The shocking news of three mid-teen girls from east London missing on 17th February and boarding a Turkish Airline flight from Gatwick to Istanbul, most probably on their way to join ISIS in Syria, has decimated their parents and stunned local communities. Safeguarding and well-being of children is of highest priority for any civilised society.
Police have appealed for information and the girls' families besought with their children to come back home. The East London Mosque in Whitechapel made a powerful and emotional appeal to its worshippers during the Friday congregation on 20th February for any information and assistance that could help police in their effort to bring the girls back.
It is now known that one of the girls, Shamima Begum, made online contact with a Scottish woman, Aqsa Mahmood, who left Britain to marry an ISIS fighter in 2013. British counter-terrorism officers have come under pressure to explain how they failed to take basic steps to prevent young women from joining the ISIS. Aamer Anwar, lawyer for Mahmood's family, recently said "they were incredulous that the contact could go unnoticed by Scotland Yard and other counter-terror agencies."
Questions are also being raised about basic common-sense child safeguarding procedures, such as the effectiveness of Special Branch at the airport and the UK border agencies who failed to notice the fact that three young girls on their own were going on a flight to Turkey, the widely-known staging post to Syria, and they were not stopped. Some are strongly suggesting that the airlines should also be more vigilant in transporting children of this nature.
The three girls from one of east London's most successful schools, Bethnal Green Academy, were interviewed by police in last December after one 15-year-old girl from the same school boarded a flight to Turkey in a bid to join ISIS militants. But the police found nothing to suggest at the time that these girls themselves were at risk. Commander Richard Walton of Scotland Yard's counter terrorism unit described the girls as "straight A students" and "normal girls."
This is a scary time for Muslim parents of teen-age children that are smart and adventurous. Hiding intentions from the family and then suddenly disappearing would be particularly nerve-racking for any parent.
Young people, especially in their secondary years (11-16), are idealistic; but they are also impressionable and vulnerable. In the absence of proper knowledge of religion, and with little experience of life's reality, many may see the world plainly simple.
Adolescence can be confusing and young people may suffer from identity issues in a complex pluralist society. Positive parental engagement with a loving home environment, an assertive and caring school environment with robust discipline and behaviour policy, engaging religious centres, safer community surroundings and inspirational role models are what children need during their formative period. They are the positive ingredients in the absence of which some children may fall prey to wrong people or wrong ideals.
ISIS appears to have built a powerful propaganda machine with slick online messages that have presented their evil acts with a romanticised vision of a global Caliphate. This is proving too alluring to some young boys and girls living in developed countries like Britain; a few may slip through the net and fall prey to manipulation by criminals or underhand recruiters of terrorist groups.
How can we prevent our young people from taking this nihilistic path of ending up with the ISIS or other criminal and terror group?
The legalistic and securitised dimension is to prevent them from extremism, violence and terrorism; while this is needed for some young people, but by nature this has a limited scope. What we seriously need is a human dimension in tackling the adolescence issues that can lead to crisis for some. While it is vital we shield our young people from paedophiles and other criminals as well as allurement of online propaganda from ISIS and other terrorist groups, it is absolutely important we impart knowledge and context to young people about our adult world as well as alert them on the dangers and evil nature of terror groups.
It is a dreadful reality that 'more than 500 British Muslims might have gone to Syria', so we must work together to make sure no more young life is put at risk. Unfortunately, there exists a huge gap between our government and mainstream Muslims on how best to tackle extremism and violence in our midst; the disagreement on the root and nature of non-violent extremism is wide. The Counter Terrorism and Security Bill that became law on 12th February has put a new strain on this relationship.
What we in fact need is grass-root capacity building programmes for our parents and communities to improve engagement and connection with our young people. This can only work better when community groups, religious institutions, various government and non-government agencies bring their heads together.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, community activist and freelance parenting consultant. He is former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.