Of course the toddler himself didn’t have any Jihadist inclinations, but this is the judgment from the care proceedings where a mother actually took her toddler to Syria, into the war zone and photos were taken and used by Daesh for propaganda of both her and her toddler. She then came back to England and was arrested and convicted in a criminal Court.
This case contains really valuable information about what really went on in Syria and what awaits these Jihadi brides – it makes a very useful companion piece to the recent Hayden J decision about a teenaged girl who had been sucked into this radicalisation and recruitment.
Re Y (A child : Care Proceedings :Fact finding) 2016
- This is a judgement deciding issues of fact and welfare concerning a little boy who was born on 22nd August 2013 and is now two and three quarter years. He was removed by the police from his mother’s care when she arrived back in the UK from Syria in early 2015 and she was arrested by officers of the Counter Terrorism Unit. He was the subject of protective measures for 18th February 2015 when taken from his mother by the police. He has been the subject of an interim care order since 20th February 2015. At first he was placed with foster carers then moved and placed with another foster family in June 2015 and there was some delay in the local authority carrying out assessments.
- Y’s mother (T) is in prison serving a six-year sentence following her convictions for intentionally encouraging acts of terrorism and being a member of a terrorist organisation (Daesh).
The mother’s case, broadly, was that she accepted the facts that she had travelled to Syria and lived there with her little boy, and then came back to England. She had little choice about that, given the conviction, but she disputed that these events had caused significant harm to the boy – with a view to fighting for his return to her care on her release from prison (which will probably be in about 2-3 years time)
Conviction for terrorism offences
- T was convicted on 1st February 2016 at Birmingham Crown Court. The jury found the prosecution case proved that T had been in touch with a known terrorist and was a supporter of ISIS; developing a following on Twitter. T was found to have published statements that encouraged terrorism; images that supported Daesh/ISIS and were intended to encourage people to commit, prepare or instigate acts of terrorism.
- T was found to have travelled to Syria via Turkey, in order to travel without arousing suspicion. She had had the assistance of a named member of Daesh and as a result was transported to Raqqa in Syria which is a Daesh/ISIS stronghold; Daesh had declared a caliphate in Raqqa. She had left letters for her family saying that she did not intend to return. In the sentencing remarks of the Recorder of Birmingham, His Honour Judge Melbourne Inman QC, said “Exactly what occurred in Raqqa is far from clear. You told lie after lie to the Police and to the Court between February and November 2015 including that you were kidnapped, were not responsible for any tweets and any incriminating photographs were staged against your will. You pleaded not guilty and told more lies to the jury which they have understandably rejected.”
- The judge continued, “What is clear from the evidence is that you had researched and were well aware of what assistance women could provide for ISIS. Your role would not be to fight; it would be to be a wife and mother – to produce the next generation of fighters“. The expert evidence before the Crown Court was to the effect that women, single women in particular, were subject to very strict rules and allowed virtually no personal autonomy and were subject to savage penalties, including death, for disobedience. This was accepted by T in her evidence before this court.
- As could be seen from the pictures posted by T she was, as the judge said, “…trusted to have access to firearms and indeed you stated that you had fired one accidentally. You boasted to your family that you had an AK47 and a pistol. The photographs recovered from your phone show you posing with a pistol and at least one form of rifle or automatic weapon”. Unusually for a woman under Daesh control T was allowed to travel alone to Raqqa, it is not clear from the evidence before this court or the Crown Court why this was allowed but T has said that she was married to a fighter.
- In the sentencing remarks the judge spoke of the fact that T had taken Y with her; “Most alarmingly however is the fact that you took your son and how he was used. In your own evidence you described Raqqa as the most dangerous place on earth. That is one aspect of the aggravating feature of exposing your son to life with terrorists. The most abhorrent photographs however were those taken of your son wearing a balaclava with an ISIS logo and specifically the photograph of your son, no more than a toddler, standing next to an AK47 under a title which translated from the Arabic means ‘Father of the British Jihad’. Someone else took that photograph and sent it to you but it can only have been done with your agreement. You have no control over that image or reproduction.”
- As the judge observed T was “well aware that the future to which you had subjected your son was very likely to be indoctrination and thereafter life as a terrorist fighter”: this was said after a lengthy criminal trial throughout which he had been able to observe her demeanour. The judge continued in his summing up to say “Having seen you give evidence I saw no evidence of remorse about what you had done or done to your son”.
