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“Fell far short of the promise foreshadowed in her CV” (radicalisation, Tower Hamlets)

This is the Hayden J judgment in the Tower Hamlets case involving the girl who had tried to go to Syria having been exposed to extremist videos and propaganda of the most alarming kind.

 

I wrote about the early stages of it here,   https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/08/27/radicalisation-of-children-and-isis-jihadi-brides/    when Hayden J learned that the parents (who had been saying that they were shocked and appalled by what was happening to their daughter) seemed by the analysis by security services of what was being accessed in the home to be more implicated than one might imagine.

 

Part 2 is here : –  London Borough Tower Hamlets and B 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/1707.html

 

It makes for extraordinary and shocking reading – and you will learn a LOT about radicalisation cases and how ISIS goes about manipulating and recruiting young people by reading this judgment. I could not recommend it more highly for any professional working within the field, any lawyer who thinks that radicalisation is a feature in one of their cases, or a concerned parent.

 

 

This is some of the material removed from the family home (bear in mind that by this stage, the girl had already made the attempt to go to Syria to become a jihadi bride)

 

 

  • The following material was removed from the household:

 

Document Title Device
“A Muhajid’s Guide to the West” this document contravenes section 58 TACT 2000
Chapter 1 “Hiding the extremist identity”

B’s SD card
“Miracles in Syria”
B’s SD card
“Hijrah to the Islamic State” B’s SD card
H’s Apple Mac Laptop
L’s hard-drive
“The Dust Will Never Settle Down” an audio lecture by Anwar Al-Awlaki est. 2008 B’s Sony Vaio Laptop
H’s Apple Mac Laptop
J’s Samsung Laptop
L’s hard-drive
“The Book of Jihad” an audio lecture by Anwar Al-Awlaki 2003 H’s Apple Mac Laptop
J’s Samsung laptop
L’s hard-drive
“44 ways to support jihad” by Anwar Al-Alwaki
B’s Sony Vaio Laptop
DABIQ and ISN publications H’s USB storage device
L’s hard-drive
Videos Exhibit IDK/36 ‘For the Sake of Allah – Fisabilillah’

Exhibit MAE/5 ‘Upon the Prophetic Methodology – AlFurqaan Media’

Video DSCN2418.AVI – Home video that shows an ALM march

 

  • Some of the material on these videos, all agree, depicts behaviour of appalling human depravity. It includes mass killings, sadistic torture (which I have been advised has symbolic significance and is not merely gratuitous), random killings by youths in a car by using AK47 machine guns, scenes of mass graves and bloodied lakes and killings videoed in such a manner as to create the impression that the viewer is the killer looking through the cross hairs of a telescopic sight attached to a rifle. The written material includes sinister polemics designed to rally ‘good Muslims’ to the cause of jihad. Some of these documents deliver sophisticated messages to the reader, advising them how best to create the impression of social compliance whilst participating in an anarchic agenda. I have personally read much of that material in order to try to equip myself to evaluate the evidence in an informed way, and to alert myself to any potential subterfuge. I cannot imagine how it is that the officers of the CTU manage to view the material I have described whilst remaining inured to it. I feel constrained to observe that which is obvious from the above, that the public owes them a debt of gratitude.

 

 

The girl’s own description of just one video.  (skip this if you are squeamish. In fact, just skip it. You don’t need to read it. You have my permission not to)

 

“I saw a video of men chained together one by one after what was said to have been a battle, who were said to be the prisoners they had taken. They took them to something like a dock/or a sea wall straight onto the sea. They unchained them one by one and shot them in the back of the head so they fell into the water. They sought to portray this like the story of Commander Khalid Bin Waleed who was fighting against the Jews and he made a promise that the river would run red with blood if he won. The water in this video by the end of it was red; they had killed so many people. I’m not sure they were even soldiers at all now, they may well just have been people, ordinary civilians, who didn’t agree with IS coming in and taking over. “

