the going gets a little rough. I think about how lucky I was to have a decade of licentious dissolute freedom even though I do feel bad for my parents who must have been fearful for my safety. I see the parallels here with our Mr. Shafi of the article above.

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  • Something that bothers me about fundamentalism is how a non-religious person can suddenly become ultrareligious during a psychotic episode, and then go on to recover from everything except their newfound religiousness…

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  • I don’t think Mr Shafi has destroyed his son’s life, I think he’s probably saved it.

    The problem is the religion itself; it’s a twenty first century anachronism, and instead of trying to haul it into the modern day, its followers are either umming and ahhing, denying there are any problems, or actively attempting to drag it back down into the past; or, as I heard one of its leaders on a radio programme this morning doing, lying in their teeth; but then, all religions seem to have a tendency to create liars and hypocrites.

    No attempt seems to be being made to actively reform its tenets; but there again, were there to be, the whole edifice would probably collapse; now, there’s a thought!

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  • We should probably create some sort of reeducation system that uses their faith to show them that terrorism is wrong or something. Just throwing them in jail isn’t gonna do anything other than give them a place to try and recruit. Especially if they feel like they’re being mistreated.

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  • Narcissistic_Martyr #10
    Apr 12, 2016 at 11:12 am

    We should probably create some sort of reeducation system that uses their faith to show them that terrorism is wrong or something.

    There is something in the teen psychology which leads them to be D-K overconfident, and believe in their personal indestructibility, along with the buzz from risk taking! – Hence activities such as taking cars, wild driving without any training, trying out illegal drugs from unknown sources, and becoming fans of extreme sports – many of which are reckless and downright dangerous when carried out by anyone other than professional stunt men.

    Traditionally tribal warriors and ideological armies, have been recruited from this age-group by manipulative leaders.

    (Mao’s Red Guards, Hitler Youth, cannon-fodder for the WW1 trenches, etc.)

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  • I’m reminded of idealistic teens in other eras, enlisting young in WWI or WWII, going off to fight against Franco, or following Byron to help the Greeks’ struggle for independence.

    I know those were (mostly) good causes, but to a naive enough teen any cause can be portrayed as good. And once they’re in, it takes a helluvalot of evidence and cognitive dissonance to get them out again.

    The Islamists may ignore or gloss over their own atrocities long enough to reel them in, .. but seriously, there’s no need to exaggerate or tell anything but the straight truth about the US to paint it as the Great Satan. Torture, bombing of civilians, even genocide…, you can’t tell which side is which purely by listing atrocities (except perhaps in terms of scale).

    Until this changes, nothing else will.

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  • Channel 4 has conducted a survey of British Muslims – which seems to tell a different story to that put about by political apologist leaders in government!

    Channel 4 has commissioned an extensive and rigorous survey to get a better understanding of British Muslims’ attitudes to living in Britain and British institutions, social issues including gender equality, homosexuality and issues relating to freedom of expression and the degree of sympathy for the use of violence and terrorist acts. The results are explored in a special current affairs documentary, presented by Trevor Phillips: What British Muslims Really Think – 10pm, Wednesday 13th April.

    Europe is on heightened terror alert following the attacks in Paris and Brussels and the security services raising the threat posed by hundreds of home-grown jihadists. Politicians and Muslim leaders claim that the values of these extremists are shared only by a tiny minority in the UK. Channel 4 commissioned the survey to get the views from British Muslims themselves rather than those who claim to speak on their behalf; and, in particular to try to understand why some young Muslims are being drawn to violence.

    Unlike many other surveys of Muslim opinion, which have predominantly been done by phone or online, ICM used face-to-face, in-home research to question a representative sample of 1,000 Muslims across Great Britain. ICM also used a “control sample” to compare what British Muslims thought with the rest of the British population.

    At the top-line level, the survey suggests that a mainstream British Muslim majority have similar values and attitudes to the wider British public on issues such as support for British institutions and a feeling of belonging to Britain.

    But looking deeper into the results, a chasm develops between those Muslims surveyed and the wider population on attitudes to liberal values on issues such as gender equality, homosexuality and issues relating to freedom of expression. And it also reveals significant differences on attitudes to violence and terrorism.

    Channel 4 invited writer and former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips to analyse and interpret the survey for the documentary. Phillips argues its findings pose profound questions for our society and the implications for future relations between Britain’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

    Trevor Phillips says: “Hearing what British Muslims themselves think, rather than listening to those purporting to speak on their behalf, is critical if we are to prevent the establishment of a nation within our nation. Many of the results will be troubling to Muslims and non-Muslims alike – and the analysis of the age profile shows us that the social attitudes revealed are unlikely to change quickly.

    The integration of Britain’s Muslims will probably be the hardest task we’ve ever faced. It will require the abandonment of the milk-and-water multiculturalism still so beloved of many, and the adoption of a far more muscular approach to integration.”

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  • It was a very chastening program and survey, Alan.

    Alighting on schools as a major area in need of reform was spot on. I think they could have spent more time devoted to it.

    I thought it rather powerful to choose Trevor Phillips for the programme. As the commisioner for thr “Islamophobia” report two decades ago, his unhappy pronouncement will undercut much demur.

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  • Nice discussion, folks. I’m with Alan on this one. As dramatic the situations of young individuals up to the age of 25 may be, a vast percentage will always be easily enticed by the black and white me versus them ‘specialness’ of fundamentalism because of brain development. They find it appealing precisely because they’re immature. Religions are successful because of the sociologically evolved recruitment systemology of their texts. If we don’t hurry up and ban the warlike religions, it’ll draw into schisms humanity wont survive. But… we believe in the ‘right’, (no matter how wrong), that people have to read about killing people they don’t agree with in their ‘holy books’.

    It’s just a matter of time before the weapons at the disposal of those that hate other peoples is bigger than the planet.

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  • Mark #15
    Apr 16, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    It’s just a matter of time before the weapons at the disposal of those that hate other peoples is bigger than the planet.

    You could be right!

    The Saudi cabinet has approved sweeping economic reforms aimed at moving the country away from its dependence on oil profits.

    A new visa system will allow expatriate Muslims and Arabs to work long term in Saudi Arabia

    Steps will be taken to diversify the economy, including investment in mineral mining and expanding military production.

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