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The tragic reality of Kadiza Sultana's death Open in fullscreen

James Denselow

The tragic reality of Kadiza Sultana's death

Sultana was killedin a Russia airstrike on Raqqa earlier this month [Twitter]

Date of publication: 17 August, 2016

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Comment: The life and death of the British teenager who joined the Islamic State group is testimony to the challenge faced by security agencies, writes James Denselow
The death of Kadiza Sultana is in many senses a very modern tragedy. 

A 17-year-old British girl travels to Syria to join the Islamic State group, she marries an American national of Somali origin who is killed shortly afterwards, before being killed herself in a Russian airstrike on Raqqa this month.

She'd previously told her family that she was disillusioned with life under the militant group and was desperate to return home, but, afraid of the consequences of fleeing she found herself stuck in the IS capital until a Russian bomb ended her short life. 

The continued successes of IS recruitment tactics have become a contested topic across Europe. Around 850 Britons have travelled to Syria to fight, 125 have been killed and some 400 have returned.

Why and how are this group able to appeal to so many people? What does this say about European society and issues of integration in particular? Far too often, however, the debate has focused on Islam rather than on more complex reasons behind the appeal of IS.
Vulnerability, not religiosity, should be seen as the prime flag for counter-extremism policies

I would argue that vulnerability, not religiosity, should be seen as the prime flag for counter-extremism policies.

The rise of IS has contributed to significant increases in hate crime and the success of far-right parties across the West. US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pledged this month to introduce a system of "extreme vetting", a new ideological test for all immigrants, as well as creating a commission on radical Islam.

Back in 1992, US political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted a post-Cold War "clash of civilisations" between people's cultural and religious identities. This narrative has been put in sharp focus post-9/11 and the launch of the "War on Terror". The subsequent invasion of Iraq saw the collapse of the state and set the stage for the rise and rise of IS.

The declaration of a "caliphate" by IS and its redrawing of colonial borders in the region set the stage for large numbers of people to flock to the nascent entity from across Europe. Yet a recent leak of IS documents has shown how the group has relied on recruitment from very vulnerable sections of societies rather than learned religious students.


These documents
showed that 70 percent of recruits were listed as having just "basic" knowledge of Sharia and some even went so far to invest in copies of Islam for Dummies

This week saw the radical preacher Anjem Choudary convicted in the UK of inviting others to support the so-called Islamic State. Choudary and those close to him are believed to have inspired at least 100 people from Britain into terrorism.
The challenge for security agencies is to identify vulnerable people, without any criminal history, who are being groomed online and who can move from recruitment to action in a very short space of time


While people must take responsibility for their actions, it is still important to realise who they are and what is motivating them. Barbara Ellen put it well when
she wrote in The Guardian that Sultana's story was "the pointless death of a headstrong, brainwashed teenage girl". 

We're now awake to the concept of "lone-wolf" attacks, by people radicalised by the Choudarys of this world or over the internet without having any solid links to organised extremist networks. The challenge for security agencies is to identify vulnerable people, without any criminal history, who are being groomed online and who can move from recruitment to action in a very short space of time.

It's worth remembering that there is as much of a difference between Islamic extremist "terrorism" and the faith of the vast majority of Muslims as there is between the Ku Klux Klan's cross-burning lynching parties and your local Christian vicar's tea party and charity tombola.

Yet if vulnerable individuals who happen to be Muslim feel that there is an orchestrated campaign against them this may trigger the process of radicalisation in and of itself - witness the case of Mohammed "Jihadi John" Emwazi who blamed MI5 for his subsequent actions. 

Herein lies the central challenge to European governments in dealing with this threat.

How to run an effective counter-extremism programme without isolating and marginalising sections of the communities in which IS recruitment is targeted? Sultana's story is a testimony to this challenge and a warning to others, but above all it is a sad story of a young girl who left her A-levels and future behind to choose a course that would end her life before it had really begun.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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