Missing Yusra Hussien showed no sign of radicalisation, family and friends say
Faiza Barre shook her head as she recalled the moment Yusra Hussien’s mother revealed that the 15-year-old had disappeared. “I told her not to worry. I told her she’d be home soon. Teenagers are always going off by themselves or meeting friends without telling their parents. I wasn’t concerned.”
Ten days later, there is still no sign of Yusra. Counter-terrorism police are leading the search for her in the belief that by now she is almost certainly in Syria, one of the hundreds of teenagers who have left western countries to join Islamist fighters. Yusra’s family cling to the hope that the police are wrong, that she has not been radicalised, that she will come home.
Barre – a relative of Yusra’s mother Safiya Hussien, a dinner lady – said that in the weeks and days before the girl vanished, there were no clues that anything was amiss. “I was with her on the Monday, two days before she went. She was looking through my makeup and we were joking about that. She was fine, bubbly. I look back and wonder if we missed anything. Was she looking at the makeup thinking she’d like to have some to take with her? I don’t know. She is a lovely girl, a fine student, the princess of her family.”
The hunt for Yusra, an A-grade pupil at the City Academy in Bristol who planned to become a dentist, began as a conventional missing persons’ investigation after she failed to return from school on the afternoon of Wednesday 24 September. Within hours, it had turned into something even more worrying.
In the following days, officers established that she had met up with a 17-year-old girl from Lambeth, south London, and had flown out the UK. Within a day of leaving the country, the pair had reached Istanbul, though they did not fly directly to the Turkish city. From there the trail goes cold, but counter-terrorism officers have made it clear they are sure the girls were heading to the Syrian border.
It has emerged that the girls’ journey was well planned. They already had their tickets by the time they got to the airport and security sources say they were in touch with people outside the UK before leaving.
By the end of that first week, the news had spread throughout Easton, the inner-city home to many of the estimated 15,000 people of Somali origin who, like Yusra’s family, fled to Bristol from their war-torn country. Imams spoke at mosques warning parents to speak to their children about the dangers of radicalisation.
It was not until Monday – five days after Yusra vanished – that the police went public. Assistant chief constable Louisa Rolfe of Avon and Somerset police said there were indications that Yusra “may have been radicalised” and the priority was to find her before she crossed the border to Syria.
Safiya Hussien and her husband, youth worker Mohamed, are horrified. They continue to insist that there is still no proof that she has been radicalised or intended to go to Syria. They are deeply hurt at the speculation that she was going to be a “jihadi bride” and upset that some media outlets used a picture of Yusra not wearing a hijab.
One thing is clear. If Yusra was radicalised, she gave no outward sign of it. Classmates at the City Academy – a respected school whose current and former pupils have been at the forefront of the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) – said she seemed normal in the days before she disappeared. She had not spoken of any new friends and had not suddenly begun to espouse political views. She had never been in trouble with the law and was not known to the police.
“We had no idea,” said one schoolfriend. “She was a great student – a role model. She always got top marks. We liked her and looked up to her.” Another said: “We’re all looking around at each other wondering if someone else is thinking of doing whatever she’s done. It’s really unsettling.” A teacher said Yusra was “calm and collected – not at all hot-headed”.
Home life was happy, too. Yusra’s parents are respected members of the community who were devoted to their children, four boys and two girls. They are devout – Yusra attended the mosque with her family – but did not try to limit their children’s interest in western pop culture. Yusra loved X-Factor, Karl Pilkington’s An Idiot Abroad and the American reality programme about the family of a beauty pageant contestant, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. She was interested in fashion, hairstyles and liked makeup. She enjoyed riding her bike, playing table tennis and running with her brothers.
Yusra’s disappearance has shaken not just her family but the whole community. Home to one of the biggest Muslim populations in the south-west, Easton is also one of the region’s most deprived areas. But it is an integrated and relaxed neighbourhood. Pupils from more than 60 countries, speaking more than 40 languages, attend the City Academy. There can be tension between Somali clans but it tends to end in fierce debate rather than violence.
Nor has Bristol been the focus of concerns about extremism. In 2009 a former Bristol public schoolboy, Andrew Ibrahim, was convicted of plotting to carry out a suicide bombing at a city shopping centre. But there was a positive side even to this: police heralded it as breakthrough in which information about a planned terrorist attack in the UK had come from directly from the Muslim community, after members of the mosque he attended called the police when they became worried about his behaviour.
At the Somali Resource Centre, staff and committee members expressed bafflement that a young girl could be heading to Syria. Mohamed Abib said: “The Somali community here is large and peaceful. People are shocked, they do not understand what has happened.” Mosques and community leaders have worked hard on making sure young men are not radicalised. Many admit they had not dreamed a young girl might head to the battlefields.
All have concluded that Yusra must have been radicalised – if that is what has happened – via the internet. Like most young people of her age, she was always on a phone or computer. Nimko Ali, a leading campaigner on FGM in Bristol and a worker with the charity Integrate Bristol, expressed frustration that terms such as “jihadi bride” were being used. “Girls are being trafficked and sexually enslaved,” she said. “They are sold an idea that they are doing something romantic. They are not, they are being abused.”
She also blamed community leaders for confusing teenagers, especially young women, about their identity, which gave extremists a way in. “They are told they are Somali and Muslim but they are brought up in the UK. They haven’t any idea about Somalia.”
Easton Labour councillor Afzal Shah said if Yusra has been radicalised, all the evidence pointed to it being via the internet rather than through contacts in Bristol. “All the evidence is pointing to it being via social networks.”
Shah said the Muslim community felt under scrutiny because of Yusra’s disappearance. “I think there will be a great deal of introspection in the weeks and months to come,” he said. “I think we are going to have to start speaking to our children at a much younger age about international affairs.
“ I think we need to start talking to them aged seven or eight – as soon as possible – about what is happening in Palestine, Syria, Iraq. Education must be the way forward.”