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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Are mothers to blame for the recent spate of young women extremists?

In two recent cases, the mothers were key figures whose actions in the name of protecting their daughters ended up doing precisely the opposite, writes Gavin Esler

Safaa Boular, the teenager found guilty last week of preparing acts of terrorism with her mother and sister in Britain's first all-female ISIS cell. Metropolitan Police via AP
Safaa Boular, the teenager found guilty last week of preparing acts of terrorism with her mother and sister in Britain's first all-female ISIS cell. Metropolitan Police via AP

Safaa Boular is the youngest woman in Britain ever to be convicted of a terrorist plot. Now just 18 years old, Boular, her 22-year-old sister Rizlaine and their 44-year-old mother Mina Dich together make up the first all-women ISIS terror cell in the UK.

They targeted British landmarks in a plot disrupted by a very effective counter-terrorism operation. Coincidentally, the conviction of these three women comes as I have been learning about two other young women who fell under the spell of ISIS, who feature in a book by the Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad.

She is the author of Two Sisters, the true and extraordinary story of Ayan and Leila, teenage Somalian sisters living in Norway who decided to leave that country to become jihadi brides in Syria. What, you might well wonder, led four young women who could have pursued very different lives in London and Oslo to be radicalised?

Both stories share common elements. Boular discussed a gun and grenade attack on London’s British Museum with an ISIS recruiter called Naweed Hussain whom she had “married” online. The Norwegian sisters, who fell under the spell of a young Salafist scholar in Norway, spent a great deal of time online with other radical believers and ended up as “brides” in Raqqa.

Their father Sadiq tried to rescue them and persuaded Seierstad that the girls were desperate to return to Norway. But when Seierstad investigated, she discovered precisely the opposite. Ayan and Leila were happy with their new lives as jihadi brides, happy to be with those who killed or chose to die for what they saw as their “cause” and content that they were doing good.

To most people in Norway, Britain or across the world, this radicalisation seems incomprehensible. Why would two girls leave a loving family in Norway, one of the richest and happiest countries in the world, to join strangers in a war zone?

As Seierstad's book shows in great detail, the girls were integrated into Norwegian society. They played sport, dressed like Norwegian girls and spoke the language fluently. Their father was also happily integrated within Norwegian society. Meanwhile, the case begs the question of why Boular and her family would reject the possibility of a good life in one of the world’s most inspirational cities.

The answer in both cases appears at least in part to involve their relationships with their mothers. The British court heard that the Boulars grew up in south London. Their Moroccan-French parents split up acrimoniously when the girls were young. While they maintained a good relationship with their father, in court Safaa Boular accused her mother of being a violent and chaotic parent, who came to adopt a highly conservative interpretation of Islam, despite the fact she had no proper religious instruction beyond what she found online.

Dich angrily lectured her daughters about covering up, not wearing make-up or western clothes and not talking to men. Ayan and Leila’s father, as Seierstad told me, easily settled in Norway but their mother did not. She took 600 hours of compulsory Norwegian lessons yet did not speak the language. She remained illiterate and “her body was in Norway but her mind was still in Somalia”, as Seierstad puts it.

When their mother thought the girls were becoming too westernised, she arranged through a mosque for religious instruction. The result, over a process of time, was that the girls began to wear the niqab and eventually ran to a new life in Syria.

There are big differences in these stories. Ayan and Leila’s family life was full of love; the Boulars' family life was chaotic and abusive. Yet in both families, the mothers proved to be key figures whose actions in the name of protecting their daughters ended up doing precisely the opposite.

These two very different family stories, both with unhappy endings, brought to mind a story about IRA terrorism and radicalisation in Northern Ireland from many years ago. The Irish intellectual and editor-in-chief of The Observer newspaper in the UK, Conor Cruise O’Brien, had a very public row with one of his distinguished journalists, who had written a profile of an Irish woman who had been radicalised. Some young Irish women had enthusiastically joined the IRA’s anti-British terrorist campaign and were prepared to kill and die for their cause, just as Ayan, Leila and the others are now.

O’Brien wrote, very controversially, that the "killing strain" of Irish republicanism "has a very high propensity to run in families and the mother is most often the carrier”. Perhaps. But what we can say for certain is that children might argue with their parents but they never fail to be influenced by them. What we learn at home is lived in life forever. The stories of these sisters mean I look at my own children with a new sense of responsibility.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter