Aqsa, who comes from a loving family and went to a top private school, left for university one morning in November, 2013. She travelled to Syria to join Isis, claiming she wanted to help the Syrian people.
In February of last year, she married an Isis fighter and has since become a notorious poster girl for the extremist group, the “jihadi bride” who, only a few months ago is alleged to have called on her Muslim brothers to follow the example of “Woolwich”, a reference to the barbaric murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.
Since her departure, every day for the Mahmood family has been filled with horror at the possibility of a new revelation. Most have been quick to condemn the family but the Mahmoods, like others, will spend the rest of their lives full of guilt for having missed the signs of radicalisation.
Hindsight is a great thing, but Mrs Mahmood is full of regret that she ever bothered to listen to the police, when they told her not to go after her daughter. Despite informing the police she may have left for Syria, they were told on the first day that there was nothing they could do. It was only on the third day that counter-terrorism officers from Police Scotland attended the family home, but by then it was too late.
The Mahmoods have described their daughter as a “bedroom radical”, but they don’t know what turned their gentle and loving daughter into a hardened Isis member. She was given every life chance, showered with love and affection and freedoms that other Asian girls would kill for. Yet only a few weeks ago it was claimed that Aqsa had radicalised and recruited one or more of the three teenage girls who are believed to have travelled from their homes in Bethnal Green, London, to Syria.
The Mahmoods have been uncompromising in their condemnation of their daughter, warning other families to be vigilant. At each and every stage in the investigation, the family co-operated with the police. Yet last week the Met’s Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, while giving evidence at the Home Affairs Select Committee, declared to the watching world that Aqsa would be prosecuted if she returned.
Meanwhile, her family are left to pick up the pieces. Like many other Muslim households, the Mahmoods had warned their children against extremist websites. What more could have Aqsa’s parents have done? Had they banned their daughter from going out or using social media, they would have been accused of being far too conservative.
Aqsa’s father described his daughter’s actions as a “twisted perverted and distorted interpretation of Islam”, but he now wonders if she is a convenient scapegoat, while those who radicalised her are still free to groom.
On a recent trip to Glasgow, Europol’s director, Rob Wainwright, said current terror threat levels in Scotland were at their highest ever. “Stopping IS from spreading propaganda online is a priority but very difficult – the leaders of the Muslim communities need to step up,” he said.
But everyone needs to get a grip. Aqsa is one woman out of a population of six million Scots; one Muslim out of 77,000 Scottish Muslims. That is a tiny number for the security services to project as a danger to our national security.
As for our Muslim leaders doing more: most of those described as “community leaders” are no more than glorified gatekeepers who bear little relevance to modern day Muslims. Every atrocity leads to public statements of sorrow from a queue of those so-called “Muslim leaders”, yet we never elected them to speak on our behalf and we are sick of their useless apologies.
Following 9/11, Scotland’s mosques were politically neutered: the need to eradicate radical preachers effectively led to the eradication of any political debate whatsoever.
If we really want to move young Muslims from violence to non-violence, it will take much more than routine declarations that “Islam is a religion of peace”. There needs to continuous, honest, open and robust discussions which our “leaders” are entirely unsuited to conduct, let alone lead.
Our community leaders are out of touch with the fact that a minority of our young people privately express admiration for Isis or anyone perceived as “giving the West a kicking”. At first I assumed this was little more than adolescent posturing, but such support is clearly providing a steady stream of Isis recruits.
Moreover, viable solutions to radicalisation will be impossible as long as Muslims are witch-hunted for daring to ask reasonable questions such as “what turned Mohammed Emwazi (Jihadi John) into a brutal psychopathic killer?”
Of course there was never a problem with the West questioning what made the fascist EDL-loving Anders Breivik massacre 77 Norwegians. The description of every critic of Western policy as an “apologist for terror” may well silence the debate and feed a McCarthyite atmosphere, but it won’t take us any closer to a solution.
In 2006, when I defended Scotland’s first so-called al-Qaeda terrorist (subsequently acquitted on a miscarriage of Justice appeal), much of the propaganda we looked at included videos of men with long beards ranting in Arabic in front of a black flag, followed by a truck blowing up as it drove towards the Americans.
It wasn’t particularly effective as a recruitment tool but, combined with external factors such as foreign policy, it managed to recruit from a pool of ready volunteers. Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ordinary young man who became the 7/7 suicide bomber, wasn’t a religious zealot, but he took extracts of Islam that suited the deadly message he wanted to deliver.
Today, Isis runs a powerful propaganda machine on social media to promote a violent interpretation of Islam, but unlike al-Qaeda they are much more attractive and accessible. According to the US State Department they tweet 90,000 times a day with popular hashtags to spread their message.