“I saw a lot of videos and scenes of violence. When I first started seeing them I was shocked at the violence. I didn’t like to watch it. I was also accessing a lot of video and other on line material that I now realise was just propaganda. “

 

 

 

First of all, the Court is scathing of the independent social worker who came with high recommendations to this field.  (I don’t want to wish any professional ill, so let’s say that she was perhaps out of her depth on this sort of case)

33.It was pressed upon me by all the advocates for the family, that Ms Rukhsana Thakrar should be appointed as an independent social worker. I was assured that she was well regarded and as a professional Muslim woman not associated with the Local Authority, or the Guardian for that matter, she seemed to me to be well placed to undertake what I identified in my earlier judgment as the need for an ‘intense, thorough and comprehensive assessment’. I must also admit to my aspiration that Ms Thakrar would provide an example to B of the opportunities open to independent Muslim women in the UK. Ms Thakrar has an LLB (Hons), a MA in social work, a CQSW and is an accredited social work practice teacher. She has also worked in the capacity of Guardian ad Litem, CAFCASS officer and asserts in her CV that she ‘specialises’ in ‘working with Muslim families’.

 

 

34.I very much regret to say that Ms Thakrar fell far short of the promise foreshadowed by her CV. In her very lengthy report, which is essentially simple reportage of what the family has said to her, Ms Thakrar missed the opportunity to confront them with my earlier findings and to challenge their various belief structures. Though I am satisfied that her instructions were clear and supplemented by a further set of instructions specifically directing her to the court’s concerns, she appeared to have very little understanding of the nature of the task she was engaged in. Her view of the family was expressed with fulsome positivity, though I have found it impossible to identify any analysis in her report upon which her optimism could be founded. More than that, within a report spanning over 130 pages I have struggled to identify any analysis of any issue in the case. Rather unusually despite the glowing conclusions she advanced, I had no sense that the family had forged any kind of constructive relationship with her either.

 

39.I am constrained to say that Ms Thakrar has fallen, by some distance, below the standard that this court is entitled to expect from an expert witness. In so doing she has failed the children (primarily), the parents and the other professionals in this case who have worked extremely hard to manage a very challenging situation. I have noted that Pauffley J made criticisms of equal magnitude and of similar complexion in Re A, B C & D [2009] EWHC 2136 (Fam) and Re S (A child) (Care Order) [2014] EWHC 529 (Fam).

 

 

(That case can be found here http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/529.html    – some key extracts   It seemed to me that Ms Farooqi – Thakrar’s evidence was far from even handed and less than helpful.     

  • This aspect of Ms Farooqi – Thakrar’s recommendation seems to me to be extremely poorly thought through. There was a sense, as she gave her evidence, of her almost making it up as she went along

 

  • It was a further defect in the evidence of Ms Farooqi – Thakrar that she had failed to consider S’s considerable behavioural difficulties. When asked about that aspect, she simply said, `Well, all of this will just disappear when S has been reunited with her mother and I’ve seen it happen in other cases.’ I am surprised, even amazed, that Ms Farooqi – Thakrar was prepared to make forecasts about what would happen in this case relying exclusively upon her experiences in other cases. I do not share her optimism. Moreover I consider such an experiment would be thoroughly risky and altogether ill-advised at this juncture.

 

 

If you are unwrapping a brief tonight and underneath the pink tape is a part 25 application to instruct this ISW tomorrow, I’m sorry that I’ve just ruined your evening )

 

 

 

The Judge was, however, very complimentary about the social work evidence in the case

 

