A leading Yorkshire Academic has warned that more British women and girls will attempt to travel to Syria in 2016 unless more is done to educate them about the life they can expect in a so-called Islamic State.
And on the day that counter-terrorism authorities revealed that 56 females are believed to have fled the UK for Syria in 2015, Dr Afshin Shahi, the director of the Bradford University-based Centre for the Study of Political Islam, has called for more research into the causes of radicalisation in the UK.
Welcoming the release of a short film in which Syrian women speak about the horrors they faced under ISIS, Dr Shahi said he believes more needs to be done to understand why Syria continues to exert such a strong pull.
“I fully endorse this film, it’s a very positive move but I am not sure that this can tackle the issues on its own,” he said.
“It’s a good attempt to shed some light on the horrific realities of the war by people who have been there, but they’re not exposing something that hasn’t been exposed before.
“When you look at the accounts from some of the women who have recently escaped from places like Raqqa, they haven’t fled a beautiful, harmonious environment under Sharia law: instead, a lot of them are abused, violated and treated in an extremely disturbing way.”Dr Afshin Shahi
“I very much doubt that people who want a life under IS don’t know something about what awaits them: they know they are going to a War zone, and a day doesn’t pass without us reading headlines about the humanitarian disaster that is taking place.
“Yet for all that, some people still want to go and I do not think we are fully aware of the reasons why.
“The mainstream media has primarily given attention to ‘pull factors’ such as the desire to become involved in the conflict in the Middle East and the reaction to western and British foreign policy.
“It is important that we also take into account the ‘push factors’: there are some internal dynamics that may contribute to someone making the decision to join an organisation like ISIS, including marginalisation and social disconnectivity.
“It’s very difficult to categorically determine the root of radicalisation. Different people are attracted to IS for very different reasons.
“A lot of people are joining because of their religious convictions but in many cases that’s just one factor.”
Dr Shahi feels ISIS has made significant advances in the propaganda war but hopes the new video will go some way to shattering some of the misconceptions that are persuading British women to seek a new life in the Middle East.
Islamic State has also employed a markedly different recruitment strategy to established terrorist groups, which he cautions should be acknowledged by western Governments.
“Until 2013 international terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda were only interested in recruiting men predominantly aged between 18 and their mid-30s who could fight or who were willing to to sacrifice their lives for the cause,” he said.
“IS started to develop a different model: as well as showing interest in recruiting people who want to fight in an army, they have been able to recruit women and children.
“They are sending a message that they’re here to stay and that they are serious about their intentions to establish a nation state.
“That has a lot of symbolic significance. They use it in their propaganda and imagery, which says ‘Give up the ways of the West and come and opt for life in a puritan Islamic state.’
“However when you look at the accounts from some of the women who have recently escaped from places like Raqqa, they haven’t fled a beautiful, harmonious environment under Sharia law: instead, a lot of them are abused, violated and treated in an extremely disturbing way.
“Many of them simply can’t escape because to do so puts their life, and the lives of their children, at risk.
“We have to convey the hard facts to any UK parent thinking of leaving this country for somewhere like Mosul that they are not going to have access to medical treatment, education for their children or any of the various facilities that we take for granted in this country.
“People make a very big decision like that for very different reasons. It would be naive to think that this is only about radicalisation.”
Dr Shahi fears that the UK and the West is facing an increased threat to its security from the free movement of refugees across the world, both to and from IS strongholds.
He added: “In the last year or so there has been a lot of pressure on Turkey to better police its borders because it was the gateway to a global jihad.
“There has been some success but it has not stopped the movement of people both ways.
“A lot of people who belong to ISIS are exploiting the humanitarian situation in Turkey and using it to create threats, as we saw in France a few months ago.
“We are going to see a continued significant flow of human traffic both ways: people leaving the west for Syria and others coming to Europe, some of whom will have connections to ISIS.
“That creates a lot of security threats which we need to be vigilant about. We should not allow ISIS to hijack the humanitarian crisis.”