A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, is seen in front of a burning vehicle. Syrian state media has reported that troops killed as many as 150 of the al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Damascus. Hamid Khatib/Reuters
British counterterrorism police have launched an unprecedented appeal to Muslim women, urging them to dissuade relatives from travelling to Syria to fight with extremist Islamist groups and to report any concerns about their family members’ intentions.
“We are increasingly concerned about the numbers of young people who have or are intending to travel to Syria to join the conflict,” said Helen Ball, Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner who is the most senior counterterrorism officer in England.
“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,” Ball said.
The national campaign comes after a substantial increase in the number of British men arrested for taking part in the conflict.
In 2013, a total of 25 men were arrested for Syria-related terror offences, compared with 40 arrests for similar offences in the first three months of 2014 alone.
It was previously estimated that about 400 Britons were fighting in Syria’s civil war, but Ball said it was possible those estimates are “down on the reality” and that the number is likely higher.
A softer approach
Many female Muslim community leaders are backing the police appeal, including Sajda Mughal, the only known Muslim survivor of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London.
After surviving the attack, she decided to dedicate her life to ending radicalization and runs workshops that educate mothers on the tactics extremists use to attract new recruits.
She said women are in the best position to help stop the tide of British citizens joining extremist groups in Syria.
“Mothers are key agents of change,” she said. “They are the ones who can actually nurture, and protect and safeguard their child, and actually prevent them from travelling to Syria and endangering their lives."
Question of trust
Still, opponents of the appeal argue that it won’t work given a lack of trust in the police across some parts of the British Muslim community.
They say women won’t come forward to report relatives they think may travel to Syria to fight for fear that their relatives will be arrested.
At a briefing Thursday, Ball assured community members that wouldn’t happen, and said no information would be passed on to Britain’s MI5 security service.
She also said concerned family members would be connected to anti-terrorism engagement officers who would “offer support” rather than launch criminal investigations.
“This is not about criminalizing people; it is about preventing tragedies,” she said.
Still, there is skepticism, some of it from the upper levels of the British government.
Labour MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, which deals with terror threats in the U.K., questioned the role of the police in the campaign to BBC News.
“The Met is not a counselling service; they are the first stage in the criminal enforcement process,” he said.
Canadian jihadis joining the fight
Whether or not it works, the appeal shows the importance security officials are placing on the need to limit the amount of western citizens going to fight with al-Qaeda-inspired groups in Syria.
It's estimated there are as many as 11, 000 foreign fighters currently in Syria, including approximately 100 Canadians, according to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.
In just the last eight months, three Canadians have been killed while fighting with Islamic extremist groups in Syria.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) released a report warning about the dangers that radicalized Canadians would pose when they returned home.
“There is significant concern that extremism in Syria will result in a new generation of battle-hardened extremists who may seek to return to their home countries or export terrorism abroad,” the report said.
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