The body of the attacker lying on the asphalt surrounded by SWAT team members, in the background the sirens of ambulances and of police cars. Europe is unfortunately getting used to these images. But for a mother, behind the televised footage there is a son that she lost twice. His soul and his mind were first taken way by radicalization, and then by death. We asked Valeria Collina to share her story. She is the mother of Youssef Zaghba, the young man who died in London Bridge attack of June 3 2017 after having killed eight people together with other two terrorists. Valeria, an Italian citizens converted to Islam, wrote the book “Nel nome di chi”. A year has gone by, but she still has a vivid memory of that day. “Those were days of fasting and Ramadan”, she said. “I was planning to meet my son in London. We were constantly in touch through WhatsApp or by phone. He called me on the Thursday before the attack, we had the usual conversation of a mother and a son living far away from each other.” I then realized it was a farewell. From then on, both she and Youssef’s father, who lives in Morocco, could no longer get in touch with him. That’s when the news of an attack at London Bridge broke out. They started to connect Youssef with the two identified attackers. “A friend told me that Youssef knew one of the two terrorists. We tried to contact him but to no avail, and we started to realize that maybe he was on the run, fearing that he would be connected to the incident after having already been stopped in Italy while trying to travel to Syria, and was monitored by Italian intelligence. I thought he was travelling across Europe, I wondered where he was going, what was he eating, if he was cold, if he was alone, if he was afraid… two days of utter anguish. Then my daughter called me saying that she was coming to see me accompanied by DIGOS intelligence officers. I thought they wanted to check my mobile phone, to read our messages. I let them in, we spoke about a few things. Then I put my mobile phone on the table. But the police officer said: “I’m sorry, but we don’t need your phone now, we came to tell you that your son is dead.’
I realized he was the third attacker who had killed and let himself be killed.”
How did you react?
By paradox, all the darkness and anguish of the previous days turned into light. There was nothing I could have done, and there was nothing else for me to do. Now Someone Else could act in my place. SomeOne I had to entrust myself to.
Why did it happen? Why your son?
These situations are unfathomable. I tried to understand him and the process he was going through. I stopped when he became radicalised, when he claimed he possessed the truth and that everyone else lived in error. But I never imagined he would resort to violence… there is nothing about his life, about his temperament that could make me imagine he would have made this leap. That’s what scares me the most. Where does this force come from? Who are these people? What is this ideology that can radically transform a human being? I am tormented by these questions. Not only with regard to my son, but also in more general terms.
What are we dealing with? It appears to be something extremely powerful.
Why are you saying this? Who was Youssef?
He was a very sweet and friendly boy. He was born and raised in Morocco, not a typical second-generation Muslim. He was intelligent, he was good at school. He was attending the second-year university course in Computer Engineering. He never showed any sign of discomfort or intolerance. We had a very close, affectionate relationship. If I were to describe him I would use words like tenderness, meekness, radiant.
So for you the leap from the tenderness of boy to the heinousness of an attacker has no explanation?
I cannot understand it. And I don’t have the tools to understand it. I think that what happens to these youths is a consequence of the belief that they possess the truth and that the world is divided in two parts: those who live in the truth and those who live in error. For them, those living in error are not people making mistakes. For them, they are not human beings. It’s what happened in concentration camps. The murderers dehumanized their victims. How can a human being kill another human being? Only if the other person is stripped of everything, including his humanity.
Anger. Were you angry with those who “ruined” your son?
I managed not to feel anger. Not having nurtured these feelings in my heart is another gift from God. I learned from personal experience that I had to beware of hate. It serves no purpose, it does no good to the person who hates and to the one who is hated.
A difficult question: did you ever ask yourself where you went wrong with Youssef, if there was something you could have said or done that you didn’t say or do?
It’s a painful process, but these questions are normal. Perhaps I tried to keep him away from doubts while doubt rekindles the faith. I wasn’t courageous enough to answer the questions he asked about religion and I always did my best to make him grow up without dubiousness. This led to the absence of critical thinking, which was natural to me, as it was inherently connected to the completely different cultural and social environment in which I grew up. Youssef lived in an Islamic milieu, in an Islamic country. His religious readings were literal renderings: a literal, radical understanding is what carried him away.
In the light of this experience, what is your message to Muslim mothers?
It’s an invitation to knowledge, to learning, to study one’s religion. Without fears. There are in-depth studies on the use that these criminals make of Islam, rejected by the great majority of Muslims. There is no violence nor anything morbid in Islam. But this is an ideology that leaves victims on both sides, for also Youssef was one of its victims.
And what would you say to a young man listening to radicalised speeches on the Internet?
I would say what I used to tell my son, although I did not realize it was already too late. First of all to let faith grow inside his heart, to feel the love of faith before thinking about external religious practice. It’s the problem of a certain form of Islam: to focus on the length of the beard instead of thinking about the love in one’s heart.