openDemocracyUK

What was missed

The case of two Brighton brothers killed in Syria raises fundamental questions for local authorities, says Fiyaz Mughal, who sat on a Serious Case Review into their deaths.

Fiyaz Mughal
15 August 2017
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Image: ISIS propaganda photo, Dabiq/Zuma Press/PA Images

Brighton and Hove Council has published the results of a two-year long Serious Case Review on vulnerable young people who are at risk of exploitation through radicalisation, following the deaths of two brothers in 2014 in Syria.

Hailing from the Brighton and Hove area, Abdullah Deghayes, 18, and his brother Jaffar, 17 had gone to join an elder sibling who was in Syria. Their uncle Omar Deghayes had been held in Guantanamo Bay for five years until his release in 2007 and received £1 million compensation for his detention.

The brothers were believed to have joined the Al-Nusra Front, which had pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2013, and died the following year. Abdullah Deghayes was killed by a sniper while chasing retreating forces in Latakia in April 2014 and Jaffar died six months later during a firefight amid the ruins of Idlib.

Both had a long history of engagement with police and statutory services in Brighton, some of which was related to anti-social behaviour and on other occasions connected to the continued targeting of their family by racist and anti-Muslim hate campaigns.

I sat on this Serious Case Review (SCR) with an independent lead role as a cultural advisor. My role ended up being less about the ‘culture’ of the Deghayes, and more about what differentiated the line between ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamist extremism’. Yet this review also highlighted the silo working which took place as different agencies dealt with these young men, raising questions about effective risk management of their case. The issues affecting the Deghayes family – the racism, anti-Muslim hatred, access to extremist rhetoric, anti-social behaviour and failures in addressing ongoing abuse – meant that they were seen as people who had to be dealt with, rather than as a family that needed to be safeguarded from serious risks. Allied to this was a sense of helplessness within statutory services in Brighton and Hove Council over how to work with black and minority ethnic (BAME) families who had migrated to the UK from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.

The lack of prosecutions against those targeting the family for racist and anti-Muslim hatred must have sent a message that their experiences and pain were unimportant and easily disregarded. I know from the work of Tell MAMA, the national anti-Muslim hate monitoring project I founded, that such hate crimes (where victims feel they have no access to justice) can build grievances which simmer away and may later erupt.

Add this to a fractured sense of identity within young men and with hindsight it is easy to see where such a set of experiences can lead. The burning grievances cease to be internal rages and turn instead outwards towards those who are perceived to come from ‘perpetrator’ communities. Everyone who looks like, sounds like or even comes from a different faith or cultural background of the perpetrator, can become ‘the enemy’ and is dehumanised through the embers of hate, fuelled by a sense of victimisation and grievance.

In the Brighton and Hove case review, the amount of hatred that the family suffered was extensive. Windows were broken, graffiti scrawled on their homes, the family physically attacked and intimidated and verbal abuse on an ongoing basis. These hate campaigns against them went on for long periods of time, probably further destabilising any sense of connection that the two brothers felt to the local area. It may partly explain why they simply got up one day and left the coastal town.

Yet it is easy to point the finger at local authorities who have failed to stop young men and women leaving for Iraq and Syria, drawn by the glorified nihilistic pull of the Islamic State’s propaganda. Work on Prevent, the community related arm of the Counter Terrorism strategy (CONTEST), was still developing when the Deghayes brothers decided to go to Syria. Training on understanding the risks of extremism were also missing.

This meant that the Deghayes brothers were not seen as extremely vulnerable to radicalisation but were viewed instead by various agencies and the local authority through the prism of anti-social behaviour and ‘troubled’ families. In addition, who could have comprehended the slick and Hollywood-style propaganda that Daesh (Islamic State) was producing and which would play on identity and belonging within the minds of a small number of British Muslims? This was alluring messaging for some troubled young men. In hindsight the environment and the troubled lifestyles of the Deghayes all pointed to deep vulnerabilities that needed addressing.

In this case it was an Educational Support worker who first made a referral to Prevent after she heard one of the brothers make anti-American statements on his return from a country in conflict. The support worker was from Northern Ireland and the comments alarmed her because she understood the brutality of the conflict back home and the rhetoric of division and extremism that existed there.

The missed opportunity, the risks that international crises pose to young fractured minds, extremist rhetoric and the fundamental lack of awareness within Brighton and Hove Council and other agencies, allied to the fact that the family were seen as ‘troubled’, meant that two young Brighton men lost their lives fighting in foreign lands for groups who used them. Al Nusra, Daesh and other extremist groups will fall and these lives will have been lost in vain, but the real legacy of these deaths should be in how the local authority can save lives in the future, through early interventions and paths that can divert people away from extremism and, ultimately, save lives.

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