Muslim women in the UK are being urged to report family members they believe are planning to join the war in Syria by counter-terrorism officers hoping to reduce the number of men leaving Britain to fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Workers from the Prevent Counter-Terrorism Scheme, the Charity Commission and other groups will meet at Scotland Yard today for the launch of a campaign to encourage others to prevent their loved ones from travelling to Syria. Other events are also being held across the country, and leaflets highlighting the risks of going to the Middle Eastern state will be handed out at ports. The leaflets contain the number of the UK's anti-terrorist hotline, which relatives are asked to ring if they suspect family members plan on travelling to Syria.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball, national coordinator for counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police, 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.” But the aunt of British teenager Abdullah Deghayes, who was killed in Syria after leaving the UK in January, insisted the police-led drive would simply “criminalise” people. Amina Deghayes said while she welcomed any steps taken by the authorities to help prevent men travelling to join the conflict, she had not heard of anything “helpful or useful” in today's announcement. Abdullah, 18, from Brighton, is believed to have been killed in a gunfight in Kassab in Latakia province earlier this month.
“If the steps are to speak to the guys before they leave, I think people already have – they do not need the Government to tell them that,” Ms Deghayes added. She warned that families are already urging their loved ones not to fight in the country, but too often their appeals fall on deaf ears.
“In the case of my nephew, he ran away. At what point would we speak to him? I am not being negative; maybe the actual details of the proposals are more useful than that, but at the moment I haven't heard anything helpful or useful – it would be better than criminalising them, which is the only thing that is going on.” Ms Deghayes said the threat of prison for those considering returning from Syria was also counter-productive.
“Even if one of them was to consider coming back, they will have to think 'Am I going to prison?' Fair enough, that may be a consequence of their actions but we have to think of the implications. They are not middle-class thinkers and always thinking of all the possible consequences.”
The number of people arrested for Syria-related offenses has risen from 25 in the whole of last year to 40 in the first three months of this year, and security chiefs believe 400 men may have left Britain for Syria over the last two years. Ms Ball stressed the initiative was not about criminalising people. “It is about preventing tragedies,” she said. “We want to inform those who wish to genuinely help the Syrian cause how they can do so safely and legally.”
But critics of the campaign have argued it must be community-led because of the lack of trust in the police. Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz said it was unlikely that parents would report suspicions about their children to the police, who “are not the Samaritans, they are the first step in the criminal enforcement process”. “This needs to be addressed at a peer group level, include partnerships with social media and have the full engagement of the communities affected. They hold the key. Young people need to be persuaded that if they go to Syria they may end up dead.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg backed the police initiative and warned that the return of radicalised fighters from Syria was “now one of the biggest security threats we face as a country”. “I don't think we should under-estimate the gravity of this now,” he said during his weekly phone-in on LBC radio. “The security threat to us as a country – on British streets, British towns, British cities, British communities – from people going to Syria and coming back radicalised with violent intentions is now one of the biggest security threats we face as a country.”