The support made available to families of individuals who travel abroad to join terrorist organisations is lamentable. We were concerned to hear from Konika Dhar that she received no support from the Government or statutory agencies. Our predecessor Committee previously recommended that there needs to be an easily accessible advice and counselling service, particularly for parents, but also for other family members and friends, who wish to raise concerns and ask for help when worried about their loved ones being radicalised. We reiterate the recommendation for such a counselling service which would provide much needed support to families. We know that identifying the route to radicalisation and the tipping point where individuals start embracing extremism is complicated. By constructively engaging with the families and friends of people who have been radicalised, lessons can be learned, which is crucial to better identifying the tipping point for their transition to extremism. As a minimum, the Government must change the name of the ‘antiterrorist helpline’ which can be seen as too stigmatising and makes people apprehensive about expressing their worries. (Paragraph 94)

Micheal’s response:

I agree with the committee’s findings that the support for families is lacking. Although my Mum and I felt that the police were largely cooperative and supportive during the investigation into my Brother’s departure and eventual death, outside of the parameters of the ‘investigation’, we were left to deal with the ‘everyday’ and emotional trauma alone. We found it difficult independently accessing the most appropriate services to deal with practical issues such as, registering Thomas’ death and dealing with press enquiries, but also finding someone who really understood the conflict of emotion that this unique situation invokes. Through speaking with other families, I have found that this is a common theme.  

The SAFE project was launched first and foremost to provide families with a point of contact who can truly empathise with the difficult issues at hand and not pass any judgement. We know that some families might feel uncomfortable contacting the counter-terrorism helpline initially. Equally, dealing with the loss of an individual to terrorism is conceivably out of this helpline remit. As well as this unique emotional support, SAFE helpline also aims to signpost and facilitate contact between families and other advisory/support organisations. Although this sounds simple, from my own experience, I think families would appreciate the weight of finding these sources being taken off their shoulders.

Through listening to families unique experiences, we aim to build a better picture of the needs of families and the root causes of radicalisation in all its complexity. We offer a platform for affected families to speak out about their experiences and influence the way we think about radicalisation and violent extremism. In my view, families should be considered as an integral part of preventative strategies. From my own experience with Tom, who remained in contact with us whilst he was in Somalia, the family is often the hardest bond to break and therefore has the greatest chance of bringing an individual back from these dangerous life choices.  It is only through listening to these lived experiences that we can really understand this issue and attempt to develop worthwhile and productive responses.

We are never going to combat terror effectively unless the communities themselves take on a leadership role. It is these communities that stand to lose the most when atrocities occur. We were deeply concerned to hear CAGE’s views on not condemning terrorist acts, which we believe simply increases the sense of isolation from society that some individuals within the community feel. We also note CAGE’s sensitivity about the use of the term ‘religious fascism’. We commend the speed of organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain in condemning atrocities, but feel they could do more to expose and remove those who preach or advocate race hate and intolerance, and particularly those who draw young people into extremism. Such large community organisations must also show more effective leadership in supporting families concerned about their loved ones. It would be hugely beneficial for the new advice service which we have recommended be established to be staffed by trained members of community organisations. The Home Office should also provide support for existing community initiatives such as Families Against Stress and Trauma (FAST), including publicising their activities, to ensure that people are clearly aware of who they can turn to for support. (Paragraph 95)

Micheal’s response:

I agree that a community leadership role is key to combatting terrorism, hence my decision to join Faith Matters to set up the SAFE project. Faith Matters has a long standing history of expertise in the field of counter extremism as well as trusted community links. It has developed platforms of discourse (both online and offline) between various faith groups to challenge hate and intolerance and demonstrate solidarity against the recent terror attacks in London, Manchester as well as those in Egypt and Pakistan.  It is through working closely with front-line communities and families, that we can build a stronger sense of community cohesion – the fundamental antidote to violent extremism and terrorism. The role of SAFE is within this context, but more specifically focused towards equipping families with the knowledge, skills and confidence to challenge uncompromising and divisive attitudes and behaviours.

Government Response:

Approximately 850 UK-linked individuals of national security concern have travelled to engage with the Syrian conflict. We estimate that just under half have returned to the UK and approximately 15% are deceased. Over the course of 2016, fewer people travelled from the UK to the conflict area than in previous years. We continue to prevent individuals from travelling overseas to Syria and Iraq and this crucial work includes police officers, social workers and education professionals. In response to increasing numbers of incidents in which children and young people were being taken to Syria and Iraq, we supported local authorities’ use of the family courts to safeguard children. In 2015, 50 children (from around 20 families) were protected by the courts from being taken to a conflict area.

 For those families affected by relatives joining terrorist organisations, specialist officers are appointed by police forces to support families during investigation. These are trained officers who are not themselves involved with the investigation. They provide the link between the family and the investigative team. This officer will gain an understanding of the needs, fears and expectations of the family and work with partners to ensure that any safeguarding provision is discussed and implemented where appropriate. They are also able introduce the family to relevant organisations for support. In addition, statutory adult and children social services and GPs exist to provide assistance to vulnerable families as required.

 The Home Office has worked with local authorities, NHS partners and childcare specialists to understand the likely needs of minors returning from Syria and ensure support is available to safeguard them on return to the UK.

Micheal’s final thoughts:

I appreciate the ongoing effort of government to tackle this difficult issue. However, I can only reiterate, that from my experience, greater understanding through mutual trust and guidance between families and local authorities/statutory services is needed. A community project like SAFE can help build this trust through its specialist, dedicated and ‘person-centred’ support.