Is grooming girls to join ISIS different to grooming for sexual abuse?

CCTV footage shows Shamima Begun, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana walking through security at Gatwick airport before boarding a flight to Turkey.
Amira Abase, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Shamima Begum, 15, at Gatwick airport
Last week three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in east London secretly met and began travelling from the UK to Syria where they intend to join Islamic State (ISIS).  The thing that struck me most was not that they made this journey but that so many people in the UK have such a heartless attitude to the three girls.

Many people on Facebook and Twitter take the view that the girls are little more than terrorists and deserve what’s coming their way.  In the Independent, Grace Dent called the girls “ISIS fangirls” and went on to say that children running away to join ISIS should not be allowed to return to the UK.

I can understand why somebody would take that attitude but I don’t think it is a position that holds up to analysis.

Some years ago I represented a man who groomed children for sex.  I’ve met quite a few such men but this one was by far the most successful I’ve come across.  He convinced whole families of what a nice man he was.  He persuaded parents to sign “modelling” permission slips that allowed him to take teenage girls, aged from 13 to 18 years, into his home to photograph them - he managed to photograph all but one of the teenage girls who lived on the street in varying degrees of undress, about 10 girls in total.  Incidentally, he didn’t take them into his own home; so convincing was he that he took them into the home of his (adult) girlfriend and her teenage daughter whom he was secretly raping.  He was also raping other girls on the street.  These were not one-off incidents; this was a systematic targeting of girls and their families on an entire street over more than a year.  None of the girls complained and nearly all of them went back to this man, even introducing their friends for abuse by him.  Two 15-year-old sisters in particular clearly hated him but went back time and time again, often on a daily basis, knowing that they would be subjected to painful and humiliating sexual attacks, including vaginal and anal rape, bondage and beatings.

What made those girls return to him?  It was the work he did before and after the attacks to groom the girls.  He’d use a mix of gifts, kindness, cajoling and threats to get his victims to bend to his will.

The evidence seems to suggest that something very similar is happening to girls like the three currently heading to Syria.  They are contacted by people either on the internet or in person and are convinced that they should be joining ISIS.  These are not simply young girls sitting about at home watching the news and thinking “cor blimey that looks like a fun way to live”; these are girls who are young, still children and who are being manipulated by adults.  To me there seems to be very little difference between children groomed to join ISIS and children groomed for sexual abuse: same techniques used to control children for the fulfilment of an adult’s agenda.

I have little sympathy for adults who seek to join terrorist groups like ISIS, but I have a great deal of sympathy for children who have been manipulated so they can be taken from their homes to be abused, which seems to be what awaits these girls if they reach their destination.  They should be treated as victims, albeit potentially dangerous victims, and helped to see how they have been manipulated not banned from re-entering the UK as many, including the Independent seem to want.

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