24 Apr 2014

British jihadists: women urged to stop Brits going to Syria

Home Affairs Correspondent

Counter-terror police launch an unprecedented campaign to persuade British Muslim women to inform on family members planning to travel to Syria to fight.

A series of co-ordinated events will be held by police forces across the country on Thursday. As well as counter-terror officers, the workshops will be addressed by women’s groups and charity workers.

‘Rebel fighters’

The aim is to try to enlist women in the community to play a greater role in preventing young men from joining rebel fighters. It’s thought up to 400 British men have joined the opposition groups.

The security services say they fear some of those returning could pose a threat to the UK’s safety if they return.

Detective Chief Superintendent Sue Southern, head of the CTU in the West Midlands, said: “We are increasingly concerned about the numbers of young people who have or are intending to travel to Syria to join the conflict. We want to ensure that people, particularly women, who are concerned about their loved ones are given enough information about what they can do to prevent this from happening.”

“We want to increase their confidence in the police and partners to encourage them to come forward so that we can intervene and help. We want to inform those who wish to genuinely help the Syrian cause how they can do so safely and legally.”

A new leaflet has been issued, warning people not to travel. It advises that many of the groups in Syria have links to Al-Qaeda. The leaflet also gives the number of the anti-terrorist hotline, urging relatives to ring it if they suspect family members of traveling there.

‘British jihadists’

Sara Khan, director of the Islamic women’s group Inspire, told Channel 4 News: “Women are in a unique position to be able to influence sons and family members, but they need to be equipped with the necessary knowledge including theological counter-narratives to counter the arguments extremists use in order to lure vulnerable individuals to their cause.

“Increasing numbers of young men and even women are travelling to Syria for initially what are humanitarian reasons but whilst there, can be sucked into joining extremist groups believing that they are fighting for a just cause.”

It’s thought that as many as 20 British fighters have been killed in the conflict, the youngest aged just 18. They travel to Syria from cities across the UK, which is why a national campaign is being launched.

Channel 4 News recently interviewed the family of Iftikhar Jaman from Portsmouth, who died fighting for the group ISIS.

The appeal will also urge people who want to help the humanitarian crisis in Syria not to travel there, but to instead donate to legitimate charities working in the region.

Will the campaign work?

Critics of the initiative say there is no evidence that women are always aware of what young men in their family are doing. There is also a real fear that if they do have suspicions and report them to the authorities, their relatives will be arrested and face imprisonment.

I have interviewed the families of two young men who are now facing terrorism charges. One mother told me she had contacted the police after realising that her son was planning to travel to Syria. "I just wanted help in bringing him back, but instead he was arrested."

The challenge for the authorities is to try to win their confidence and persuade them to come forward.

Millions of pounds have been raised in the UK, many of it sent in convoys. However, there is a concern that some convoys are being used as a way of transporting fighters and resources into Syria.

Police say so far this year the number of “Syria-related arrests” has increased substantially, to 40 between January and March, compared with 25 people in the whole of 2013.

However, the response by the authorities has been criticised by some within the community. Jahan Mahmood is a former adviser to the home office who now works with community groups in Birmingham.

“Reaching out to Muslim communities has always been difficulties has always been difficult for the authorities, I’m and don’t think this campaign is the right one,” he told me.

“Once again, the government is failing to understand why young men would risk their lives to go and fight abroad. They need to find ways of channelling the sense of injustice these young men feel. Criminalizing them and asking family members to inform on them will not work.”

Read more: 'Our brother died a martyr fighting in Syria'