by Michelle Brooks
How does a 16 year old girl from a small country town become embroiled in a dangerous terror cell, recruited to convince others and radicalize them into supporting terrorism? Rosie (name changed) was just that, and not so long ago. This is her story.
With recent news stories revealing home office concerns over the possible recruitment of girls to become Islamic suicide bombers in Britain, it is time for us to have some real, though devastating information about the ways the peaceful and learned religion of Islam is being re-drawn and quartered into a narrative of violence and separation that answers a searching experienced by a teenage white middle-classed girl. That’s right, I said white: we must no longer look only to Asian, Muslim, African communities for the work ahead of us to stamp out extremism, and I will show you through the story of a young girl why that was a big mistake.
“I had always been somewhat of a quiet Christian girl, from a small town in Australia. At the age of 16 however, I converted to Islam. At 16 I was naive I didn’t realize at the time was that there were some in my new Muslim family who had the intention of taking me down a path towards extremism.
It was Eid-ul-Adha (religious festive holiday for Muslims) and I had been Muslim for only two weeks by this stage. I attended prayers at the mosque that morning. There I encountered a mother and daughter who happily introduced themselves to me. They explained that they were also converts. They invited me to join them one day for an Islamic lesson in their home. I was overjoyed that I was being invited into their home. I felt like they were my family now. I was told by another sister at the mosque that day that those women were dangerous and radical and that I shouldn’t learn anything from them. I dismissed this warning as I truly believed that our shared faith would mean that their teachings would be about love. This is not what I found.
I encountered many more with radical views; many of them were converts preaching about hating ‘The West’, ‘The glorious rise of Jihad’, the appreciation of ‘Sheik’ Osama Bin Laden and the inevitable doom that would come to anyone who didn’t support such things. When I first heard this rhetoric I was scared. I had never heard such things before but I placed my trust in these people. I was naïve and I was lonely. These people accepted me for who I was”.
Rosie then went on to do something that will resonate with many who study this phenomenon or find themselves in this situation; she began a love affair with a terrorist sympathizer.
“I soon became engaged to a man who was 30 years old (almost twice Rosie’s age), a doctor, and someone with a respected position in the community and an apparent wealth of knowledge on Islam. I was lonely. Many members of my own family had rejected my decision to convert to Islam and hadn’t spoken to me”
Rosie suffered the emotional strain of rejection from a family whom she adored. Having been a carer as a child for her seriously ill mother, an only child Rosie was heavily invested in a dependent relationship which made the rejection of her decision to convert to Islam all the more hurtful. Like many girls that convert to Islam, Rosie was confused, as Islam makes modest girls out of daughters; surely this is any parent’s dream? However her marginalization within the small family unit would soon extend to the community outside; aggression against her on the streets, quickly becoming conflated with aggression of international proportions.
“I would cover my body in the hijab (headscarf) and abaya (long black dress) wherever I went. This was not accepted in my town. I began to experience a great deal of confrontation. I had been spat at in the streets, people would shout things from their cars; ‘Go Home Terrorist!’, ‘Osama Lover’ and ‘Towel Head’. I would watch the evening news at home. I saw my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters being persecuted in Palestine. I saw images of homes being bombed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I then believed that ‘The West’ and my country were fighting Islam. I felt rejected by my own country. I felt as if I was no longer a member of the country in which I was born”.
Rosie’s fiancée began to fill the gap her parents had left and her new extremist friends became her community. “As I wasn’t getting any support and as I had been a young carer and as I was feeling that my parents weren’t caring for me, I would accept ‘outside help’ and I would go looking for it. I think that I needed support from outside”
“I think for me personally it was just about getting someone to appreciate me. I felt like no one did once I converted. Especially after everything I went through with my parents I did feel under-appreciated so to hear positive things from an older man who was in an influential and powerful position…I don’t think it is easy to say no to that. And I think because I had been a carer for my family for years, I then wanted to be taken care of and so I would just trust that that would happen”.
Rosie began to see that she could not follow Islam in the way her new friends and fiancée were whilst also following her parent’s ideas on morality.
“I was told to obey and love my parents unless they were doing or saying something un-Islamic. My fiancée would always act very concerned and frustrated that my parents wouldn’t accept Islam and he was frustrated that we owned a dog, had alcohol in the house etc…and so if my parents asked me to sit with family if they were drinking I wouldn’t (I would protest)…I didn’t go with my family to bury my Grandmother’s ashes (which I now regret) because it was ‘un-Islamic’. I had to reject them if they were asking for anything I deemed ‘un-Islamic’ because my family were unhappy with my conversion I was told of the following hadith: The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “There is no obedience if it involves disobedience towards Allaah; obedience is only in that which is right and proper.” (Narrated by Al-Bukhaari  and Muslim 1840). Because my parents or family were not ‘right and proper’ (they were basically kafir) I could not obey them over God and I was told this Qur’an verse: ‘And we have enjoined on man (to be dutiful and good) to his parents. His mother bore him in weakness and hardship upon weakness and hardship, and his weaning is in two years – be grateful to me and to your parents. To me is the final destination. But if they (both) strive to make you associate others in worship with Me, that of which you have no knowledge of, then obey them not; but behave with them in the world kindly, and follow the path of those who turn to Me in repentance and in obedience. Then to me will be your return, and I shall tell you what you used to do. (Luqmaan: 15-16)’. My fiancée taught me that the Taliban were simply misunderstood and that they were really doing God’s work. He told me that the attacks in New York on September 11 were most likely orchestrated by the US government. He and many others in the community told me that I must reject ‘The West’. He and many others in the community taught me that the Muslims around the world would soon unite to form a Caliphate (head of state governed by religious ‘Sharia’ law). The promise of a unified Islamic state in which Muslims would no longer face religious persecution was tempting. My fiancée told me that it would be wonderful for me to tell others of this. I wanted to as I believed that he would appreciate me more if I did manage to convince others.
