Counter-terror officials in Yorkshire say they “completely reject” claims they are “complicit” in the radicalisation of three Bradford sisters who are feared to have travelled to Syria with their nine young children.
Lawyers representing the husbands of the Dawood sisters have said in a letter to the Home Secretary that police “have been actively promoting and encouraging contact” with their brother-in-law, who is thought to have been in the war-torn country for several months.
The letter has now been published on the website of Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz. It claims the “actions and misjudgement” of the North East Counter Terrorism Unit (NECTU) has placed the three sisters and their young children, aged between three and 15, at risk.
It says: “Plainly, by the NECTU allowing this contact they have been complicit in the grooming and radicalising of the women. If this contact between them had been prevented, our clients would not now be facing such circumstances. Clearly these facts are disturbing to say the least.”
In response, Russ Foster, assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire Police, speaking on behalf of NECTU, said: “We have not seen the letter so cannot comment in detail on its contents. However, we completely reject accusations that the police were complicit in the alleged grooming of the missing family or that we were oppressive to them.
“While we do not comment on all aspects of police work for valid operational and safeguarding reasons, this is an ongoing investigation and we are continuing to do everything we can to find the missing family and to ensure the safety of the children.
“Their relatives have been kept informed throughout this investigation and we are pleased they expressed their satisfaction with the support they have received so far. This will continue.”
The news that Khadija, Sugra and Zohra Dawood and their nine children had disappeared emerged last week. The family had gone out to Saudi Arabi for an Islamic pilgrimage but did not return and were found to have travelled from Medina to Istanbul in Turkey.
As police and counter-terror officials scrambled to locate the missing 12 it emerged that the brother of the three sisters had travelled to Syria months earlier.
In a press conference later in the week, Akhtar Iqbal and Mohammed Shoaib, the husbands of two of the missing sisters, were overcome with emotion as they appealed to their missing relatives.
In a direct appeal Mr Iqbal said: “Please, please call me. It’s been eight, nine days, you are out and we don’t know where you are. I miss you, I love you. All of you, I love you a lot. I can’t live without you.”
Police would not reveal whether the family had been under surveillance, but did confirm they had tried and failed to leave the country earlier in the year after a security check meant they missed their flight to Saudi Arabia.
The letter, sent by Khan Solicitors in Bradford, says the husbands of three sisters are “extremely disappointed with the manner in which matter is being investigated by West Yorkshire Police and have expressed grave concerns in the conduct of the police leading to these events”.
It adds: “Indeed, we are alarmed by the fact that the police have been actively promoting and encouraging contact with the brother-in-law of our clients, whom, it is believed, is fighting in Syria. It would appear that there has been a reckless disregard as to the consequences of any such contact on the families of those whom we represent.
“Plainly, by the NECTU allowing this contact they have been complicit in the grooming and radicalising of the women. If this contact between them had been prevented, our clients would not now be facing such circumstances. Clearly these facts are disturbing to say the least.
“Our clients have made repeated attempts to gain information from the police as to the progress of this investigation. Each request has been met by a wholesale lack of information. Instead, the police have been anxious to ensure that there is no criticism of them and their tactics in allowing, encouraging and promoting contact with someone believed to be in Syria.
“This far, our clients have not publicly criticised the police nor have they disclosed the fact that the police were actually promoting and encouraging contact with someone believed to be in Syria.
“We agree with the comments of the Home Secretary on June 18th that ‘a real partnership is needed’ to defeat the ‘poisonous’ and ‘twisted’ ideology of IS.
“However, this case poses some serious questions. Clearly the NECTU needs to explain why contact between the family ‘was’ and ‘is’ being promoted by the NECTU. The actions and misjudgement of the NECTU has placed the lives of 12 British citizens at risk, nine of which are innocent children, the youngest being three years of age.
“Due to the families’ concerns, a lack of information from the police and a refusal by the police to release a joint statement, the fathers decided to hold a press conference to raise awareness, to make a direct appeal to their loved ones to return home, they felt that time was against them and not enough had been done by the police.
“The press conference was not used to criticise the police because there was a more pressing issue at hand.
“As a result of the press conference, contact was initiated by one of the sisters, namely Zohra Dawood, in a voice message to her family on Wednesday June 17. In that message, as referenced before, she asserted that she was already in Syria and that the family had all travelled there together due to the oppressive nature of the continued surveillance by police.
“A statement was released by the Assistant Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, Russ Foster, detailing this contact by Zohra Dawood without any prior consultation with our clients. We then decided that we would like to speak to the Chief Constable and requested an urgent meeting.
“DI Greenwood contacted our firm stating that we cannot meet the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police or even the assistant chief constable. We were also advised that we cannot meet the Senior Investigating Officer. We raised our concerns over the lack of communication. The DI stated that the officers will not contact us directly despite my clients providing me with authorisation.
“We made it clear to the officer that we are unhappy with the way this matter has been conducted and letters will be sent out to the Home Secretary, Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee and Foreign Secretary.
“We write to you now as time is off the essence and a meaningful dialogue between those who are investigating this matter and ourselves is essential. To this end, we invite and would welcome your intervention.
“We would like you to facilitate a meeting with a Senior Officer and would like to be updated as to the progress of the investigation. We would welcome a full investigation in relation to the above matters raised.”