45.Ms Thelma Ukueku is the key social worker in the case, employed by Tower Hamlets. When the deficiencies in Ms Thakrar’s report came to light Ms Ukueku agreed, in the time remaining, to plan and undertake an assessment addressing the risk matrix referred to above. This report was undertaken with a Mr Brian Sharpe and a Ms Juliette Thompson. I heard from Ms Ukueku and Mr Sharpe in evidence. It is an unfortunate fact that Judges have, from time to time, to be critical, sometimes highly critical of social workers. Too often good social work goes without comment or commendation. This case provides some opportunity to remedy that. This family is extremely fortunate that Ms Ukueku was allocated to this case. She has shown unstinting commitment to them, she has been tireless in her determination to help them, she has unhesitatingly sacrificed her own personal time and displayed an impressive mix of intellectual rigour and compassion. Perhaps most importantly, whilst trying to work effectively with the family, she has not shied away from confronting them robustly and directly where she perceives there to be error or inappropriate behaviour. She has, in my view, ‘worked’ the case, in the sense that she has not merely recorded the attitudes or behaviours of the adults, rather she has actively intervened to try to change them where, in her assessment, they are contrary to the interests of the child.

 

 

46.I have mentioned above that I elected not to see the video material in this case. It is rarely necessary for the Judge or the lawyers to do so. It is probably desirable that we should not. The danger that we become inured to it is greater than might initially be thought. Some of the material here is, plainly profoundly shocking. Ms Ukueku took the view that if she were truly to understand what harm B had been subjected to she ought to look at some of the material herself. She told me that on reflection she wished she had not done so. It had caused her real, not merely superficial, distress. She told me how some of the images are lodged in her mind and have from time to time intruded unexpectedly into her thoughts. She twice needed to pause to maintain her composure, as she outlined this to the Court. She told me, at this point, slightly tearfully, that she had been terribly shocked and deeply upset that B had been regularly exposed to such images. It was a powerful and memorable moment in the hearing. I noted that it had some impact on B which seemed to me to be chiefly one of real surprise. I think this was both as to the effect the images had on Ms Ukueku as well as some realisation of the great effort made on her behalf.

 

Powerful stuff. You’ll note from the earlier portion that the Judge himself did not view the material – and I think that he was right not to. There were clear descriptions available from those brave souls in the police and counter-terrorism who did have to watch them. I myself would not feel the need to watch the videos, and if my social workers asked me whether they should, I would tell them not to. If they felt extremely strongly about it I would have asked the Court for an indication that they need not watch them and would not be criticised for failing to do it.  I say this not to make any criticism of anyone involved in this case – but to avoid the risk that because this social worker did so (and now regretting it) puts a benchmark up that others should be expected to do so. If there’s a description of the content of such material and that description is not disputed, I am with Hayden J that it is not necessary for professionals to see it and that it is desirable that we should not.

 

It became apparent during the hearing that the father, who had seen terrible attrocities in Gaza that had profoundly affected him, had shown his children images that they should not have seen.

 

  • It occurs to me that the reason that the father may be so eloquent in articulating the emotional harm caused by such images is that he sustained a similar kind of harm himself as a child. He told Ms Thakrar that as a Berber male from the Algerian community he held some negativity towards the French in their use of tanks in Algeria in the 1950’s. He explained that his family had shown him photographs of this period which he considered revealed French tactics to be ‘unjust and upsetting’ and which plainly had stayed in his memory. In evidence, he drew a comparison with these grainy, black and white photographs of a conflict which pre-dated his birth and the videos seen by B. The moving, ‘living’ pictures in colour and so much more clearly defined were, the father said, much more searing.
  • During the course of the Mother’s evidence the Local Authority applied for permission to produce material from social media. The application, which I granted, was made before the Father went into the witness box. The material included photographs of charred bodies and the cracked skull of a dead infant. These were produced into evidence, I think, during the course of the cross examination of the Father. In any event I did not look at them until the Father was asked to comment on them. I was not expecting to see the kind of images they contained, indeed it took me a moment or two, from the rather poor quality photocopies, to realise what I was looking at. I found them disturbing.
  • The Father told me that he was motivated by the photographs to participate in humanitarian work. I accept that he was. Nonetheless, I had the strong impression, as he responded to questions, that he too had, albeit in a different way to his daughter, become numbed to images of death. Such photographs may well have triggered moral outrage in him, an entirely different dynamic to B’s objectives in looking at the material I have considered above, but for all that I sensed that something of his own ‘pity’ and ‘mercy’, to use his expressions, had been compromised. I do not think that he contemplated that the image of the child might not merely shock people, but that it might provoke a simple human distress reaction for the child which eclipsed the underlying humanitarian objective that he intended. I consider that this resonates with something that he is reported as having told Ms Thakrar:

