Thu, Apr 14, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Parents face limited options to keep children from terrorism

The US government’s response to young people drawn toward radical Islamic terrorism has led to criminal proceedings and a distrust of the authorities among parents

By Matt Apuzzo  /  NY Times News Service, FREMONT, California

Illustration: Mountain People

The banging on the door jolted Sal Shafi awake. FBI agents were looking for his son.

“Where’s Adam?” they yelled. “Where’s Adam?”

Terrified, 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 alleged 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 telephone and led the government right to his son. For months, over the objections of his lawyer, Sal Shafi had been talking to the FBI, believing he was doing the right thing.

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

Had things been different, Sal Shafi, 62, a Silicon Valley executive, might have become a much-needed spokesman for the administration of US President Barack Obama’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 FBI when they first suspect a problem.

“Alert law enforcement,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in December last year. “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 US Department of Justice praised Sal Shafi’s efforts to save Adam, 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. Sal 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 US National Counterterrorism Center official who once helped implement the Obama administration’s strategy for countering violent extremism.

The department’s campaign against US 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.

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


The Shafis were vacationing in Cairo in the summer of 2014, visiting extended family, when they awoke on a Saturday to find Adam Shafi gone. He sent a text message to a younger brother, saying he had left “to protect Muslims.”

Sal Shafi has never been deeply religious — “don’t do bad things,” is how he describes his faith — but his son had embraced religion. Outwardly at least, that meant charity. He made sandwiches and delivered them to homeless people in San Francisco. He talked about opening a free health clinic. Perhaps, Sal Shafi thought, Adam, who was 21 at the time, was at a mosque working on a social cause.

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