- T was found to have intended to encourage terrorism; she had 75 followers on Twitter, the statements she posted were considered to have been focussed, published over a period of two months and concerned with the conflict in Syria and the encouragement of terrorism. The promotion of terrorism via the internet is considered a matter of national concern by the criminal courts. T was found guilty of serious offences. She was convicted of a “course of conduct” in travelling to Syria, via Turkey, to join Daesh. The judge considered that particular factors were of great significance in considering culpability and harm and that taking Y with her was a major aggravating feature. In supporting Daesh/ISIS she had been “willing shamelessly to allow your son to be photographed in terms [or poses] that could only be taken as a fighter of the future.”
- In mitigation it was accepted that T had returned to the UK; that she may have been more vulnerable to recruitment as her marriage had ended after considerable unhappiness; and, that there was the possibility that she had had a change of heart; there was some reduction in her overall sentence as a result. Nonetheless T was convicted of terrorism offences and the sentence of six years reflects their seriousness. She is now subject to an order under the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 (s 47) which places a requirement on her to notify the police of personal details, including her address for 15 years.
- T will be eligible for release on licence in 2018. She agreed to Y being cared for by his paternal grandmother while she is in prison but it would seem likely that she will seek to have him returned to her care on her release.
It may seem to the casual reader that it would be hard to dispute that taking your two your old to a war zone which was being bombed and associating with terrorists would pose a risk to him, but as the criminal court had not convicted her of child cruelty (no doubt having bigger fish to fry) it was open to her to at least argue it. And she was entitled to a fair hearing, so she had very able lawyers to put her case the best way that anyone could.
- The local authority asserted that Y would have been likely to have been frightened by the bombing which took place in Raqqa (which T sent WhatsApp messages about at the time) which would have caused Y to suffer significant emotional harm. T denied that Y had suffered significant emotional harm.
Let us look at a bit of the detailed evidence about the bombing – remember that her son would have been around two years old
- It is a matter of common sense that Y was likely to have suffered significant emotional and psychological harm during the three months when he was in Raqqa and that it would have been as a consequence of living in conditions where, not only was his mother in fear and crying during the night, but the house they lived in was in an area that was constantly being attacked and bombed. Before I go on to consider the evidence of the frequency of the bombing, the lack of any real concern displayed or voiced by T that Y might have been affected by his experience is, in itself, worrying. If she remains unable or unwilling to think about the effects of her actions in the future, the risk of future harm to Y will remain.
- The evidence before this court was that the level of bombing was very frequent indeed, this is based on T’s oral evidence and on what she put in her messages on WhatsApp, where it (the bombing) was a constant topic of discussion and a regular occurrence. I set out some examples here:
• On the 1st December 2014 on WhatsApp “no bombs today” and images of buildings on fire.
• On the 13th December 2014 in conversation with her brother on “They do bomb a lot but we will stay in another place when you visit…”
• On the 17th December messages with a friend “Do they bomb close to your house?” T answers; “Yes very close to the house – the house shakes” and “they just bomb from the sky“.
• On the 25th December 2014 at 10.58 from T “they bomb my house every day – – my house shakes…“
• On 25th December 2014 conversation with her friend who asks “why won’t I like it” – “because too much bombs and not like England – war here never going to end???”
• On the 27th December from T “they bombed once today – gave number to friend if we die she will WhatsApp u“
• On the 30th December 2015 a message from M referred to “30 bombs” falling in one day
• When she was interviewed by the police on 19th February 2015 T is recorded as saying “it’s no place for a child…. when they would bomb we would have to go into the basement – you could see the smoke – close smoke …”
- In her oral evidence, however, T tried to minimize the frequency, impact and close proximity of the bombing giving a different picture from the one that had emerged from the messages she had sent in December, including of the house shaking and of bombing being every day (so much so that it was remarked on when there was no bombing on 1st December 2014). The images on her phone and the messages she sent are of frequent bombing close to the house, and as she said to the police, of close, smoking buildings.
- In her oral evidence T said that on the first occasion, when they were in Raqqa, that bombing took place “everyone was ordered to go to another place in the house…we went to the basement and waited…” T said she was “panicked” felt “frightened and scared” and was worried she would be killed. Y was with her while all this was going on; it is inconceivable that her fear and panic was not transmitted to him. She said “All the women had gone to this place and we stood together and there were looks of fear, some were crying. Everyone walked to a basement and waited in fear”
- T then tried to minimise the event she had been describing by saying that there had been no immediate panic and that there was a lot of women who were quite content to die as they would have been seen as martyrs. In a further attempt to diminish the dangerousness of their situation she said, when questioned about an image on her phone of a building with a large column of smoke coming from it taken on 1st January 2015, that the building was not on fire it was just smoke and that the building “looked closer than it was.” To try to reduce the evidence of frequent bombings she said that on occasion they would hear a bang in the distance. As she also said that “on one occasion there was 30 bombs” dropped, this was a further contradiction in her evidence which raised questions as to her credibility. It was her evidence that while she and Y were in Raqqa there were about 15 occasions altogether when bombs were dropped, this contradicts the messages she was sending at the time. Nonetheless she did concede that; “It’s not a place for anybody …I would never want my family there.”
