The boy who lived for football and died for hate
MOLENBEEK, Belgium -- Not long ago, I met a grieving mother so she could tell me about her dead terrorist son. This can be a strange job sometimes, and few moments have been stranger than sitting on a quiet Sunday morning, a little rain falling outside, talking to Geraldine Henneghien. The neighborhood around us, known in Europe as the breeding ground for radical Islam, looked quiet and even quaint.
Abou Omar Brams had curly hair. He hung a poster of New York City on his wall, dreaming of going there one day. He loved football, both playing and watching, and his email address had French star Thierry Henry's name in it. Four years ago, as silly as it seems now, she remembers being angry and worried during the European Championship, because all he did was watch games, all day for a month, when he should have been studying for his exams. She banned him from the television and then caught him upstairs in his room, following the games online.
The thing he loved most was FC Barcelona.
The family went on vacation about five years ago to the French town of Perpignan, in the Pyrenees near the Spanish border, and Brams talked her into driving him two hours to visit Camp Nou, Barcelona's stadium. They took the tour, walked through the museum and then went a little crazy in the gift shop. She bought him a bedspread, a scarf and a jersey. "The real shirt in the stadium," she says. "It was very expensive but I said, 'OK, I will buy it.'"
The bedspread is still on the bed in his room and the jersey is in his closet. She hasn't touched a thing. Even now, with him dead more than a year, she still stops and checks a score when she sees Barcelona is playing.
"When they win, I say, 'Oh, he will be happy,'" she says.
That's as close as she can get to a prayer over his grave; she never saw his body or even a photo of it. He died in Syria, where he went to join Al Qaeda, and likely ISIS, after being radicalized by an imam in their town. Brams had been friends with the man's son, who told him it was his duty to fight for other Muslims. As parents in some American neighborhoods worry about gang leaders, parents in Molenbeek worry about radical imams. The Belgian government, as of January, says 470 of its citizens have tried to join the war in Syria.
In the background picture on Brams' Twitter account -- the last tweet came two days before he died -- he's smiling on what looks a beach with three other boys. They look like kids, grinning in mismatched camo gear, but they're not. Two people to the right is Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the Paris attacks, which included gunning down trapped civilians in a concert hall. These aren't wayward teenagers who stole a car; they are cowards and killers, and they grew up in the same European countries they wanted to destroy.
One of them grew up under Geraldine's roof.
Four years ago, he was a normal teenager, and she's trying to figure out how that boy who followed every second of the Euros became a monster. (A monster to other people; she still sees him as a good boy led astray.) But figuring out how all this happened, and reliving every missed opportunity to stop it, will be her struggle for the rest of her life.
It started the summer he turned 18, in 2013. He wanted to find a summer job, so he could make some money, but when he'd apply, he'd get asked about his Moroccan name. (His mother was born in Belgium, and his father, a Belgian citizen for 20 years, was born in Morocco.) That's where it began, with something as small as looking for a way to make some extra cash. In all the interviews, he got asked about his background and nobody ever called him back. By the end of the summer, already angsty like nearly every 18-year-old, he talked to his mother.
"I have no place," he said to her. "When I am in Belgium, they say I am Moroccan. When I am in Morocco, they say I am Belgian. Where is my place?"
By September, his parents noticed he started to pray more, which pleased them at first. What parents don't want their child exploring their faith? They didn't know to look for signs that radical recruiters were influencing their son. Later, she'd see the literature used to lure teenage boys to ISIS: talking about helping create a new country, where they belonged and were important. Brams started waking up early for the predawn prayer and still they didn't sense anything amiss, until November when he began talking about wanting to go help the Syrian people. "For a young boy who is thinking, 'I have no future,'" she says, "it's very easy to go there. We tried to talk to him a lot of times. We spent a lot of time forbidding him."
Brams and his father started arguing about the Quran, and on Jan. 12, 2014, his dad pushed back on his son's interpretation of the book. Geraldine says: "His father was saying, 'You may not explain my religion. I'm Muslim, but I'm old so I have experience. You have no experience.'"
