Undercover with ISIS: New documentary exposes child grooming strategy
The BBC Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire feature on ISIS recruitment tactics (broadcast on 25th January 2016) simply confirmed what we all knew and suspected about how the group targets teenagers to lure them away to the barbaric war zone of Raqqa, Syria – and it’s predominantly via social media. As undercover reporter ‘Zahra’ exposes, the process is chillingly the same as that of sexual grooming cases. The terror group is constantly on the lookout for vulnerable young people to target. And once Zahra is identified by them, she is approached by a number of IS members, including a jihadi called Mario. Each of them has one single aim: to convince her to leave her home, family and country of safety.
As is often the case with groomers, initial communication from Mario is warm and polite – an approach designed to gain Zahra’s trust. Within half an hour, he proposes marriage. It’s important to remember that particularly for young girls who have had limited social exposure with boys, this can be incredibly flattering, glamorous even. And best of all for a ‘young and keen’ Muslim like ‘Zahra’, not only is all of this framed as ‘halal’ but also as her ‘Islamic duty’ that would ‘bring pleasure to Allah’. Again as with sexual grooming, a key part of the process is to emotionally isolate victims from their loved ones once an initial bond of trust is formed. In IS’ case, this means their families but also wider society. Mario says he is unable to live as a Muslim and practice freely in his home country of Germany. He feeds the narrative that Muslims are under attack by the West; that secular democracy is not compatible with and is therefore inferior to Islam. Zahra’s contact with the jihadi must be kept a secret, as “no one else can understand or be trusted”. Thereafter, the pressure tactics start. Zahra notes how within a day, she is being constantly bombarded with messages that were increasingly aggressive, pushing her to ‘prove her commitment’, or as she puts it, “messing with her head”. In real life cases, it would be at this stage that instructions would be sent relating to travel, contacts, and how to gather funds. If Zahra was an impressionable teenager, it’s very possible that she would have made a journey similar to the one undertaken by the Bethnal Green girls.
What strikes me is that whenever anyone leaves for Syria, be they a child or adult, male or female or even entire families, we hear one thing from loved ones and the community: “We had no idea” or “There were no signs”. This proves also to be the case with Dewsbury teenagers Talha Asmal and Hassan Munshi who also went to join IS in Syria, with Talha becoming the UK’s youngest suicide bomber. People who knew them seem genuinely confused and bewildered. And then follows the finger pointing: The security services should have known; the police should have known; the school should have known; teachers should have known… So whose responsibility is it? The truth is it’s everyone’s: parents, teachers, the police, councils, universities, and the government. As a society we need to work together on this. By not doing so we all suffer the consequences. And one of the key lessons from sexual grooming cases is that there are always signs and red flags when someone is being preyed upon. We just need to know what they are and look out for them. That’s the simple logic behind the statutory Prevent duties. IS is actively targeting our children and our communities. They release over a thousand items of propaganda and videos a month. There are 125,000 known IS accounts on twitter. The very least we can do is increase our vigilance to protect ourselves and our children.
Yet despite this very real danger, there are still those are working hard to undermine efforts to protect our children. As the Telegraph revealed in January, there is an organised campaign by Islamist activists to spread fear and confusion within Muslim communities. They maliciously or misguidedly spin every counter-extremism measure into an attack on Islam itself. They tour the country telling Muslims that the UK is institutionally ‘Islamophobic’, and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a practising Muslim in this country. This is the height of irresponsibility and a clear echo of the Islamist’s narrative, as illustrated by Mario the Jihadi’s video. Whether they realise it or not, they are priming Muslims to absorb his message and increase the vulnerability that IS preys on.
They need to stop and think. The lives of people we know and love are at stake.