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Britain should counter Islamic State's grooming of girls with some lovebombing of its own

London teens Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana Amira Abase joined Islamic State after making contact online

Intelligence services are masters at manipulating loyalty

If you’re lucky, grooming makes no sense at all. During the peak reporting frenzy on the Rotherham sex abuse scandal – a story still brutally unfolding – the strangest aspect was the accounts of violently abused girls breaking out of their homes, and sometimes even physically fighting with worried parents, so they could join their abusers for another night of vicious rape.

“The way the grouped worked, they’d isolate you,” explains Sarah Wilson, author of Violated, her personal survivor account. “They became the only people I knew – and, in a sick way, I believed I was loved. That’s the extent of brainwashing in child exploitation. They make you think that they’re the only people you have.”

The common thread linking the Rotherham victims was their "white trash" status – troubled girls despised and ignored by social workers and police. If there’s little love in your life, a burst of intense respect and affection can be more powerful than any drug.

This autumn, the government is publishing its Counter Extremism Strategy, replacing the discredited Prevent programme in its attempts to stop young British muslims joining terrorist organisations or flying to Syria to join Islamic State. In recent speeches, David Cameron has flagged up new powers to crack down on propaganda and prevent suspected sympathisers from travelling abroad. Anjem Choudary was recently charged with soliciting support for Islamic State. Cameron talks about educating communities in British values, as if young British muslims were unaware of the nature of life in the UK and life under ISIS. This is massive failure of understanding.

Women bear brunt of Islamophobia

For young British Muslims, who are struggling as much as any teen or twentysomething to work out who they are, it’s not an easy time to live in the UK – for women especially. Hate crime is usually a male problem – if someone’s beaten up for their ethnicity or their sexuality it’s typically a man. For Islamophobic attacks, however, women bear the brunt. Data from University of Teeside recorded 584 Islamophobic incidents between April 2012 and April 2013. Of these, around a quarter took place in public spaces and almost 60 per cent of them were perpetrated against Muslim women.

“From the inside of the Muslim community women are constantly expected to behave well and defend Islam to outsiders,” explains Dr Katherine Brown at King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department.“From outside the community you’re constantly expected to prove you’re just like all the other non-Muslims so you can go into a bar. If you don’t wear a veil or headscarf, it’s a lot easier to ‘pass’. If you do, you’re marked out.”

Brown explains that over the past four or five years there’s also been a closing down of public space for young Muslims talk critically about their community while if they’re critical of UK policy in Iraq they can be accused of supporting terrorism. “So they turn to online spaces – where it ought to be easier to express your opinion but where in fact you don’t get as much freedom to debate. You find much more hardline positions.”

“It’s grooming essentially – similar to the way neo-Nazi groups operate in Germany,” explains Anna Kranz, who’s studying Islamic State's use of social media at Durham University. “They release music on Soundcloud and little poems about the perfect man then gradually connect with people and persuade them.”

'You have a role to play as a hero'

“The propaganda takes a very complicated and nuanced world and it simplifies it into simple terms, black and white, good and evil,” explains Dr Erin Marie Saltman, counter extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “You have a role to play as a hero.  You have a role to play building a Utopian society and conquering the bad guys. For women there’s a strong almost feminist message through all of it - it says, come, and not only come and don’t be sexualised but do good humanitarian work.”

In a hostile world, in other words, the groomers message of unconditional love works best on people who feel despised and hated. It’s not as if the government is unaware of these techniques – they’re broadly similar to the way MI5 and MI6 recruit agents. “If I wanted to find out about Iranian nuclear production tomorrow I couldn't wander into a facility in that country, no matter how good my cover was,” former MI6 intelligence officer Harry Ferguson told the Guardian. “But I can recruit a scientist who is already there. So most of the training is about strategy, psychology and manipulating people. There were lots of exercises based around persuading others to work for you.”

It’s rare that the UK can outbid rival governments, so emotional grooming forms a significant part of this persuasion. The most detailed account available is John le Carré’s Looking Glass War, essentially the story of British spies persuading a Polish dissident to fall so deeply in love with Great Britain that he’ll risk his life to defend her.

So we know how to make people feel loved, valued and respected – it’s a key part of our national defence strategy. Why isn’t it at the core of our anti-terror strategy?

Little Atoms hosts a charity screening of Edward Watts's Escape From Isis on 19 August, with all proceeds going to Unicef. For more details and tickets click here

Writes on culture and society for the Sunday Times, Evening Standard, Wired and The Guardian. Steve is author of four books on topics as diverse as bohemian Europe, the rise of oligarchs and the private security industry, and poverty in northwest England. He is a member of the Advisory Council for the Orwell Youth Prize.

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