RADICALISING OUR CHILDREN: An Analysis of Family Court Cases of British Children at Risk of Radicalisation, 2013-2018

By Nikita Malik

48% of families in Family Court extremism proceedings had one-member join IS


Cases examined by the Henry Jackson Society indicate that 48% of families involved in family court proceedings in which extremism was cited had one family member or more who joined IS.  Nikita Malik, Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism and the report’s author, today warns that the UK’s courts are not currently up to the task of handling a wave of women who joined the ‘caliphate’ returning with their children.

The report concludes that the family court is frequently powerless to take steps to protect the welfare of children, even when the counter-terrorism division is aware that parents involved are often terrorists with extremist mindsets. The former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Lord Carlile, welcomed the report, and stated it is “apparent that the family court is not always able to take the appropriate steps to protect” the children of extremists.  Meanwhile, Tim Loughton MP, the former Children’s Minister, stressed that the Family Courts require “better protocols, guidance and support” to deal with this “increasingly urgent part of their role”.

Contrary to claims the girls of Islamic State were vulnerable brides, the report finds that, far more so than boys, girls who travel to the ‘caliphate’ made their own decisions.  The author concludes that boys tended to join Islamic State under the influence of their families, whereas girls were more active and independent in seeking out extremist material – often online.  All of the girls in cases analysed by the study who had self-radicalised were motivated in part by the possibility of marriage to a person of their choice.

The study, which qualitatively analyses the 20 cases with the most comprehensive court records over recent years, also found that:

  • 55% of cases had links to Al-Muhajiroun, the banned group founded by Anjem Choudary.
  • 67% of families had a history of domestic abuse or a history of wider criminal conduct.
  • Almost 20% of the children involved were home-schooled; while, 38% families contained children absent from school.
  • In cases where gender was known, 64% of children involved in court actions were boys.

The report calls for a bespoke set of powers for judges to use in cases of extremism involving children. Citing the high burden of proof required for the more traditional option of care orders, the report argues that the powers imbued with wardship have proved more suitable in many cases, to meet the growing and pertinent challenge of countering radicalisation.

“The UK faces a real and imminent prospect of a wave of women from Islamic State returning to the UK with babies and children in tow. They return to a family courts system that is not currently up to the task of handling the serious challenges of extremism.

The Family Courts requires urgent reform to ensure that they are procedurally fit for this emergent risk.  Failure to see such reform could mean the children of extremists remain in the hands of their potentially dangerous parents.

The cases in the report are unique, in that the threat to children is ideological as well as physical. When courts act in these cases, they must settle upon a course of action which not only protects the child from harm, but protects them from becoming a person who does harm to themselves or others in the future.”

Nikita Malik, Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society

Read the report here.


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How was research for this report conducted?


In order to identify cases for inclusion, the legal database BAILII was used. A team of three researchers examined each case independently, and differences were discussed to reduce researcher bias and classify codes. The ‘code book’ employed to analyse trends can be found on page 32 of the report.

How many children have been at risk of radicalisation in the United Kingdom?


There is no benchmark on the exact number of cases involving children at risk of radicalisation. The Home Office’s CONTEST 2018 revised document states that ‘since 2015, around 100 children have been safeguarded by the courts from being taken to conflict areas in Syria and Iraq’, however the document does not provide details on where this data stems from, the number of families affected, or what happened to these children after the court process.

On 14 September 2018, we sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Ministry of Justice to enquire how many applications were made to make a child a ward of court due to fear of radicalisation, terrorism, or extremism between January 2013 and 10 September 2018. On 3 October 2018, a response was received that while the information requested existed, providing it would exceed the cost limit of £600 set out in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Within this response was the explanation that while the Family Courts case management and management information system allowed the identification of cases with a radicalisation element, this is an optional field and was only functional from April 2017. This is in itself problematic, as it means that cases that occurred during the peak of organisations such as Al Muhajiroun and Islamic State, prior to 2017, were not identified or categorised by the MoJ. Such a response reflects the evolving field of recognition of radicalisation in family court cases.

Why would children want to leave the UK and travel to Islamic State territories?


The children of Islamic State fall into distinct categories. The majority of these young people are nationals of Syria or Iraq who have been affected by conflict and war.

Foreign children, however, had more agency in their decision making process. The largest degree of agency came from those children who independently conducted research into Islamic State and its activities, and decided to travel to a conflict zone of their own accord. These children travelled alone or in groups of their peers, with some being stopped at the airport, taken off planes or returned once they reached the Middle East. Others travelled with their families – often their older siblings or parents. Here, the level of agency on the part of the child was more unclear: some had no information on where they were going, while others disagreed or wanted to be separated from their parents’ ideologies.

The final category of children comprises of those who never travelled to Islamic State territories, but were instead radicalised in their own homes. In the cases examined in this report, we see one or both parents being part of extremist groups and exposing their children to extremism by home-schooling them, or making them attend study circles. This leaves children at risk of being a danger to themselves, as well as other people, by consuming what was often very disturbing and problematic content.

Have any children returned from Islamic State to the United Kingdom?


Two children in the report returned from Islamic State territory – they are Child J and Child Y. The Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP), part of the Prevent initiative, is essential in cases of children returning from Islamic State territories, as evidenced in the case of child J. The use of DNA to establish the parentage of children brought back from Islamic State territory, such as in the case of child Y, sets an important legal precedent where paperwork does not exist to prove a child’s lineage and consequent citizenship.

What are we doing to help these children?


The majority of children in this report were put under travel restrictions, and almost all were appointed a guardian. If a child is made a ward of court, the family must inform the court before taking the child out of the country.

Within these cases, 16% saw the child placed into the care of other family members.

19% of the families involved in the dataset were subject to a Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measure (TPIM) or electronic tagging and 38% of the families were subject to other security measures. In 35% of the cases, the family presented an adequate defence to overturn the ruling and the charges against the family were dropped.


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