Isis is much more successful in their pitch to a younger generation than al-Qaeda were a decade ago, but this time they are specifically targeting young females. After all, becoming a Jihadi bride/fighter is much more appealing than becoming a suicide-bomber, however distorted that may be to us.
A decade ago, al-Qaeda would meet recruits face to face but today Isis uses Western recruits to engage in one-to-one dialogue across several thousand miles using Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and Tumbler.
With an estimated $2 billion budget, Isis produce slick, high-grade production videos, where sexy bearded jihadists are paraded in between explosions as potential husbands.
Meanwhile, high-value recruits like Aqsa Mahmood have been catapulted to global superstar status.
It doesn’t matter that the Isis narrative of kalashnikov, excitement and a ticket to paradise is false, because Isis are winning the propaganda war, portraying themselves as engaged in a struggle of good versus evil. They remain unchallenged on double standards of foreign policy, Israel, rendition, torture, or Assad having the freedom to butcher 200,000 of his own people.
The inability of the mainstream to engage with the anger felt by the Muslim community provides ready-made cannon fodder for the hate mongers.
As a teenager during the 1980s, I expressed nihilistic desires to run off and join the PLO. Fortunately this was long before social media, mobile phones, or cheap flights. My parents hoped that I would shuffle off into mortgage slavery as soon as I left adolescence, but today there is no such guarantee. Today’s young face a bleak economic outlook.
Meanwhile, radicalisation can now take place in the safe haven of the family home. However, the idea that stamping out radical sites will stop terrorism is over-simplified. Last year the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence found “little evidence to support the contention that the internet plays a dominant role in the process of radicalisation” – and the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Programme was viewed as an attempt to spy on communities, and failed abysmally.
As for women and radicalisation, the President of Glasgow Central Mosque told of his shock over Aqsa Mahmood and said that as far as he knew “Miss Mahmood had never been to the mosque”.
But why would she? Mosques across Scotland have long excluded women. All the elders at Scotland’s largest mosque Glasgow Central are male. They are experts in patronising anyone under the age of 45 whom they deem to be a threat to their status as “community leaders”.
Many Muslims rightly argue that Islam liberated women 1400 years ago by granting them property rights and the right to divorce, but it is a pointless argument when women don’t even have the right to vote in our mosques today, and are accorded second-class status.
Take a walk into Glasgow Central Mosque and the democratic deficit will be obvious. The management committee is made up of 20 men with an average age of 70, with women excluded from any meaningful role in the mosque. When a few years ago young female students asked to become official members, they were turned away and tagged as the “Muslim Suffragettes”. Little has changed.
In mosques throughout the country, young people regard the cultural, linguistic and sectarian traditions practised by their elders as irrelevant to modern-day Islam, and while they treasure their mosques as places for worship, they also despise the petty politics inside.
However some have tried to reach out and provide an alternative focus outside the mosque. I-Syllabus is a ground-breaking course which teaches about Islam, focusing on life in the West and how to make a valuable positive contribution to the society they live in. The cutting-edge course was founded by two young scholars Shaykh Jamil and Mohammed who adapted knowledge gained from eminent Middle Eastern religious scholars, to address challenges which Muslims face today in Scotland, including issues such as jihad and discrimination.
Thousands have flocked to join such courses, and initiatives such as Islam Awareness Week help build bridges between communities, but they face a constant struggle for mainstream funding, all of which limits their useful role in preventing extremism.
Mosques are rife with stories of how young Muslims best placed to challenge radicalisation are sidelined or threatened if they dare complain about the status quo. Some have actually been reported by mosque leaders as extremists to counter-terror police.
Police Scotland really needs to take a long hard look at its “community engagement” with such leaders.
Over the years the Saudi regime has spent billions in promoting Wahhabism, one of fundamentalist Islam’s most extreme movements. Essentially it meant funding the religious education of children, imams and mosques. The result is that most imams and mosques actively discourage women from attending, and consider those that do as out of sight, out of mind.
Most of our mosques have little to offer intelligent inquisitive youngsters other than recitals of Koranic verses. The repeated failure to debate social and political issues of the day means that mosques have created a vacuum outside its walls which is being filled by extremists in the absence of any organised challenge.
Many young Muslims are stuck in limbo, searching for an identity. Never mind not knowing their teenager is being groomed for Isis, most parents don’t even know if their kids are down at the local shisha bar, or partaking in drink or sexual relationships.
So of course when a teenager comes home one day and says that he or she is becoming more religious, imagine the relief of parents that they no longer have to worry about sex or drugs.
The brainwashing conducted by Isis doesn’t happen overnight; it’s done over a long period, so the idea that those recruited to Isis could have been stopped had they heard the correct religious message is nonsense.
After Charlie Hebdo, the British Muslim community rushed to stand in solidarity with those who were massacred, but then they were expected to stand in solidarity with pornographic abuse and insults of the Prophet Mohammed.