- When she was asked during her oral evidence about the effects of the bombing on the children T said that Y would not have been aware of the bombing or upset because “we just distracted them [the children]“. She had and gave no further explanation of how they had distracted the children or why she felt sure or understood Y to have been unaffected by the bombs going off, the noise, the building shaking and the panic and fear surrounding him.
- I find it very unlikely that Y, or any of the children, could have been unaware of the bombing. I find it unlikely that he was not upset by it; it is simply not credible. In reality T’s oral evidence amounted to further evidence of a chronic lack of insight, empathy and understanding of what her child must have gone through. T said of Y that “he never cries, on one occasion it startled him but [he] never cried. It made him jump once”. This was in stark contrast to her evidence about the effects on her; when 30 bombs fell she said that the missiles “sounded like when a firework goes off…its very scary…the most scared I have been in my life.” Moreover, I find that it is most unlikely that Y did not wake up and that he stayed asleep as bombs fell all night and the house shook around them as T suggested in her evidence to me.
Even ignoring the risk to her son’s life and limbs in being in a warzone where bombs were being dropped that frequently, the loud noises and panic must have been very frightening for him. One might argue – I don’t think anyone tried here – that surely not all of the children who lived through the Blitz in World War II also suffered significant harm though of course none of them had mothers who deliberately chose to put themselves and their children at such risk. I suspect we really won’t know the impact on this little boy until much later in life. I hope with loving care from his grandmother and the right sort of support he will have very limited memories of the experience.
The mother did describe the impact that it had on her
- When she returned to the UK from Syria T said that she had continued to be affected by her experiences “when I first came back a loud bang would make me think what is that!” She went on to agree, when it was put to her, that the bombing did make Y jump and that he was “probably scared“. I find that it is more likely than not that Y was frightened by the bombing in Raqqa. When taken as a whole it is T’s own evidence that she, and therefore Y too, had lived in situation of heightened anxiety and fear, which was also experienced by the other families and children around them. This must have had an emotional impact on Y that was harmful, exposed as he was to frequent bombing, noise, anxiety and the panicked reaction of the other children and their mothers; and, most significantly, given his tender years, the fear and anxiety of his own mother. He was present when, as she told me, she was fearful for her own life. I have little doubt that he suffered emotional harm as a result.
- The emotional harm would have been compounded by the fact that his mother had taken him away from all that was safe and familiar to him, and from the rest of his family. T severed those relationships and placed him in what was, on her own account, a harsh, restrictive and punitive atmosphere where he was kept imprisoned in a house full of total strangers. It would be quite remarkable if he was unaffected psychologically. T has never given any evidence, description or detail of how she manged to ameliorate this situation to the extent that Y remained unaffected; at the very least he would have suffered harm as a result of being taken away from home, family and safe and familiar surroundings; when one adds the bombing, fear, panic, restriction and threatening atmosphere along with the effects of fear on his mother it is not credible to suggest that he did not suffer significant emotional harm.
- I find on the evidence before me that there was frequent, if not daily, bombing close to the house; so that on occasions the house shook and that the bombing resulted in damage to other buildings that were close enough to be photographed on a phone. The bombing meant that the other people in the house, adults and children alike, were repeatedly panicked, scared and anxious, that Y, too, would have been frightened at the time of the bombing and that afterwards he would have been anxious about it all happening again. He would have been worried, anxious, distressed and frightened by his mother’s fear and panic. I find that Y was emotionally and psychologically harmed as a direct result of his experiences in Syria.
- The flight from Syria as described by T must have been a frightening experience for Y, she certainly found it to be so. Later in the detention centre in Turkey, surrounded by yet more strangers, he became ill and was hospitalised. The court was given no details of his illness and treatment by his mother, in what can only be a further attempt to minimise or deflect attention from the effects of her actions on her very young son.
The Court also considered the emotional harm to the child of being drawn into the propaganda and manipulation of Daesh for their own ends.
