LONDON — Western security forces have a new frontline in the battle against Islamist terrorism: the under-fives.
Britain has drawn up plans to force kindergarten teachers and registered child-minders to spy on pre-school children in a bid to halt the radicalization of a new generation. Two young children were also taken into protective police custody last week when their mother, who was questioned over terror-related offenses, returned to Britain on a flight from Turkey.
The apparent crackdown on pre-pubescent Muslims marks an extraordinary expansion in Britain’s already controversial counter-radicalization strategy.
Alarming images of young British children pictured with weapons in the so-called Islamic State prompted officials in London to say they would consider taking into care the offspring of men and women who had travelled abroad to join ISIS. Then, on New Year’s Eve, police took the two children, who landed at Luton airport with their mother, under child protection laws.
Plans drawn up by the Home Office would further extend the remit of child protection officials to include toddlers at risk of radicalization on home soil. A 39-page document that accompanies the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill being considered by parliament says nurseries and early childcare providers, as well as universities and prisons, have a duty “to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.”
One of the world’s leading child psychologists dismissed the notion that it was even possible for pre-school children to be radicalized by Islamists. Professor Penelope Leach told The Daily Beast it was ludicrous to monitor young children in that way. “It sounds like a crazy idea to me,” she said. “You'd have to be an awful lot older than that. Really this is a silly story.”
Under the proposals, nursery staff would be expected to report children who were making anti-Semitic remarks or said they had been taught that non-Muslims were inferior. “We would expect staff to have the training they need to identify children at risk of radicalization and know where and how to refer them for further help if necessary,” a Home Office spokesman said.
The scheme has been condemned by civil liberties groups and queried by the National Association of Head Teachers. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT told The Telegraph: “It’s really important that nurseries are able to establish a strong relationship of trust with families, as they are often the first experience the families will have of the education system. Any suspicions that they are evaluating families for ideology could be quite counterproductive.”
Professor Anthony Glees, the author of When Students Turn to Terror, is one of the most outspoken proponents of strengthening state intervention and monitoring inside educational institutions but he says the latest plans go too far.
“Not even in Israel would primary school children be seen as deserving special attention. There are far bigger fish the government needs to fry,” he says.
Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham also said he was surprised by the New Year’s eve detention of the two children, believed to be under 10, and now held by West Midlands police.
“The innocence of young people must be preserved at all costs,” said Glees. “That means that they cannot be considered targets for intelligence-led activity and should not be confused with their parents, who may well be entirely legitimate targets.”
The Sunday Times reported that the children’s 25-year-old mother was arrested on suspicion of preparing for acts of terrorism when she landed at Luton on a flight from Istanbul.
Haringey Council told The Daily Beast that the children had not been taken permanently into state care. Those held by police under the Children Act of 1989 would typically be placed on an “at risk” register or child protection plan which means their welfare would be monitored closely by officials.
Local councils in Britain have been forced to confront policies for dealing with the children of avowed jihadis as it emerged that several are currently in Syria or Iraq in areas known under ISIS control. Siddhartha Dhar, 31, a Londoner, posed with a Kalashnikov and his newborn son in a series of posts taunting the British security forces.
He was one of the associates of radical preacher Anjem Choudary who were rounded up and released on bail in a series of raids last September. He skipped bail and traveled to Syria with his family.
Fellow British jihadi, Khadijah Dare, 22, from Lewisham in South London, who has expressed her desire to become the first female ISIS executioner, posted an online picture of her four-year-old son smiling as he aimed an AK-47.
A spokesman for Lewisham council said last year that it would be forced to act if the family returned to Britain. “We view what she has done very seriously and if she returned to the borough we would take immediate measures to ensure the safety of her children,” he said.