The UK’s Missing Girls: Preventing Online Radicalisation

by Sajda Mughal

It is becoming increasingly evident that, in the words of the former Conservative party chair, Lady Warsi, Britain is“fighting an ever-losing battle” to prevent extremists from radicalising people online.

While police are trying urgently to locate missing Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, who have believed to have crossed the border into Syria in Al Raqqa, ISIS continue to have success using the internet and social media platforms for their own propaganda and recruitment.

It emerged that a Twitter account linked to Begum shows that she contacted Aqsa Mahmood, a prominent online advocate and recruiter of ISIS, just two days before leaving her East London home and travelling to Turkey with her two school friends.  Despite the Twitter account being monitored, the tweet, “follow me so i can dm you back,” went unnoticed by counter-terror agencies.

Tweet from Umm Ubaydah, a British woman who is said to have joined ISIS and was very active on Twitter until her account was suspended
Tweet from Umm Ubaydah, a British woman who is said to have joined ISIS and was very active on Twitter until her account was suspended

In this case, and countless others, we are witnessing the escalation of unresolved grievances.  The sister of Begum stated that she had been speaking repeatedly about events in Syria; undoubtedly there was a grievance there.  This grievance is easily exploited by online recruiters who are targeting young, vulnerable people to join terror networks.  We are now seeing a growing number of young people in the UK who are going over to Syria, we know through our work liaising with Muslim youth, that they are also battling an identity crisis formed out of what they say is ‘victimisation by media and society’ i.e. far right – we hear them ask the question ‘are we British or are we Muslim?’ not actually realising that they can go hand-in-hand very well.

This conflict makes them vulnerable. They are brainwashed, namely via the internet, with ISIS’ concept of a utopian state where they can be recognised and part of a community with the same beliefs. These naïve young girls do not understand what they are getting themselves into.

Renu Begum, sister of Shamima said that Shamima and her friends were “young” and “vulnerable” and if anyone had tried to persuade them to go to Syria it was a “cruel and evil” thing to do.

We know from our work that the internet is a huge facilitating force in radicalising people both for Islamic extremism but also for far right extremism.

In our report, Internet Extremism: Working Towards a Community Solution, published in 2013 we explored the issue of online radicalisation and how the internet has a plethora of extremist material. The report highlighted a consultation we had run with 350 Muslim mothers across London, and 90 % of them lacked basic IT skills, to get online. 92 % of them did not know what radicalisation was.

We regularly have Muslim mothers contacting us saying they need help, they’re concerned at things they’ve heard their child listen to on the internet and are worried about what their children may be accessing but are unaware what the material is about. It’s shocking to discover how little mothers know about internet extremism and how unaware they are of the dangers. It is essential that these mothers are educated so that they can tackle and prevent the online radicalisation of their children.

Our programme Web Guardians© which was set up in 2011 from community need  and is unique in that it works practically with Muslim mothers across the UK to equip them with the vital skills to go online. These mothers are empowered to use the computer and internet with confidence, gaining a lifelong skill. We expose these mothers to the issue of online radicalisation highlighting how easy it is to find extremist material online in just a few clicks of a mouse, and we provide them with the counter narratives to channel their children’s grievances in a positive way. These mothers are able to safeguard their children online from accessing extremist material online.  It is similar to teaching mothers how to protect their children from pornography, sexual grooming and other forms of distressing material.  However the programme is not just about computers, it is also about promoting open and honest dialogue between mothers and their children within the home.

Unlike other organisations, we do not parachute into an area for only a couple of hours and expect miracles. We provide a structured and intense programme supporting women through their journey of education, empowerment and safeguarding of their children. This correlates with our ethos and founding principles dating back to 1989.

Our vital work shows that the solution is for families, particularly mothers, to take ownership of this growing issue of online radicalisation. I’ve had mothers come to JAN Trust and say ‘I’ve stopped my child travelling to Syria’ or ‘I’ve diffused any tension they were feeling about the Israel/Palestine conflict’ or ‘we now not only have a mother and son relationship but have a friendship.’

We run our Web Guardian© programme across the UK and what becomes apparent to us is the lack of knowledge these mothers have on radicalisation and what is happening across the world. What is concerning is that in our last session only four per cent of Muslim mothers in a packed hall knew who ISIS were. The majority of them were so disconnected with what could be frustrating their kids, hence being at risk of radicalisation.

We have to be honest and admit that there is that disconnect in most Muslim households in the UK. The issue is that these mothers don’t have the right skills or knowledge to deal with the grievances their child may have which includes Syria and Assad’s brutal regime as well previous wars and hence some are losing their children to ISIS and the warzone in Syria. No mother wants this for their child and I’m saying this having listened to the concerns of many Muslim mothers and to those who have also lost their children to ISIS. We want to safeguard and protect our children and, ultimately, society. As one of the mothers in our video says:

The Web Guardians course teach (sic) me how to save my children.

We don’t want to have another 7/7, which I say from experience as a survivor, and a Muslim myself.

 This article was first published on 14 May 2015 in openDemocracy 50.50. Cross-posted here with permission.

Leave a Reply