I had met many Muslims however that did not support such things. They were happy living in democratic countries. They practiced their religion but did not become involved in politics and did not support the notion of ‘Us vs. Them’. I felt it was my duty to convince them that they were wrong and that they needed to believe as I now did. Within months I did notice small changes in their attitudes. Slowly they began to say the same things as I was and they would tell others. I couldn’t see it at the time as I believed I was doing God’s work but it was a vicious cycle”.
As Rosie’s circle of friends increased, importantly, on the internet, Rosie began to meet other Muslims who practiced the faith in a way that was peaceful and loving and democratic. This is perhaps important to note as we are increasingly warned of the facilitation of extremism on the internet but there is clearly scope also for the internet to be used as a facilitator of peace. I asked Rosie if there was a moment or event that was the catalyst for change to the Rosie I saw before me;
“One day a young girl from my town approached me through a mutual friend. I taught her my beliefs. She had wept all night out of fear. She was scared of Islam and scared of God. I remembered how I first felt hearing all of this. I imagine it was a long process for me to change my views but this was the major turning point for me. After two years of convincing myself that this radical rhetoric was the only truth, I had turned away. How could I believe that Islam was about fear and hatred? I knew that this could not be the truth. I attempted to discuss these feelings with my fiancée and he just told me that I needed to keep the faith. He told me that these feelings were evil and were coming from Satan. I felt stuck. I fought for months with myself. I made friends with Muslims who were all about the spreading of peace and love. They rejected fear. They supported me in doing the same”.
Rosie then had to make the painful decision to leave her fiancée that frankly is a journey that few women in Rosie’s position survive.
“At the age of 18 I realized that I was only with my fiancée because he had a status of power and because of this I felt protected. I then broke up with him. It was a long journey as I slowly embraced gentleness and peace. It was not an easy process. The whole process of radicalization for me had a heavy emotional weight. I spent more time working through issues with my family. I studied traditional Islamic spirituality I can see so clearly now that extremism is never the way”.
Rosie was a girl not un-like millions of others; she had a deep need to be cared for, a need that could not be fulfilled by her nuclear family because of their dependency on her. When Rosie met her fiancée and the other members of the terror cell, she experienced a pouring out of compliments and kindness that she was un-used to at home and in her town.
“They would tell me ‘you are such a remarkable & intelligent person’, ‘you are amazingly influential to other converts’ ….similar phrases that made me feel wanted. These things made me feel powerful and important and as I was not getting any support from my family and as I felt rejected by them, I was all too eager to hear this. My fiancée and the other Muslims around me knew the vulnerable situation and would tell of tales in the Qur’an and hadith about how good it is to reject your parents for the will of Allah. Being told ‘you have a special gift’ was a major thing for me. I just think they knew the right thing to say at the time really. Also because they know how I am inclined to feel sorry for people etc…and the whole ‘Muslims being tortured overseas’ thing really got to me”.
Rosie became a recruiter without really realising it until she realised how much she had frightened others, luckily her in-built moral compass kicked in and the back story of peace she was seeing among Muslims on the internet gave her an out; psychologically. This phenomena where potential suicide bombers (though Rosie had never got this far) stumble and fail to carry out acts of terror upon sight of other peaceful Muslims is increasingly utilised to reduce risk. For this reason Burkha clad women are set to be an increasing sight in high-risk places such as airports and tourist sites, strange perhaps in the face of the ‘ban the Burkha’ policies sweeping Europe and evidence perhaps that peace-loving, identifiable Muslims are the best deterrent we have against the female suicide bomber.
Rosie’s story is typical in many ways of teenagers who seek guidance on life, not just religion and in their search first come across those actively also searching for lost teenagers. Isa Ibrahim described as a ‘lone wolf’ in the British press (Telegraph), someone who ‘radicalised himself’ was recently found guilty of planning a terror attack on a shopping mall in Bristol. In fact Andrew Ibrahim came from a Christian family, was privately educated in a boarding school but was searching for something he could believe in. As a user of hard-drugs Andrew had overcome his addiction through conversion to Islam. However, then he had gone from Mosque to Mosque looking for guidance but had been turned away, his parents meanwhile thought his conversion to Islam just another phase. Andrew, like Rosie needed to belong, needed to be in a wider family and in their neediness they were let down, by Christians and Muslims alike. We need to stop pointing the finger of blame at religion itself when it is clear that religion can also save a child as much as it can facilitate extremism. In fact we need to ‘fess up’ to what little we all do on a daily basis to spend time with the kids not just in our families but in our neighbourhoods. Time and again, before these precious young people began their path to terror there were opportunities, opportunities we need to be more adept at spotting. There is an old Swahili proverb; “it only takes two to make a child, but it takes a whole village to raise one”. So maybe we should all go out, and map our village and then concentrate on raising all our children well, and they come in all colours and languages some shout and some are quiet, but it was certainly ever thus and hence will ever be; our privilege and responsibility to raise them.
Michelle Brooks’ PhD research is on Belonging and Security among Risk groups, looking at the trajectory between Belonging and Terrorism. Michelle works extensively in the voluntary sector in the UK and overseas, lectures at universities in the UK, US and Australia in Global Security /Human Geography and is Head of Research at an award-winning gender equity and counter-extremist consultancy in the UK.