 

“He stated that when he was in Gaza he had watched what was going on in Gaza. This appears to have been a turning point for [the father]. He stated that he watched Aljazeera Arabic as he felt that Aljazeera gave an accurate picture of what was going on in the world. He also brought back videos and pictures of Muslims being killed and burnt alive. He stated that Palestines (sic) were being killed by Israelis. He found this very haunting and upsetting. He explained to me that his children saw these pictures and they were all upset and crying. It was very clear from his body language and how he spoke that these atrocities had left a deep and lasting impression on him. It also appears from his descriptions that all the children had been deeply moved and upset. Certainly they would have left a deep impression on [B].”

 

  • Once again the father challenges the accuracy of the ISW report, he denies that he told Ms Thakrar that he showed photographs or videos to his children, claiming that she has misreported him. I reject that. There is much in that passage which is plainly accurate. The father was fulsome in evidence about the atrocities in Gaza, as he sees them. He plainly, in my assessment, was affected by what he had seen. He confirmed that he watched Al Jazeera on the basis that he felt that was a reliable chronicler of world events and certainly accepted that he had brought back pictures. All of this is essentially accurately recorded. It is also very much of a piece with his evidence more generally. I may have been critical of Ms Thakrar’s lack of focus and forensic rigour but, as I have already said, I have no reason at all to doubt her integrity. Neither have I found evidence of regular misreporting, in what I remind myself were 84 hours of interviews.
  • I am satisfied that the father did indeed show these children videos or pictures of Muslims being killed and burnt alive. I consider that in the heat of his own outrage he was motivated to do so by what I have loosely referred to as humanitarian instincts. Having been shown disturbing photographs of death himself as a child I do not think that he has ever extrapolated from that, that it is entirely inappropriate to present children with such images. He does not appear to have absorbed that childhood innocence needs to be protected and that he as a father has that responsibility. His failure to rise to those obligations is, in my assessment of the evidence, critical to what has happened to B. I also consider that like B, he too has become desensitised, on a basic human level, to images of child and adult suffering. His response is ideological rather than visceral.

 

 

 

Hayden J also makes some important points about the standard of proof in these cases  (I think most readers know my views about the cases of radicalisation decided by other Judges, where admittedly the analysis and evidence done by the security services came nowhere near the amount of detail that Hayden J had available to him)

 

52.Cases involving allegations of radicalisation do not require any greater standard of proof than any other allegation in Family Law proceedings. Any impression to the contrary requires to be dispelled

 

 

 

56.In Re X (Children) (No 3) [2015] EWHC 3651 (Fam) the President said §110 ‘There are, as I have noted, many matters on which I am suspicious, but suspicion is not enough, nor is surmise, speculation or assertion.’

 

 

57.I am confident that the President was there intending to emphasise the importance of evidential discipline and forensic rigour. He was not, for a moment, suggesting that in the application of the civil standard of proof the Court is in anyway prohibited from drawing reasonable inferences from ascertainable facts. There is plainly an important distinction between suspicion and inference, the two should not be conflated.

 

 

It is pleasing to hear that this girl is drawing back from the extremist position that she was once being seduced by and was showing some insight and reflection into what was wrong with the material that she was seeing  (that has to be hedged by the knowledge that material was being accessed in that house that taught how to lie, conceal, suppress your views and pacify those investigating them, but let us be optimists rather than gloomy pessimists)

 

The Judge had the unenviable task of deciding where B should live. He looked hard at all of the issues (this blog doesn’t have space to go into all of it, but if you are having a reaction to his conclusion I would suggest that you take the time to read the judgment itself) and how B had fared in care over the last nine months.

