Days after France announced that it would start a hotline for worried parents to tip off authorities about their kids’ jihadist inclinations, the UK government followed suit — with its own plan to keep a growing number of young British citizens from running off to Syria to join rebel groups there.
On Thursday, British police announced a campaign, which will rely on family members — and particularly mothers — to persuade young Muslim men from traveling to Syria to fight.
The plan, authorities said, was intended to be preventive, not punitive.
“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,” Helen Ball, senior national coordinator for Counter Terrorism Policing, said in a statement.
The prospect of interrogation, possible terrorism charges, and jail time is hardly going to convince concerned mothers to turn their sons and daughters in.
“We want to increase their confidence in the police and partners to encourage them to come forward so that we can intervene and help. This is not about criminalizing people. It is about preventing tragedies.”
But criminalizing people, critics say, is exactly what the UK government has been doing — including by stripping several Britons who went off to Syria of their citizenship, even when this left them stateless, and threatening to reserve the same treatment to any British jihadist coming back.
That, as well as the prospect of interrogation, possible terrorism charges, and jail time is hardly going to convince concerned mothers to turn their sons and daughters in.
“Even if they’re concerned about their son or daughter going, they’re probably less likely to say anything for fear that their son or daughter will be jailed or charged with something along the lines of a terrorist offense,” Joseph Carter, a researcher at the UK-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization, told VICE News.
The group estimated that almost 400 British citizens had traveled to Syria by the end of last year.
“It’s probably not a good idea to have laws that criminalize these folks,” Carter added. “Because if they are getting ready to go, I don’t think family members are willing to risk it if they think their son or daughter is going to be thrown in jail for however many years.”
Despite widespread skepticism, the appeal was repeated by authorities across the country.
Greater Manchester Police released an information leaflet reminding residents that Syria is dangerous, and that any Briton fighting there might, upon return, be stopped under terrorism law.
“Traveling to Syria and its surrounding areas is dangerous for a number of reasons,” the warning says. “This messaging is designed to help those considering traveling to understand these dangers and appreciate what other options are available.”
Several police departments also held Twitter chats to discuss travel to Syria, under hashtags like #preventtragedies and #askgmp — the latter, a reference to the Manchester police force.
But some took the opportunity to voice criticism of the profiling of Muslims in the UK, and of the country’s involvement in recent wars.
In fact, the police's social media initiative quickly led to another trend, called #SignsYourSonMayBeGoingToSyria, a spoof leading to dozens of sarcastic tweets, as well as some more serious ones.
Even if they wanted to stop them, parents are often unaware of their children’s intentions until it’s too late, other critics noted.
Earlier this month, for instance, reports emerged that 18-year-old Abdullah Deghayes was the latest of an estimated 20 Britons to be killed in Syria. But his parents didn’t even know he was there — and thought instead that he was visiting family in Libya.
“As far as I know he went to Syria, without my consent and without the consent of his mother, to fight against the dictator Bashar Al-Assad and his regime,” the teenager’s father told reporters. “I never encouraged him and he went there of his own free will. I am sad for the loss of Abdullah, but at the same time, I can feel some comfort as he went for a just cause.”
Still, some in the community suggested that the program’s specific appeal to women was a good idea.
"We know that the issue of Syria is held as a grievance amongst mainly Muslim youth. It is something that they feel they want to do something about," Sajda Mughal, from the JAN Trust charity which works with Muslim women, told Reuters. “It's the mothers who are the ones who need to be protecting their child in order for them not to travel out to Syria.”
But some civil rights group cried foul and said the initiative risked exploiting the fear of mothers for the sake of government’s “witch hunt.”
“We view this as a duplicitous attempt by the police,” said Asim Qureshi, of the civil liberties group CAGE, “to exploit the natural anxiety of mothers in the Muslim community to assist them in their counter-terrorism work."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi