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Message from a former teen extremist

He grew up in a safe and caring environment, in a Christian family, in a small town of 20,000 in Per Bartho Hansen Norway. When he was sixteen, Yousef Barth Assidiq decided to convert to Islam.

His conversion was met with severe opposition from his family, friends and it even made the local headlines -  ‘Norwegian guy converts to Islam – what happens now?’ A life of marginalisation and isolation soon followed. In the midst of this, one person reached out to Yousef, a young supporter of Al Qaeda who was part of an extremist  group called ‘Prophet’s Ummah’.

In an interview with The Point Magazine, 27-year old Yousef tells his story.

Tell me about your decision to become a Muslim?

It actually started when I was 16 and my mother got ill. She went into a coma for nine months and I remember the first day I was sitting by her hospital bed and there was only one question in my head. “When was the last time I said I loved her?” “What if this was the last time, and I can’t even remember it”, and that’s when I realised that my life had been too much about me having fun and maybe even a bit self-centred and I had forgotten about the important things in life which is family.

So I started reading about different religions and one of those was Islam. When I started this quest my main goal was to find a set of rules and a sort of an instruction manual on how to be as a person. I felt I was failing on my own and needed guidance. That was what I first found in Islam.

Why was converting to Islam the talk of your town?

Honestly, I don’t know. It was quite a harsh and polarized climate when I converted. The politicians talked about a ban on hijab, and there were debates about whether Muslims were “carefully” taking over the country bit by bit—real traditional conspiracies.

I guess as I was one of the first Muslims in my community and no-one really knew much about Islam I was seen as a threat and an “outsider”. My family didn’t accept my choice and I lost all my friends. On the bus I was called a traitor, extremist and terrorist. Just for converting.

Tell me about your journey with what you call an ‘extremist group’.

It was one week after I converted and I was back in the same mosque in Oslo where I announced my faith. They had a weekend sleepover with seminars and lectures. They asked me if I could talk a bit about how it is for an ethnic Norwegian to convert to Islam.  I said it felt like I converted to Islam, but at the same time converted out of Norway. I didn’t feel like I was welcome anymore. I remember I said that with tears in my eyes.

When I was done with my speech, I was approached by the man who was going to become my best friend. He shook my hand, gave me a hug and said he was going to be my best friend, support me and be there for me no matter what and he lived just 15 minutes away from my home town.

In the car on the way home we talked about my experience and he told me the West is at war with Islam and that Muslims can never be seen as equals with our fellow Norwegians. I wasn’t hard to convince. That was exactly how I felt. Slowly I began accepting the ideology. I started to look at Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and other extremist groups as freedom fighters and I started to look at my own country and also the West as a whole, as an enemy.

I have never been in a gang or anything, but it felt like a community. It was us brothers against the world.

– Yousef Assidiq, Just Unity

What was it like being part of the extremist group; what is their mentality?

I have never been in a gang or anything, but it felt like a community. It was us brothers against the world. We were going to liberate and save the Muslims and rise against the corrupt political system of Norway. I mean, it felt like we had a mission and they were extremely good at motivating. We made each other feel like superheroes. Even though I had a good background, and good education, I had never felt like that before.

How do they spread their message?

Back then it was peer-based. We didn’t have any stakes in the media or any creative ways of using social media or anything. We just went around in the mosques talking to youth. This was back in 2009 so it was pre-ISIL and it was the very beginning of radical Islamism in Norway.  It was kind of hard for us to find things to hate and deliver a message with conviction and convince the youth that they should go with us. I mean, Norway is currently one of the best places to live in the entire world.

It wasn’t until the caricature of the Prophet Muhammed was on the front page of one of the major national newspapers of Norway that we had a spark. We united forces from all of Norway and went around in the mosques saying that our leaders, imams and Islamic organization don’t really care and don’t do anything and that it is the youth’s time to speak up and make our voices heard. We made a huge demonstration against it and about 3500 young Muslims met up.

What made you leave?

It was this demonstration. I remember the morning of the demonstration my father was shouting at me. He was doing all he could to stop me, apart from putting me in handcuffs. My mum on the other hand went with me to Oslo. I was giving a speech there and even though she clearly stated she came with me because she was afraid of what could happen and not because she wanted to support me – I still felt that they cared and I hadn’t felt that in a year.

The other speaker at the demonstration was my best friend. I was harsh in my speech, but I was within reasonable limits. I didn’t say anything illegal or really extreme. But when my friend took over the microphone however things changed.  He said, “If Norway don’t pull all their troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq and stop harassing Muslims there will be another 11th of September in Norway”.

I was shocked and the entire crowd was as well. This was going live on all the major news channels in Norway. I knew that at that moment things were going to change and I looked into my mother’s eyes. She was standing in the front row. They only said one thing: “It’s either them, or it’s us.”

So I thought about it and I came to the conclusion that we could work it out at home. So, I chose my family and my parents.

What was the process like while trying to leave?

It was actually very short. I had made up my mind before he was done talking. It felt like I was standing there thinking for an eternity, but in reality it was 10 minutes. Then I went home with my parents and my grandfather and we had a family meeting. My parents realised they had been pushing me away when I needed them the most and I realised how extreme I had become. We all agreed that we have to live together as a family regardless of our different faiths and we did. 

Tell me about your organisation JustUnity?

Our goal is to prevent youth from being radicalized into all extremist and violent groups. 

During the entire process of being radicalized, I was left all alone. So I decided that I wanted to be that one person that cares in order to create viable alternatives for those who were in the same situation as I was.

 It is all about finding their strengths, their dreams and also help them sort out their problems. We usually divide the problems into three categories: “Your responsibility; our responsibility; and our shared responsibility.”

Creating structure is the most important when it comes to sorting out their problems. Then when that process is started it is all about playing to their strengths and dreams. (Helping them) Find a job, create a network, and get sustainable assistance from the public social welfare system.

We have now a co-worker who survived the 22nd of July attacks in Norway and then went to get a Masters in de-radicalization and re-integration and we have another colleague who experienced violent extremism in Iraq.

We try to be as diverse as possible and the organization itself is created by me who is a Sunni Muslim and Faten Mahdi Al-Hussaini which is a Shia Muslim. We want to live up to the name of the organization.

Put simply we become their mentor, their friends , and a shoulder to rest on when things get tough. 

The Point

He grew up in what he describes, as a safe and caring environment, in a Christian family in a small town of 20, 000 in Per Bartho Hansen in Norway. When he was sixteen, Yousef Barth Assidiq decided to convert to Islam.

References

Video courtesy of Counter Extremism Project Image Courtesy of Facebook

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