More than a dozen women have so far gone through a controversial secret counselling programme run by Angela Misra (pictured)
Jihadi brides who have returned from Syria after joining the Islamic State terror group are being ‘deradicalised’ at taxpayers’ expense.
More than a dozen women have so far gone through a controversial secret counselling programme run by Angela Misra. The GP has spoken for the first time of her work trying to free the women’s minds from the iron grip of IS’s poisonous ideology.
The news came as the EU’s border agency Frontex warned yesterday that 1,000 more jihadi brides – and widows – are heading for Europe from the collapsed caliphate in Syria and that they posed an ‘evolving’ threat.
Dr Misra revealed:
- One woman told how her white Western friend was married to a jihadi who beheaded his own mother after she told him to leave IS;
- Some returnees include young girls who went to Syria for the ‘romance’ of marrying a ‘gangster husband’, fleeing a forced marriage in the UK;
- Other girls went to Syria because they were groomed online by jihadis who promised them ‘love’;
- Divorced mothers went to Syria searching for a ‘father figure’ for their children, as they could not find husbands in their home communities due to the stigma of being divorcees.
- Women were injected with fertility drugs because they did not fall pregnant immediately and young girls were married off to men in their 50s.
Dr Misra and her husband Usman Raja, a former cage fighter, rehabilitate the women – whose identities have not been revealed – at a secret location. About 18 former IS men have also gone through the programme.
But critics question why the returnees were even allowed back. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said bluntly last year: ‘A dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain.’
Other experts wonder why the jihadi brides have not been charged with terror offences and their names publicised – not least because hardliners going through the programme are still hellbent on establishing a caliphate elsewhere.
But Max Hill QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has warned of the danger of ‘losing a generation’ of men and women by automatically using the courts to punish them, and he urged reintegration.
In 2015, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and 15-year-olds Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, all from East London, fled Britain to join IS in Syria.
Kadiza is believed to have been killed in an air strike in 2016 while trying to escape and the fate of the other girls is unknown. More than 800 UK citizens are thought to have gone to fight for IS in Iraq and Syria, and despite it being a crime to be a member of such a terror group, Ministers admitted in 2016 that only 14 people who have fought for IS had been convicted of the offence. For now, at least, the softly-softly approach prevails.
From left: Teenagers Kadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase flew to Syria in 2015
Dr Misra, 32, and Mr Raja, 41 – who attended the wedding of Katie Price and her cage-fighting husband Alex Reid – are among the leading taxpayer-funded ‘intervention providers’, aiming to turn men and women away from extremism.
The couple co-founded a small organisation called The Unity Initiative (TUI) nine years ago, working with people who have been arrested or served prison sentences. While Dr Misra – a former Hindu who converted to Islam – uses words and patience with the women, her husband takes the highly unusual approach of appealing to the men’s macho side and training them in mixed martial arts.
The couple claim their strategy works in ‘98 per cent of cases’.
In a revealing interview, Dr Misra explained the variety of emotional and religious reasons why the women set out to join IS in the first place.
And far from all being docile followers of Islamist husbands, she described the ideology which seized them as ‘a social movement’, even comparing them to the Suffragettes.
Some younger single girl recruits were captivated by the ‘romance’ of meeting a ‘gangster hero’ who they could marry and escape a forced marriage in the UK. But there is no doubting the horrors witnessed by the women and their children, said Dr Misra. She recounted one example of an IS soldier who beheaded his own mother after she begged him to leave the group.
‘It was considered the ultimate act of loyalty, and he accelerated up the ranks,’ she said. ‘His wife was a white woman from a Western country – while she detested the act, she was able to live in a more comfortable residence.’
A British woman told Dr Misra of pregnant women beaten so badly ‘the ultrasounds showed the disintegration of children in their wombs’.
Other returning jihadi brides are apparently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the atrocities they experienced, with some attempting suicide.
The 12 women who were arrested on their return to Britain are at risk of having their children taken away from them by social services.
In an interview with the US Military Academy at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, Dr Misra said: ‘We’re having to expand significantly because of the demand for the work. One of the newer strands of work we are undertaking is working with individuals being investigated for foreign fighter travel to Syria and Iraq.
‘Like with convicted terrorist offenders, this involves working in tandem with British authorities. I’ve worked with about a dozen female returnees so far.’
