A student at Vienna's Higher Commercial Vocational School left the Austrian capital in April to join the Islamic State in Syria. That incident and others since have prompted the Vienna School Board to launch a training program for teachers to help them spot the warning signs of radicalization before its too late.
Credit: Christopher Livesay

VIENNA — At the start of the school day, hundreds of students file into Vienna’s Higher Commercial Vocational School. Most wear sneakers and hoodies. Some wear headscarves, which isn’t at all unusual for a student body with a large Muslim minority.

But it was unusual when Samra Kesinovic, a trendy kid who liked to wear makeup, dyed her hair blonde and danced to pop music at lunch, wrote “I love al Qaeda” on the bathroom wall one day in January.

“She was brainwashed,” says the school's principal, Peter Slanar. Like other middle and high schools here in the capital, Higher Commercial has become one of the front lines in Vienna's battle against terrorism after several Austrian and other European teens joined up with the Islamic State (IS).

Samra was one of them.

After the graffiti incident, Slanar had a talk with Samra. She told him she wasn’t afraid to die.

“I was shocked when she said, ‘what will happen with me in the future doesn’t matter.’ I was shocked. I cannot accept this when a 15- or 16-year-old is saying this,” he says.

Principal Peter Slana points to a newspaper article featuring student-turned-jihadi Samra Kesinovic. Christopher Livesay/GlobalPost

Samra, the daughter of Bosnian refugees who fled war in the 1990s, dropped out of school immediately after their meeting in January. In April, she and a friend headed to Syria, where they became poster girls for IS, appearing in jihadist propaganda distributed via social media. Conflicting, unconfirmed media reports have stated the girls are pregnant and living with militants in Syria — or that one of them may be dead.

In Samra’s case, there were signs that something was wrong. But that’s rare.

So this month the school board began training middle school and high school teachers how to spot religious extremism before it gets out of hand.

“They didn’t know how to cope with that,” says Heinz Ivkovitz, a professor of religion tasked by the Vienna school board to organize the training.

“Is it just, you know, showing off? Imitating someone they saw on YouTube? Or is it really the beginning of radicalization?”

Now there’s a procedure for trying to figure all that out. First, teachers look for signs of radicalization, such as glorifying the Islamic caliphate, an us-versus-them mentality, or embracing IS propaganda. Then they talk with parents and get a school psychologist involved. Eventually, police can be brought in.

But here’s where things get tricky.

If schools are too quick to contact authorities, students on the fringe might flee into the arms of a terrorist group, says Moussa Al-Hassan Diaw, an expert on jihadism.

“You take people like a girl who starts to wear the headscarf, or another starts to pray. And you say ‘well, this could be a sign of radicalization.’ That’s really a problem, because if you want to de-radicalize, you can’t pick people out from the classroom and bring them to the police because this would radicalize them,” he says.

So before they call police, schools are instructed to call on mediators from the Muslim community.

On a Sunday afternoon, Diaw is training 15 Muslim kids on how to intervene when classmates set off alarm bells.

He compares images of IS beheading James Foley to executions by the Nazis, as students weigh in and take notes.

It’s an uphill battle when you’re up against slick recruitment videos online.

Abu Hamza Al Austria is among 140 Austrians believed to have joined IS. In a YouTube clip, complete with flashy audio effects and Islamic music, he describes not only the glory of fighting for IS, but the “luxury” as well. Swimming pools and grand villas await all newcomers, he vows.

“They’re using a combination of tricks and treats...It looks very similar to the way online predators recruit children,” says Mia Bloom, a criminology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. “This is a kind of child abuse. And I’m hoping we treat them as victims and not as suspects.”

In Vienna, principal Slanar is still shaken by how IS ensnared his student Samra. He’s attended the training sessions, but he’s not convinced they’re a sure-fire way to prevent radicalism. After all, he says, Samra was your typical teenager.

“I mean, Samra was integrated,” he says in dismay. “She had good marks. We don’t know why she left Austria to go to Syria. I don’t know.”

This story is published in partnership with Public Radio International's "The World."

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