Kadiza Sultana, a British schoolgirl who ran away from home last year to join Islamic State in Syria, is believed to have been killed in an airstrike, according to The Guardian.
Sultana left the UK in February 2015 with the two other British Bengali Muslim school friends known as The Bethnal Green Three — Shamima Begum and Amira Abase — after they were radicalised online by Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, recruiters.
The emphasis in Western countries is mostly on preventing men from becoming radicalised, but as many as 550 Western women have so far travelled to Syria and Iraq to support ISIS, according to a report by Strategic Dialogue.
The way women are radicalised is very different, according to Fatima Zaman, a 23-year-old British Bengali Muslim, who was raised in the same community as the Bethnal Green Three, but has taken a very different path in life. Zaman, a UK civil servant, now works with the Kofi Annan Foundation and One Young World on Extremely Together — an international movement designed to tackle extremism.
On the day of the 7/7 bombings in 2005, Zaman said she was at school just “yards away” from the underground blast that killed seven people on a tube train on its way to Aldgate station.
Zaman says that the anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain that followed the terrorist attack became “central” to her “psyche” from a very young age.
“I had a choice to make,” Zaman told Business Insider, remembering the sense of tension between her British and Muslim identities.
The Londoner works with the Kofi Annan Foundation to help prevent Islamic radicalization worldwide, but her expertise is in preventing British women from joining Islamic State.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Will Heilpern: You come from a place where multiple people from a similar demographic and from the same community ended up going to Syria to join Islamic State. Did you ever feel any kind of pressure to become radicalised yourself? And what is it about you that prevented you from becoming radicalised?
Fatima Zaman: No, absolutely not. It’s a very small minority of people who are radicalised and it’s a set of mechanisms that lead to radicalisation. It’s not fundamentally your background or your identity that make you vulnerable or susceptible to radicalisation. It’s a multitude of factors:
- Young people who become radicalised are questioning who they are and their identity in their formative years.
- A sense of injustice at the West’s inconsistent foreign policy towards the Middle East.
- The search for a network of belonging or sisterhood.
You may have one of those three and not be radicalised. It’s only when those three combine that you can be radicalised.
I had a very strong family base. I went to an incredibly good school that allowed me to debate and discuss policy and politics in a very structured way. This equipped me with critical thinking skills and nurtured my development.
Heilpern: What is the first step of a British schoolgirl becoming radicalised online? Do they have to actively seek out extremists in the first place? And how are women radicalised in a different way to men?
Zaman: You have to be open to looking for that message. You would have to look very deeply in social media to find it. It’s very easy to make contact, but it’s sustaining that contact that is more important.
In my view, one has to focus the inter-gender narrative. There’s a different set of radicalising factors for young men and young women. Our counter approach must also be equally gendered to counter radicalisation.
With women, unlike men, it’s nothing to do with “Come fight for the good fight.” It’s a much bigger narrative. The recruiters build a relationship by finding a commonality, and then nurture that relationship to the point where suddenly they have got the recruits so hooked that they have completely kept their family and friends in the dark.
Recruiters will tell them: ‘I didn’t know whether I belonged in a western society and now that I’ve come over to the lands of where Muslims prosper, I’m so much more happy. I can offer it to you.’
Then suddenly they have got the ticket to Syria and they are flying off.
Heilpern: Does this happen over Facebook and Twitter, or more secret online forums?
Zaman: There are different levels of online radicalization. A lot of it happens on open source forums like Facebook and Twitter, but, when they really want to recruit and radicalise someone, they will take them off the public space and move onto move encrypted sites. Sites like Telegram or Whatsapp.
Heilpern: At what age are women most vulnerable to radicalisation?
Zaman: 15 or 16 is the key age. At this age, you are questioning everything in life. As a 15-year-old, your cognitive thinking and your ability to think critically and scrutinise things has not yet fully developed.
Heilpern: What is the best way to prevent more British women and girls from being radicalised online?
Zaman: I do think the battle is massively in the online sphere. It’s not just a matter of shutting dark content down. We’re looking into the counter speech and the counter narrative. That’s where Extremely Together comes in very well. It’s an opportunity to reach every young person across the world. I know that sounds broad and ambitious, but we really think that it is possible. We’ve got the backing of the former UN secretary general.
Just as terrorists are extremely well-connected, we’re creating our own network that is equally connected, if not better. We’re doing it through policy, and education. The peer engagement approach is allowing us to fight every corner in which there is extremism or radicalisation. We give a counter narrative showing that there is a better alternative out there.
Heilpern: What are the women who become radicalised doing once they get to Syria?
Zaman: Essentially, the other people who have travelled from a similar part of the world are then acting as facilitators, recruiters and logisticians online. They are appealing to young women on a personal level.
It’s unbelievable that the dialogue out there is that Western women are used as baby machines and Jihadi brides. What I actually found is that women are doing the recruiting. They are being used as the brains of the operation, as logisticians.
Heilpern: What can we learn from France, where, with a spate of recent terrorist attacks, the problem of Islamic extremism appears to be even more intense than in the UK?
Zaman: In the UK, there’s not as strict a secular view imposed as in France, where there are a lot of secular policies. In France, being French always comes first. Whereas in the UK, your being British and being of a different background, is 100% compatible with your faith. We don’t try to prioritise or rank different identities in order of your loyalty. It’s more about co-existing.
Heilpern: Do you think religious extremism is one that can ever ultimately be beaten?
Zaman: I think it’s achievable and I definitely want to see this happen in my lifetime. It’s definitely possible. In terms of giving you a specific time frame, I’m not sure, but I hope definitely that we will win the fight against extremism.
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