This article originally appeared in PRI, produced with help from the International Women’s Media Foundation through the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
Yasmin Mulbocus clutches her hijab as she sees images on TV of young women returning home from Syria.
She hears them talk about how they escaped from the clutches of ISIS. Mulbocus sees herself in them—her former self.
This 40-year-old mother of three with piercing black eyes, who speaks at what seems like a thousand words a minute, who elicits warm smiles from her West London neighbors with her vivaciousness and warm banter, actually used to be a recruiter for an extremist organization.
Today, she does the opposite.
She works with imams and community leaders in the Hounslow area of London, reaching out to youth—young Muslim women in particular.
Her goal? To prevent them from buying that plane ticket to Syria.
“What we need to do is work constantly, consistently, with these young people,” she said.
Extremist groups like ISIS bring a lot of passion and build a vision in the eyes of their recruits. Countering that can be challenging, Mulbocus said.
“You have to deal with the issues that are bothering young people,” she said. “We live in a push-button world. If we don’t give them answers and alternatives, they’ll find it elsewhere.”
She knows that path all too well—because she took it.
Entry into radicalism
Mulbocus was born to Afghan Guyanese parents. She spent much of her childhood in foster care, including with her uncle’s family.
“I was sexually abused by my uncle for 10 years,” she said. “When I finally got the courage to speak up, I was moved to a different foster home.”
Mulbocus was only 15 when she had to face her abuser in court.
“My family turned against me because of what I said about my uncle,” she said.
When a judge threw her case out of court for lack of evidence, Mulbocus’s world crumbled.
“The system had failed me. I just had to get on with my life. I had no help, no therapy, no counseling.”
She attempted suicide twice while in foster care.
Mulbocus met her husband when she was 16 and they were married that same year. She started studying Islam when she turned 17 and was expecting her first child.
“I knew nothing about Islam at the time,” she said. “Hip-hop, Public Enemy, was my religion. I related to that music because all my life I’d been bullied for being dark-skinned. I know oppression, I’d felt it.”
She began to love the whole new world of spirituality that was opening up to her.
Mulbocus was particularly drawn to a smaller circle of women who were talking about a new world order.
“They talked about an Islamic state where perpetrators would be brought to justice, where a rapist would receive capital punishment,” she said.
That got her attention.
The promise of utopia
Mulbocus became a member of this network in 1996.
She said she was also attracted to the group because it was the first one that encouraged women to come on board.
“We were going to make history,” she said. “We were going to be the next revolutionaries that history would remember.”
They were going to fly their flag atop the White House. In their new Islamic state, there was the promise of justice and free food, shelter, clothing, and utilities.
She now calls it a “khawarij”—a cult, which sought to separate itself from mainstream Islam and justify the killing of Muslims as well as other innocent people.
Mulbocus canvassed neighborhoods and distributed fliers, keeping her eyes open for vulnerable young women such as those with familial or social problems or women who were recent converts to Islam and had trouble fitting in.
She doesn’t want to divulge the name of the extremist group, which was banned and driven underground by the British government in August 2005, for security reasons.
A change of heart
Mulbocus says she started questioning the group’s extremist ideology after about four years.
She found contradictions between the teachings of Islam and the ideals the group preached. She had isolated herself from her family and friends.
“You had to subscribe to their version of Islam,” Mulbocus said of the group. “So, if you’re not political, you’re not a ‘pure’ Muslim.”
All she heard were narratives of hate.
Over the next year, Mulbocus started asking more questions about the group’s claims and activities. The final blow was delivered by her daughter’s teacher, who called Mulbocus in with a serious concern.
Her 5-year-old daughter had said in school: “It’s OK to kill non-Muslims.”
“I was shocked and embarrassed,” Mulbocus said. “I was thinking, ‘What kind of family structure am I creating? What’s happening to my child?’”
She took a step back and paid close attention to other members of the group. All she heard were narratives of hate.
“I’d become someone else and I needed to go back to who I was before.”
She picked up the phone and told her group leader: “I’m leaving.”
Working for the other side
Leaving an extremist group can be challenging, but picking up the pieces and moving on can be even more so, said Vidhya Ramalingam, a London-based counter-extremism expert.
“Once someone disengages and deradicalizes, there’s the process of rebuilding your life outside the movement,” she said. “For some, that process needs to be about building up an identity that is completely different and completely separate from the movement. For many individuals, they just disappear into mainstream society.”
Mulbocus said she wanted to disappear, but couldn’t.
The attacks of Sept. 11 motivated her to work “for the other side.”
The first step for Mulbocus, however, was to seek forgiveness from friends and family members she’d isolated herself from over the years.
She then found her way into the mainstream Muslim community, branded as “sellouts” by her former group.
She organized “interfaith cafes” in neighborhood community centers.
She started volunteering in the community and was soon invited to be part of a community radio show. Doing the show and interacting with people of all faiths opened Mulbocus’s eyes to the false ideology to which she was still clinging.
Mulbocus was convinced that to counter extremist ideology, she had to foster interfaith dialogue.
She started a group called Muslim Active Women Around Hounslow or MAWAH. She organized “interfaith cafes” in neighborhood community centers.
Women sat around over coffee and snacks and discussed a variety of issues from fair trade to foreign policy.
“We talked about commonalities and differences,” Mulbocus said. “We realized that social issues such as domestic violence or sexual abuse can be big factors when it comes to women wanting to join extremist organizations.”
Focusing on women
She continues to organize at the grassroots level working with imams to educate young women about true Islamic principles.
Mulbocus believes it’s important for young women to hear the stories of those returning from Syria, which she says will be a powerful deterrent.
“It’s the only way to show the ugliness of such violent, extreme ideologies.”
She takes any opportunity she can to talk to young women, be it in interfaith cafes, community meetings, seminars, or sitting on a bus.
“Women want to go to the Islamic State because they want to feel secure. The only way women can come out of these types of organizations is if they ponder or reflect on what they thought this group was about, juxtapose it with reality and weigh the two.”
Mulbocus believes the key is critical thinking—understanding what Islam truly is.
“Jihad is not the bullet from the gun or a drop of the grenade motivated by hate and aggression,” she said. “It is (a way) to create a more cohesive, resilient, and progressive society, where hate and fear will be relics of the past and a reminder to the future of what we chose not to become.”