Let me be clear: there is absolutely no justification for the massacre of 12 innocent people in Paris. But this was cold-blooded murder, not an act of war. Islam is no more responsible for the Paris attacks or Jihadi John, than Christians were responsible for the attacks carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway, or the atrocities of the Klu Klux Klan.
The recent flight of three teenage girls from London to Isis created panic in every Muslim family. The media screamed that 15-year-old Shamima was in direct contact with Aqsa Mahmood via Twitter, but Aqsa’s social media content was being monitored by the security services so why did the police not know Shamima could be on the cusp of radicalisation?
Despite the UK Government’s loud rhetoric on community and parental responsibility, there are no resources devoted to teaching parents on how to monitor social media, nor is there any de-radicalisation programme to assist those in real danger.
The real scandal, however, is the authorities’ failure to deal with the grooming and trafficking of underage girls by ISIS as a child protection issue. Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, revealed that the head teacher of the Bethnal Green school was told by the police not to reveal to other parents that a young girl had left for Syria in December.
Jihadi Bride & Grooming
The grooming analogy is apposite: a paedophile makes contact with a child, he builds a level of trust over several months, convincing the child not discuss anything with her parents. When the time is right he will convince the child to leave her family and to join him. If subsequently it was found out that the police had known all along yet did nothing to warn her family, there would be a public outcry.
In other circumstances, the youngsters who are attracted by radicalisation would would be regarded as children. Pin the “Isis” label on them, however, and the knee-jerk reaction is that they deserve what they get.
Imagine if we said that of a teenage victim of Jimmy Saville; yet a teenage girl brainwashed by Isis, then trafficked to be married off to an unknown Jihadist, has only herself to blame.
Following the 7/7 attack, Tony Blair made a point of insisting, contrary to intelligence briefings, that the attacks on London had nothing to do with the war in Iraq. According to him they were motivated by an “evil ideology”, a “perversion of Islam that promoted absurd grievances”. British Muslims were charged with the task of rooting out this evil within their community and the mobilising of “moderate” Muslim leaders for that task.
That task has been an abject failure not just for the Muslim community but society as a whole. The Bethnal green girls, like Aqsa, were seduced by a narrative. On arrival in Syria they will be accepted into the bosom of Isis, their passports burnt and any contact with their family will be broken down.
The purpose of any cult is to isolate, create dependency and brainwash, until the only family they will care about are the cult. The common theme has always been to offer a great cause, a sense of belonging followed by a messianic plan to fulfil.
Surely we have enough experience of past cults to ensure that this particular death cult does not win the hearts and minds of our children?
When looking for whom to blame, we have forgotten our recent history and the disastrous treatment of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, parts of which acted as a recruitment sergeant for the IRA.
The so-called intelligence obtained from internment was often erroneous but the sense of burning injustice effectively consolidated support for armed struggle for more than four decades.
Injustice has always been a rallying point for extremists and today’s new Irish could be described as Muslim. Exploitation of the politics of fear by bringing in tougher anti-terror laws has created a climate of fear for Muslims who feel they are portrayed as threatening a “civilised” way of life.
Such an atmosphere makes it less likely that minority communities will report their reasonable suspicions to the police, thus cutting of valuable sources of community intelligence.
Muslims have been present in Europe in large numbers for over 60 years, but the Government is unable to explain why extremists have only gained a foothold in the last two decades.
Of course the Muslim community has a central role to play in eradicating the promotion of a twisted ideology, but that will only work if the rest of society honour its responsibilities.
Unless we settle the uncomfortable questions, then intelligent young people will continue to be sucked into the cesspit by Isis. A repeated failure to investigate the monumental incompetence of security services, their lack of accountability combined with cheerleading by a cottage industry of so-called terror experts and hysterical media, means our children will end up as sacrificial lambs or a Jihadi Bride
The distortions following Bethnal Green are nothing new, our security services are used to cover ups, whether it be weapons of mass destruction, the execution of Jean Charles De Menezes or their role in torture and rendition, so why would anything be different now? As for Aqsa I have a message from your parents, ‘We are begging you to stop if you ever loved us come home.”
Aamer Anwar- criminal defence lawyer since 2000 was recently awarded criminal law firm of the year and most recently he has been instructed to pursue the Lockerbie Appeal. In 1995 he made legal history in a successful civil action against Strathclyde Police for a racist attack on himself in 1991, when he was told ‘this is what happens to black boys with big mouth’ and his teeth were smashed out. For 25 years he has been Scotland’s most vocal opponent of racism and draconian anti-terror laws. Instructed in some of Scotland’s highest profile cases including the trial of Scotland’s first Islamist terrorist case, the Ice Cream Wars appeal and the perjury trial of Tommy Sheridan. His campaign for justice for murdered waiter Surjit Chhokar led two judicial inquiries.