- Y would have been confused and probably caused some anxiety and distress as a result of being photographed in a number of poses which are potentially abusive as they were taken with the intent of promoting violence and terrorism. His image was posted under the title “Abu Jihad Al Britani” next to an AK47 which had been arranged with a caption; it can only have been taken with the purpose of reproducing his image to use as propaganda. There are five images of Y wearing a Daesh logo balaclava and a further three images of Y wearing a Daesh balaclava in the court bundle. There are also images of Y and his mother under a Daesh flag; on the 27th December 2014 T sent a message to a friend asking that they “send me the pictures of me and Zaeem by the flag at Umm Salama maqar.”
- While the fact that Y was only two years old means that he will not have fully appreciated the potentially exploitative and abusive nature of the photographs it does not alter the fact that his mother manipulated him or allowed others to do so. I accept the local authority’s case that there remains risk of emotional harm when the child becomes aware of these images in the future and of his mother’s role in their production.
- I find that T was well aware of the use that such images could be put and was aware of the use of children as part of Daesh propaganda as she had stored an image on her own phone of a very young child reading with Daesh flag. T’s explanations in her evidence for the photographs were confused and evasive. T had told me that she had something of a celebrity status in the house in Raqqa because of the activity she had been party to online before leaving the UK and because of the notoriety her case had attracted in the media when members of her family had spoken about her after she left. She attempted to deny knowledge of the pictures such as the “Abu Jihad” photo she said to me “I have no knowledge of this picture…. I didn’t know this photo existed…” She tried to suggest that the picture was a fake by saying, “If there was an expert to tell me this is a real picture…” When she was asked what use the photo may be put to she said “it was never used” thus contradicting her assertion that she did not know of its existence. When it was pointed out to her that she said Y was always in her care and so no-one could have taken pictures of Y without her knowledge the best explanation she could come up with was, “I could have been in the shower…”
- T’s evidence about the other pictures was equally unconvincing; she said that those in which Y was wearing the ISIS balaclava had happened because it “it belonged to the man of the house….at the time my son liked to wear hats and things on his head at that time. It was not about what it had written on it”. Once again she betrayed in her evidence an absence of any concern or consideration about the potential harm to her son. T claimed, somewhat bizarrely, that the picture taken under the flag was “to show where I was from.” T claimed that she did not think the person who had it would use it for propaganda. As T had both notoriety and “celebrity” status that it was a wholly disingenuous suggestion.
- From the pictures taken in the house in Raqqa and from T’s evidence Y had been living in an environment where there were a range of guns and where those weapons were used and brandished by his mother and others. Self-evidently the risk of physical harm or even death is high in such a situation. The court had before it numerous images of T and others with guns, including images of T next to a firearm, images of T and other women posing with guns on the balcony. In one such picture there is an image of a child in the foreground which is more likely than not to be Y. There were numerous images of T and other women posing with guns. On the 1st December 2014 she sent a message to M “I have a gun” followed by 11 images of a gun in which a female hand is seen holding the gun and that person is wearing a garment in which T was frequently photographed. On 17th December T sent a WhatsApp message to M “– Wallah I have the same gun as you – AK 47”. Despite telling M in the WhatsApp conversation she had a gun she then claimed in her oral evidence never to have owned a gun; she then said all people involved in Daesh have a gun and said that the “man of the house” and his wife had a gun but could not explain how she came to be holding it in a photograph.
- T told me in respect of a picture of her with an AK 47 “I’m not holding it in this picture…I am taking a selfie and the person next to me is trying to get me to hold the gun”. To say that T’s evidence in respect of this and other pictures lacked credibility would be to understate the case, her oral evidence is directly contradicted by the images in the court bundles which were also seen by the jury in the Crown Court. In one instance T claimed that she had taken a picture of a woman holding a gun rather than accept that she was the woman in the image herself. She had frequently said that Y was not present while insisting in her evidence that Y was always with her and then, finally, said, “not sure if Y would know what a gun is”. The evidence of the social worker is that Y is all too aware of what a gun is and becomes over-excited by the suggestion of guns and shooting, and runs around mimicking shooting and makes noises of gunfire.
- T’s evidence regarding the pictures, their use and the role of Daesh “logo” is a brazen attempt to deny something that she is well aware of; when she gave evidence to this court she had not long been convicted of being a member of Daesh/ISIS and of encouraging terrorism (as set out above). The impact of being in the environment of the Daesh household on Y would have been emotionally harmful, and her evidence to the contrary is wholly unconvincing.
What a world we live in, when a mother could even contemplate this being a suitable life for a toddler. I despair.
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