 

 

  • Unsurprisingly, B wants to go home, she is rather desperate to do so. She is sad and lonely and misses her siblings, particularly her younger brother. She is being phlegmatic about life with Mr and Mrs J but I think she senses a loneliness for her there too. So do I. Mr & Mrs J have their own interests and commitments, these are understandably not structured around a teenage girl and will require much renegotiation in their lives. I was told that their commitments do not enable them to allocate a great deal of time to helping B make the transition to their home over the summer months, were that to be the plan.
  • Many teenagers of this age, who find themselves in the care system, simply take matters into their own hands or to use the term frequently heard in these Courts ‘they vote with their feet’. For the duration of the Care Order i.e. until she is 18 (in just over 12 month’s time) I think it unlikely that B would do so. To some extent, her experience of the Court system has been salutary. After that I do not know. She will be beyond my remit and able to exercise her own adult autonomy. Should she return to her parents home at that point and there may be pressure for her to do so, she will once again interrupt her education and potentially damage her academic prospects. Though it may not seem the obvious solution, in the light of my findings above, I have come to the conclusion that the plan most likely to meet B’s needs is to return her home. I identify the following reasons:

 

i) The circumstances of B’s radicalisation involved a combination of factors and influences unique to her situation;

ii) B’s brothers and sisters do not share her beliefs and are likely to be resistant to them;

iii) B is most likely to rediscover her own intellectual autonomy in a home environment where she is happy and loved;

iv) I think it likely that the siblings will challenge B’s extremist beliefs, even without intending to do so;

v) B will enrol in a local college if she returns home;

vi) I think it likely that B will respond enthusiastically to a wider social group at college, holding inevitably different opinions and beliefs. Her lively intellect is likely to be stimulated by the exchange of ideas. It is worth emphasising that B has never attended school before;

vii) Whilst I consider that B’s admissions in this court are driven by her pragmatic evaluation of the evidence against her, as she herself volunteered, there is nonetheless an underlying sincerity to her own description of the numbing effect that these awful videos have had on her. This has the potential to be a breakthrough in combating what she has described as her ‘addiction’ to violent and death related images;

viii) In the last 9 months the Local Authority’s Care Plan has been able to provide a sustained period in which B has not seen the kind of images that have caused her such harm. This occurred at a crucial stage in her development and has enabled her to gain the tentative insights I have referred to above. (As I know B will read this judgment carefully, I wish her to appreciate a simple and unvarnished truth: those who do not empathise with human pain and suffering will never make effective doctors, it is intrinsic to the core motivation of the profession);

ix) The family has a proactive social worker who has demonstrated that she will not be naïve and will not be deflected by controlling or manipulative behaviour. The plans for all the children should enable them to get space from their mother. In particular, the mother should not attend the children’s Prevent sessions and neither should she collect the children from school;

x) Having recognised the impact of death related images on his daughter, I have some confidence that the father will restrain from sharing such images with her in the future. This he might like formally to undertake to the Court, knowing that he might be sent to prison should he breach his own undertaking;

xi) I also consider that this family can be more easily monitored when together rather than separated. I have no doubt that the police and the social services will be vigilant concerning the use of computers in this household;

She was therefore placed at home under a Care Order. All we can do now is wish her and her family well and hope that their lives take a different course than might have developed by exposure to such dreadful, graphic imagery which would give the most robust adult terrible nightmares.

At the very end of the judgment, the Judge records the general advice given by Professor Silke and Dr Brown in radicalisation cases, and that’s really something to be circulated to absolutely any professional working in this area – it contains invaluable information and guidance, in a very clear and easy to follow style and language.