It was the first case of mass radicalisation of children in the UK, but few know what really happened behind the headlines. For the first time, here is the untold story of the ISIS ‘child army’.
Those of us who are parents understand the need for ‘safeguarding’ children in schools. It’s a measure to identify potential harms and ensure the right help is offered to reduce them, and it should reassure us when we hand our children to total strangers.
In the UK, we have developed safeguarding to cover all social harms, including ‘radicalisation’ (grooming someone to support terrorism). Some insist the concept of radicalised children is a myth, dismissing it with obtuse statements about “terror tots”. It will be no surprise that these same people fell silent when the systematic exploitation of up to 100 children in a school was uncovered.
This was a shocking case, involving the attempted radicalisation and abuse of children aged 9 to 16. Umar Haque was the man responsible and he planned to create a ‘child army’ to launch terrorist attacks against 30 crowded targets across London.
Despite no teaching qualifications, he was free to work in two Islamic schools and an unregulated madrasah, giving him access to upwards of 220 children. In March 2018 he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
To match the scale of the abuse, the response from the local council was one of the most sophisticated and complex safeguarding responses in recent memory.
To protect so many potentially abused children, they developed a specialist team of social workers, NHS specialists, clinical psychologists, trauma therapists and family therapists as well as an ‘intervention provider’ (a former extremist who now works in counselling) all within the framework of ‘Prevent’, our counter terrorism strategy, along with the Home Office and the Police investigating the case.
This cooperation between Council and Police was critical but led to unforeseen challenges between safeguarding and law enforcement. Supporting the children and reversing the damage was their priority, but a savvy defence lawyer could argue that the interventions by therapists and trauma counsellors might impact the children’s testimonies in court and render them unreliable, thereby allowing their client — a man we now know was a committed terrorist — to walk free.
In the end, it was agreed that five brave children would give testimony against their abuser and reveal in court the chilling effects of his abuse.
Grooming for Terror
Haque was a charismatic father figure, using sophisticated grooming techniques to enthral his victims, identical to the tactics of a predatory paedophile. The children were brought into a collective secret and, much like children who are groomed for sexual exploitation, they didn’t feel manipulated but were persuaded to feel special and in control of their own choices.
Such was Haque’s influence that even after the extent of his depravity was revealed, they maintained he was a kind, fun, loved and trusted role model.
But it wasn’t just charisma that enforced a culture of compliance and silence, Haque terrified the children by convincing them that if they disclosed his abuses then God would punish them, or as he once put it, “A greater power than your parents will hurt you”. Some media reports suggest he had shown them photographs of a decomposing corpse, telling them they would share that fate if they betrayed his trust. Many still have flashbacks and nightmares, fearful of punishment in the afterlife.
‘Them & Us’
The first step to supporting the victims of Haque’s monstrous plans was to identify how many children had potentially been affected and to what extent. Some children had been subjected to the snuff movies of Islamic State (ISIS), traumatised by being forced to watch handcuffed prisoners mutilated and murdered in increasingly gory ways. Other children were drawn further into the web of radicalisation and Islamist extremism, being forced to act out their own acts of murder, including stabbing Police officers.
Like a virus, Haque’s poison spread further than he could have hoped as children who were not part of his plot became inadvertently affected through secondary exposure as their siblings showed them the ISIS videos on their mobile phones while others peered inside the classrooms making them unwitting bystanders to the brutal videos.
Each child affected by the abuse was assessed by the specialist team using an established healthcare model and then tailored, trauma-informed interventions were provided to them, with the most intensive one-to-one therapeutic support developed for those who came into most contact with the terrorist content. Their sense of identity has been deeply affected, leading to an internal conflict of an ‘us and them’ ideology.
All the youngsters, including those identified as having secondary harm, have required a combination of individual support and group work to allow them to explore their own identities and develop critical thinking skills and coping strategies.
Against the Odds
The dedication of the staff involved in protecting these children cannot be underestimated. The social workers and health experts worked punishing hours to ensure the needs of the children were paramount, but the anguish of listening to the children’s’ suffering, and being exposed to the same gruesome videos, has left some staff needing support themselves.
To make matters worse, factors conspired to undermine them. The efforts of a pernicious, self proclaimed ‘anti-Prevent lobby’ had taken its toll, terrifying families with claims that Prevent and its safeguarding professionals are part of a conspiracy to separate their children from them. To my mind, the sheer scale of this safeguarding response and the determination of staff to provide ongoing care to these traumatised victims and their families should firmly debunk these dishonest and damaging claims once and for all.
My own daughter has just turned three and is taking those first tentative steps into nursery, where for the first time in her life she is in the care of strangers. As an anxious parent, I must hope that those entrusted with her safety display the same level of professionalism, empathy and compassion as the staff who protected these remarkable children from exploitation and harm.