ISIL child brides: a big care problem for the Family Court?

isis-islamic-state-528116London Borough Tower of Hamlets v B [2015] EWHC 2491 (Fam) 21 August 2015 – read judgment 

When a judge waxes lyrical about a child, garlanded with starred GCSEs, their intelligence, their medical school ambitions, you wonder what is coming. It’s the judicial equivalent of those blurred reproductions in the press of murder victims’  graduate portraits. In this case, a sixteen year old girl “B”, the subject of a careful but nevertheless alarming judgment in the Family Division, turned out to be one of the many girls groomed by their family for exodus to Syria; all of whom appear to be:

intelligent young girls, highly motivated academically, each of whom has, to some and greatly varying degrees, been either radicalised or exposed to extreme ideology promulgated by those subscribing to the values of the self-styled Islamic State.

B herself seemed unoppressed by the situation she was in and indeed wrote to the judge in those terms. She and her family refused to give evidence and sat impassively whilst Heydon J gave judgment.

They have betrayed no emotion; they have been impassive and inscrutable as I have faced the challenge of deciding whether their family should be fragmented and their children removed. Their self discipline is striking. They have listened carefully. The mother has taken careful notes. They have revealed nothing in their responses.

These cases differ from the common run of family abuse cases in that these young women, in the judge’s words, have “boundless opportunities, comfortable homes and carers who undoubtedly love them”. But they have been seduced by a belief that travelling to Syria to become what is known as ‘Jihadi brides’ is somehow romantic and honourable both to them and to their families.

There is no doubt, to my mind, that young women here have been specifically targeted, in addition to young men of course, but for different purposes. The reality is that the future for such girls as we know, holds only exploitation, degradation and risk of death; in other words these children with whose future I have been concerned, have been at risk of really serious harm and as such the State is properly obligated to protect them.

Referring to one of his previous judgments(  Tower Hamlets London BC v M & Ors [2015) EWHC 869 (Fam), Heydon J observes that this line of cases presents a new facet of child protection for which this country’s social services and courts are poorly equipped. It is quite often the Family Court that is in the vanguard of changing societal needs that makes it necessary for the judges to react to novel situations, such as changes in medical science and technology. But this situation represents quite a different facet of child vulnerability.

Factual background

B’s mother reported her missing in December last year. After the Counter Terrorism Command was alerted they intercepted the flight only minutes before it was due to take off. In interview, B was frank about her intention to travel to the Islamic state.

B was subsequently made a ward of court, and her and the family’s passports were surrendered to their family solicitor. In June this year a search of the family resulted in a “plethora” of electronic devices which led to the arrest of B on suspicion of terrorist offences. She is now on police bail while further investigations continue. The rest of the family was subsequently arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000. The schedule of items removed from the house makes for chilling reading:
(1) A document headed “44 Ways to Support Jihad” with practical suggestions as to the support of terrorist activity;
(2) “The Macan Minority” urging participation in Jihadi activity;
(3) Internet searches relating to terrorist manuals and guides to terror activities. That also included queries as to the response times of the Metropolitan Armed Response Team and the Queen’s Guard;
(4) Internet searches as to the preservation of on-line anonymity, including, as confirmed by a police officer at an earlier hearing, the downloading of software to hide the IP address of the user’s computer when on-line;
(5) A downloaded version of “Mujahid Guide to Surviving in the West”. Possession of that document is, of itself, a serious criminal offence. It gives guides to weapon and bomb making and to “hiding the extremist identity”.
(6) “Miracles in Syria”. This contained information as to how to get to ISIS territory and many photographs of what are referred to as “Smiling corpses”.
This involves photographing the corpses of fighters whose faces are set in a smiling repose and said to reveal pleasure at their glimpses of eternal reward
(7) “Hiraj to the Islamic State”. This contained information and advice as to how to avoid airport security. It had particular advice in relation to females intending to travel to ISIS territory via Turkey.
(8) Footage of attacks on Western Forces in the Middle East.
(9) Numerous articles, some in what are referred to as “glossy magazine format” urging flight to ISIS territory and recommending its “lifestyle”.
(10) An edition of Islamic State News showing men being prepared for execution and asserting community support for it.
(11) An edition of Islamic State News showing before and after shots of human executions.
(12) A video of terrorist training.
(13) A video containing images of actual executions and beheadings.
(14) A number of lectures and video biographies encouraging support for ISIS activities, including videos of attacks upon Western Forces in the Middle East.
(15) ‘The Maccan Minority’, seen earlier in B’s own devices, suggesting that files had been shared between the siblings.
(16) A document called “The Constance of Jihad”. This was a five hour lecture on the need to participate in fighting against non-Muslims.

Finally, from the parent’s own devices:
(1) Lectures encouraging participation in armed attacks on non-Muslims.
(2) Issues of Islamic State News showing the same executions as those seen on the devices attributed to one of the siblings, again suggesting file sharing.
(3) Photographs of teenagers holding grenades.

As the judge was at pains to stress, setting the list out in full in such a way was not theoretical or designed to be gratuitously shocking:

The impact of the material set out in this way is both powerful and alarming. … it involves information of a practical nature designed to support and to perpetrate terrorist attacks. I have noted already but reemphasise that it provides advice as to how to avoid airport security, particularly for females. In addition, the videos of beheadings and smiling corpses can only be profoundly damaging, particularly to these very young, and in my judgment, vulnerable individuals.

Given the compliant manner in which the family cooperated with the police after B’s arrest, the discovery of these items was particularly shocking. In all his experience of abuse cases, involving cover ups and concealment, Heydon J could not recall seeing deception which was so “consummately skilful” as had been the case here. In their joint statements to the police the parents had made eloquent undertakings to monitor B’s activities and to comply with the social worker, whom they praised fulsomely. “We were very relieved,” they said,  “and repeat, we will grab with open arms practical and genuine offers of help in getting past this terrible event provided we think they will help. We also repeat we are so grateful to those who stopped S getting to Turkey.”

As the judge noted, drily,

Evaluating those passages alongside the material that was discovered in this household reveals that much of what was said was in fact an elaborate and sophisticated succession of lies.

Reasons behind the Court’s decision

In these circumstances, Heydon J had no hesitation in concluding that B had been subjected to serious emotional harm, and that she continued to be at risk of such in her parent’s care. He could see no way in which her psychological, emotional and intellectual integrity could be protected by her remaining in this household. The “farrago of sophisticated dishonesty” displayed by her parents made such a placement entirely unsustainable. Indeed, the correct comparator for the situation before him was sexual abuse:

If it were sexual risk that were here being contemplated, I do not believe that any professional would advocate such a placement for a moment. The violation contemplated here is not to the body but it is to the mind. It is every bit as insidious, and I do not say that lightly. It involves harm of similar magnitude and complexion.

Whilst B might find separation from her parents and siblings distressing, the judge took note of the fact that she had been prepared to leave them to go to Syria. The judge therefore granted the Local Authority’s application to remove her from the family home.

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3 thoughts on “ISIL child brides: a big care problem for the Family Court?

  1. I’m almost ashamed to say it and never ever thought, such thoughts would occur to me, but the social worker and judge actually got this one right.

  2. Was B herself liable to any criminal charges? What should the appropriate legal response be to intelligent sixteen-year-olds – not just children – and their families, who are involved in such cases?
    The dilemma is that individuals such as B. are vulnerable, but they are also capable of causing serious, even irreparable harm to innocent people, if by chance one of them succeeds in carrying out the IS instructions. No public figure seems to have been brave enough to stand up and propose a cogent, well-thought-out way of dealing with such cases.

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