Female British Muslims as vulnerable to radicalisation as men, study shows

British Muslim women and girls are just as vulnerable to becoming radicalised as their male peers, according to the author of a study into the early stages of the process.

The news comes amid reports of girls as young as 14 travelling to Syria from the west, to marry Islamist fighters, bear their children and join their communities.

A study from the Queen Mary University of London has found that suffering from depression, being financially comfortable, well-educated and socially isolated were common factors among those sympathetic to acts of terrorism, identified by researchers as the first of two stages of early radicalisation. The second, it said, was contact with radical, unorthodox beliefs.

Those whose families had lived in the UK for generations were more vulnerable than migrants, the report found.

As many as 500 British fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq, it has emerged, while academics say as many as 10% of them could be women.

Professor Kamaldeep Bhui, professor of cultural psychology and epidemiology at Queen Mary University, said that gender did not play a significant role in the risk of radicalisation: “Women are no less likely in our analysis to have sympathies” with terrorism, Bhui said. If anything, they were more likely to show such sympathy, but “not significantly so” he said. “There is an increasing epidemic of girls” he added.

Academics said as many as 60 British females have fled to Syria to join Islamic State (Isis), mainly between the ages of 16 and 24. They include Aqsa Mahmood, 20, a woman from Glasgow who fled to Syria in November last year. Twin sisters Zahra and Salma Halane, 16, left their home in Chorlton, Manchester, in July without their parents’ knowledge to follow their brother to Syria. And in August, Amal El-Wahabi, 27, a mother of two from north London, and wife of a fighter, became the first Briton to be convicted under terror laws of funding jihadi fighters in Syria. Her friend, Nawal Msaad, 27, who tried to smuggle £15,000 in rolled-up banknotes in her underwear, on a flight to Turkey form Heathrow, was cleared of the same offence.

At a briefing organised by the Science Media Centre, at the Wellcome Collection in London, Bhui said that parents worried about their children should look out for signs of depression or disaffection and warned that those who indulged in fantasy worlds or alternative identities were more at risk.

He interviewed 600 Muslims aged 18-45 from the Bangladeshi and Pakistani community in Bradford and London and asked detailed questions about their lives and their views on terrorism, in order to find out what drives Britons to go abroad to fight. He calculated their risk of radicalisation according to a score of sympathy or condemnation of a series of protests against injustice, from non-violent to terrorism and suicide bombing.

“The group who sympathised were younger, in full-time education and generally wealthy,” he said. “They were more likely to be depressed and socially isolated.”

He found that those who expressed sympathy with terrorist ideologies were more likely to be middle class, with a household income of £75,000, and likely to be disaffected or depressed, with a smaller social network than those who condemned terrorist acts, he said.

Bhui said that these individuals, when they come into contact with “unorthodox thinking, connect with it”. He said that mosques could act as a “protective factor”. Those in the Bangladeshi community were more likely to condemn terrorism, in the group he surveyed, he said.

Interestingly, Bhui said that migrants were less likely to become radicalised because they are poorer, busier with the need to earn money and they remembered the problems of their homeland. “Those who are having a hard life, who are migrants, are too busy to have fantastic thoughts about attacks,” he said.

The numbers of those who had sympathy with terrorism were small, he said, with 2.5% showing sympathy and 1.5% having sympathy for the most extreme acts of violence and terrorism.

He described government moves to strip Britons who travel Iraq or Syria to join Isis of their citizenship as a disaster. He said: “My personal view is that it would be a disaster, because you are criminalising them. Some of those kids are 15 to 18, young and probably inexperienced and police in Wales took a different stance. They didn’t want to criminalise. I would be happy to work with them.”