Three vulnerable and highly impressionable teenage girls, groomed online by ISIS predators, were allowed to leave the UK, fly to Istanbul and be monitored on CCTV in Turkey for a further 36 hours before crossing the border into Syria – again unchallenged – to meet up with, effectively, their captors. The combined UK and Turkish authorities – police, counter-terrorism units, an array of intelligence agencies, etc – demonstrated catastrophic incompetence in their failure to intervene and help these girls. Much of the blame for this failure must be laid at the door of the British Government, which, over many months, practised a confused and confusing policy in regard to young Britons who were victims of ISIS propaganda.
The three teenage girls – Shamima Begum (age 15), Amira Abase (age 15) and Kadiza Sultana age 16) – arrived at Heathrow Airport, London, where they were allowed to board a plane destined for Turkey. The three girls, although clearly under age, were not questioned about why they were travelling without their parents, nor whether they had consent from their parents to travel. The UK border staff failed the three. The Turkish Airlines staff failed the three.
The three teenage girls arrived at Istanbul. Again, at the airport the Turkish immigration staff failed to question the three girls about why they were travelling without their parents or whether they had their parents’ consent to travel; nor did they question the three about their intentions in Turkey. The three were allowed to enter the country and leave the airport.
The three teenage girls then travelled to Bayrampasa bus station, where they waited for the next bus that would take them to the Turkish-Syrian border town of Sanliurfa. They were captured on CCTV. The three remained in the waiting area for 17 hours. It was during this time that the UK authorities finally – and belatedly – acted and issued an alert.
The three teenage girls, despite the alert that had been issued, were allowed to board the bus heading for Sanliurfa. The journey was 16 hours long. During those 16 hours there was no attempt to stop the bus.
The three teenage girls arrived at Sanliurfa, then disappeared and are now presumed to be with their ISIS captors. Initially they will be welcomed – another propaganda coup for ISIS – though in time the three will come to realise that their lives under ISIS rule will never be the same again. In effect, they will become ISIS concubines, or at worst, killers. The three are unlikely to see their families again.
The Turkish authorities claim that their British counterparts passed on information about the three girls after it was too late to prevent them crossing the border into Syria.
Duty of care
The backdrop to this catastrophic failure in safeguarding these three, very vulnerable teenage girls is UK Government’s policy. Initially the British Government made it clear that anyone who travels to Syria, whatever the reason – to assist ISIS, or to fight against ISIS, or to provide humanitarian aid via non-official channels to the victims of the conflict – will be regarded as terrorists or potential terrorists and if they attempted to return to the UK then they would be arrested, charged and imprisoned. This, in fact, has happened and several people – all young men – are now in British prisons, serving a range of sentences.
But in time, after much public debate, the Government began to realise that its ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy is an error and so, in parallel with its hardline stance, it set up a number of schemes that purportedly would help stop people travelling to the war zone in the first place. These schemes, such as the Prevent programme, while well-intentioned, only deal with part of the problem and are largely about pitting one kind of propaganda against another.
Young, impressionable Muslim teenagers are no different from young, impressionable non-Muslim teenagers: they are at an age when they question authority, their parents, the prevailing norms of society. This is normal – even desirable. They feel disengaged from society, alienated and trapped. They may also be seeking adventure, or are angry at the interventions of the US and UK in Muslim countries. Add into that mix the temptations offered online and the cultural challenges that many Muslims face in Britain and it is not surprising that some Muslim teenagers will end up falling victim to the enticements of ISIS.
The threat of gaol, as tweeted as a warning to the three girls by the rights group Cage, did not help the plight of the three girls. Instead, what was needed was the intervention of a neutral authority to provide sanctuary.
Now, too late, the UK Government is beginning to realise that it has to adopt a very different strategy when dealing with young Britons heading for Syria. This strategy should be no different to that used to help vulnerable teenagers who are being groomed in Britain so that they will be sexually abused. The problem here, of course, is that for decades the authorities across the country – in Rotherham, Derby and Rochdale – and now in Oxford – have not only failed vulnerable teenagers, but have turned a blind eye to what was happening or even colluded in the crimes. If UK authorities continue to similarly fail to protect impressionable teenagers from joining ISIS, then those authorities will also be guilty of collusion in their crimes.
It has been revealed that 18 young girls have left the UK for Syria, presumed to have joined ISIS, and of these 5 are under-age.
There is a clear duty of care here. But in blaming the victim the Government has clearly abdicated its responsibility to these victims. Ultimately, that responsibility lies with all of us.