DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In January of 2015, radical Islamist gunmen attacked the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Paris kosher supermarket, killing 17 people. And that was the moment when the destructive threat of radicalization fully emerged as a fact of life in France. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on one woman who was already well-versed in it.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I meet 52-year-old Dounia Bouzar in a cafe along Boulevard Saint-Germain. She's enjoying an ice cream sundae while three security guards stand watch. This Muslim anthropologist has received death threats for unveiling the tactics of Islamist recruiters. Her book, "Defusing Radical Islam," was published a year before the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
DOUNIA BOUZAR: (Through interpreter) When it came out, hundreds of parents of radicalized kids came looking for me because they recognized themselves and their children in my book.
BEARDSLEY: Bouzar started an association and, with the parents, began to develop ways to deal with radicalization. One of the fathers was a policeman and showed them how to bug their kids' phones and computers. Bouzar says they were able to witness how the recruiters worked.
BOUZAR: (Through interpreter) They had them drop their friends, who were complicit with a corrupt society; their teachers, who were only paid to indoctrinate them and their parents, who were considered nonbelievers, even if they were Muslim. Their recruiters worked to sever every emotional and social connection that the kids had. And when nothing was left, they took them over.
BEARDSLEY: In early 2015, Bouzar's organization won a government contract to help parents who called an anti-radicalization hotline. She traveled the country training teams of psychologists, police and other experts. Celine was one of the parents Bouzar's teams helped. Her 19-year-old son had converted to Islam. I spoke to her from their home in a small Normandy town. She doesn't want to give her last name because she fears for her family.
CELINE: (Through interpreter) All of a sudden, he refused to eat pork or listen to music. And his grades plummeted. He had an empty look in his eyes. He was like a robot, and he was always, always on the phone. Worst of all, we found a second Facebook account and saw he was thinking of going to Syria.
BEARDSLEY: Bouzar says, unlike al-Qaida, ISIS tailors its radicalization tactics to individual profiles. For example, girls who radicalize are particularly attracted to the idea of nursing children hurt by the Syrian regime or finding a God-fearing and faithful husband.
BOUZAR: (Through interpreter) For women, there's a kind of myth of an island utopia where no one will be cold or hungry and everything runs on divine law.
BEARDSLEY: Bouzar's method involves re-establishing links between radicalized individuals and their former lives. She counsels parents to try to bring them back in touch with their childhood through old pictures and videos or food. Celine had little success at first, but she persevered.
CELINE: (Through interpreter) I made all his favorite meals that he loved as a child. I took him to places he liked when he was young. I did everything to reconnect him with his childhood.
BEARDSLEY: Bouzar and her methods have been criticized. Some say her use of allegedly reformed jihadists to break through to radicalized kids is dangerous. Others accuse her of self-promotion. Marik Fetouh is deputy mayor of Bordeaux and in charge of a deradicalization center there.
DEPUTY MAYOR MARIK FETOUH: (Through interpreter) Many say Bouzar's approach is too simplistic because it treats radicalization as brainwashing. But she came forward with real ideas to fight this complex phenomenon when no one else had a clue what to do.
BEARDSLEY: Though she is no longer working with the French government, Bouzar and her teams counseled more than a thousand young people and their parents from Muslim, Catholic and atheist backgrounds. Normandy mother Celine credits Bouzar's methods with saving her son's life. She says he's still a Muslim, but now he's begun to think for himself. And most importantly, she says, he's dropped any plans to go to Syria.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.