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University Students Are Not Immune to Radicalisation

Sending our children to university undoubtedly fills us with a sense of pride and achievement. After years of nurturing, it feels like the hard work has paid off. But just because they are adults doesn’t mean they no longer need our guidance. The college years play a crucial role in determining identity.

It may seem incredible that some of our brightest students have fallen prey to terrorist groups. But being good academically doesn’t mean they’re fully developed in other ways. Straight A students can have a lot to learn when it comes to social awareness and critical thinking.

Earlier this summer, the former British medical student Rowan Kamal Zine El Abidine became the first British woman to be killed under Daesh in Iraq. Rowan had a promising future ahead of her – in which she’d be saving lives, not destroying them – but she chose to throw it all away to live in a collapsing so-called “caliphate”. She also left behind a baby girl whose fate is uncertain.

Teenager Aqsa Mahmood took a similar tragic path. A string of academic successes had led her to Glasgow Caledonian University. A glittering career beckoned. But then she threw it all away to work for brutal fanatics in Syria. She was brainwashed through text messages and social media.

Once she joined ISIS, Aqsa turned into a social media propagandist for terror, even penning a very unpleasant poem in praise of the Tunisia beach murders of 2015. She had reportedly been involved in the Al-Khansaa brigade, a Daesh unit that imposes vicious punishments on local women for minor infractions like incorrect dress. It’s hard to imagine what was going through the once-studious mind of a woman like Aqsa as she brutalised women old enough to be her mother. There are also reports of Aqsa managing the sexual trafficking and enslavement of Yazidi girls and women.

University, therefore, is certainly no guarantee against radicalisation. Extremists are able to latch on to bright young women with strong political views or those going through a personal crisis. Families must be vigilant and look out for the signs which may suggest this. Even if they’re no longer under your roof, you can chat with your daughters and sisters regularly. See who they’re hanging out with and what they’re doing outside of lectures and with whom.

WARN helps women support each other so we are strong and aware enough to resist the radicalisers. Freshers’ week is the ideal time to help set the scene with your children and loved ones. Being aware of dangerous narratives and pathways is the very first step to stop a tragedy from unfolding.