She said while some women were escaping problems back home, others were deeply committed to IS. She explained: ‘Their thought process was that by going over and helping setting up the Islamic State… they were also setting up a place that could free other women and other people in this country to practise their faith fully without compromise. In their minds, they were the Muslim equivalents of Suffragettes. It was a question of female emancipation.’
Comment: We should be told who these women are. And they should all be brought to justice
By Professor Anthony Glees, Terrorism Expert
Deradicalisation is a big problem. When Gavin Williamson said that it should be our policy to kill IS fighters on the battlefield, I thought he was right – as long as we were dealing with fighters.
But we’re not Nazis, we’re not fighting a war of extermination. If these people are brought to justice, it may be possible to rehabilitate them, but first they must be charged – and realise they have lost their war and accept total defeat.
We should not turn a blind eye to murder. I’m very anxious about even those with British passports coming back to the UK because it is unclear to me that they will face criminal charges. It seems very odd that of 300 to 400 people who went out there to fight for IS and have returned, not more than a handful have been charged. I also think we should know who they are, and that would be part and parcel of being charged in a court. Not charging them means we don’t know them. We’re dealing with highly dangerous people because they’ve proved themselves to be fanatics, and they’ve received training in weapons and explosives.
Once a terrorist, always a terrorist. You may not behave like one if you feel your defeat is definitive, but in your heart, if you see an opportunity, you’ll go for it. Have they changed their fundamental beliefs? No they haven’t.
For younger girls the reasons were less ideological. She added: ‘I’ve seen cases where there have been young girls that have gone on the romantic idea of meeting a gangster hero who they could get married to because either they were escaping a forced marriage, or they were looking for a theologically sanctioned way to have a relationship of their choosing. I’ve also seen divorced women who went there to find a strong father figure for their children or a husband to help take care of them as they were ostracised from these opportunities in the insular UK communities they were part of.’
Dr Misra spoke of one young woman who fled to Syria to escape her family. ‘I had one case of a woman who was the eldest child of a very large family. She found herself taking care of a number of the younger siblings and felt trapped.’
Dr Misra said that the women who went to Syria soon came to witness the horrors of IS and some became trapped.
She said: ‘Many were forced to marry continually as each husband got killed fighting.
‘To avoid being killed for apostasy [renouncing Islam] and maintain the resulting children and not have them removed by IS courts, they have to outwardly pretend to be supportive.’
Dr Misra refused to give any details of the women she has so far treated, as TUI is bound by strict confidentiality rules. But she discussed the case of one woman, a white Muslim convert, to whom she gave the pseudonym Zaina. Zaina went to Syria to join her husband, rather being than propelled by radicalism. She ended up in Raqqa, IS’s then de facto capital, where she spent three years.
Zaina had a baby in Syria, after which she vowed to escape, as she did not want her child to grow up in the caliphate. She is now believed to be the first British female to come back to the UK with a child born stateless.
‘She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a number of atrocities,’ said Dr Misra. ‘Zaina told me she saw young girls married off to elder men. She met a pregnant girl of 13 married to a man over 50. She met women who were being injected with fertility drugs.’
She added: ‘Zaina spoke of the sheer volume of sexual slavery, how Yazidi women were passed around. She said that other [IS] women not only supported it but would violently reprimand women who expressed revulsion over it.’
However, Dr Misra said that a number of women she is treating went because they were ideologically committed to IS, with some even leaving behind their husbands who refused to relocate. The medic said deradicalising returnees has its risks, as she had faced verbal abuse and even death threats.
Dr Misra and her husband, who are based in Farnborough, Hampshire, founded The Unity Initiative in 2009, and have been rehabilitating jihadi convicts referred to them through the National Probation Service and the Home Office.
Last year, this newspaper told how some returning jihadis were being offered council houses to stop them carrying out attacks in the UK.
Among the convicts Dr Misra deradicalised are Ali Behesthi, 50, and Jordan Horner, 24, former lieutenants of hate cleric Anjem Choudary. Behesthi and two others were jailed for four and half years in 2009 after being found guilty of trying to burn down the house of a publisher in Islington, North London.
Horner was jailed for 17 months in 2013 for his part in running the so-called Muslim Patrol group in East London, which tried to impose sharia law in areas such as Whitechapel. Both men work as volunteers for TUI.
TUI and the Home Office declined to comment yesterday.