That's the last time they saw their son.
He told them he was going to Syria with or without their blessing. They went to the police and told them the whole story, hoping to have his passport blocked. She says the local cops told her they'd take care of it but they didn't. Two weeks later, Brams got on a plane and left for Syria. (The police, however, are now investigating her for aiding terrorists, because she gave money to a woman who married her son in Syria.)
She wishes now she'd have known the police couldn't help.
"I would have gone to the airport to block him myself," she says.
They communicated while he was gone, over the internet and through phone calls. Once he asked her to buy him a ticket out of Syria, and she told him she'd pay anything it took. He said he'd call back with details in two hours, and she now suspects that ISIS leaders were listening to all of the calls, because when she and her son got back on the phone he said, "I will stay here with the brothers."
His tone with her always depended on whether he was alone.
"I received two different kinds of conversation with my son," she says. "One was a son with his mother. Very kind. 'How are you?' The other was, 'You must come here. You may not go out in Belgium with men. You must come here to live in a Muslim state.'"
ISIS started calling itself that in June of 2014, although it had existed under different names since 1999 and broke away from Al Qaeda in February 2014, at the same moment Brams was arriving in Syria. Geraldine never found out for sure if her son joined the group, although the photos in his Twitter feed indicate that he almost certainly did.
"Are you in ISIS?" she asked him once.
"You must not know," he replied. "I am here and I am working."
The day before he died, they talked. He told her he wouldn't call for a week.
"I must go to work," he said.
Two days later, she received a text message from a number she didn't recognize.
"You must be proud of your son," the man wrote. "He was a good guy. He was loved by everybody. He was a lion."
That's how she found out, and even though she knew the answer, she asked the question anyway.
"Your son is dead," the man replied, explaining Brams had been killed while defending an airport in Syria, shot in the face.
"Where is he buried?" she asked.
"Just near the airport," the man replied.
That was a year and a half ago. She honors him with an association she helps run, joining together other parents whose children have gone to Syria. They work with psychologists to help the moms and dads use the right language in urging their children to return, so the kids don't push them away. Through the association, she now goes to schools and tries to get to the young men before the recruiters do it first. One day, she wants to go to Syria and see where her son died, then she wants to find his body and bring it home.
For now, she's left with her work and many regrets.
"If I knew, I would speak with him more," she says, "and I would help him to understand it's possible to live here."
She breaks down for the first time and starts to cry.
"I would speak with him more and more," she says.
After the interview, I had a train to catch. Geraldine insisted on taking me, so she drove across town, an especially nice gesture since she was going straight from the interview to tutor a young person in math. I meant to write this story on that train, two weeks ago, but I didn't. Before diving into the notes and recorded interview, I checked my phone for the first time that day, reading the overnight news from home.
That's when I learned about Orlando.
I didn't write the story then because I didn't want to say in public what I felt viscerally in that moment: A part of me was glad Geraldine's son was dead. He'd died before he could come back to Europe, like his friend on his Twitter page, to kill someone for wanting to listen to a band, or eat Cambodian food, or just sit in a wicker chair and drink a glass of wine with friends. His death, and her pain, seemed a small price to pay. That thought troubled me these past couple of weeks, surrounded by a French security apparatus, with wide avenues sealed off and armed soldiers patrolling leafy neighborhoods, millions of dollars and thousands of people looking for one person in a crowd. It's not scary here, but there is a bit of the garrison mentality that will be the new normal in Paris, and maybe around the world. I'm not glad Geraldine suffered, although the world is probably better off without her son. He knew the planner of the attacks in Paris. Did he also know the people who killed 36 on Tuesday in Istanbul? I've been in that airport four times in the past six weeks. I got lucky I guess. There's nothing to do really but wait for the next news alert about another shooting or bombing somewhere in the world, and try to manage the gnawing fear that something beyond our control has been unleashed.
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.