BRADFORD, England — When three young men left behind the gentle West Yorkshire hills to blow themselves up on London trains and buses 10 years ago next week, the astonishment felt by people in this multiethnic area of northern England soon gave way to a desire to come together.
Rabbis, priests and imams linked arms and called for peace. Police and community leaders agreed to cooperate on efforts to stamp out Islamist violence. The government soon rolled out an ambitious program to make sure that nothing like the July 7, 2005, bombings, which killed 52 people and are known in Britain as 7/7, would happen again.
A decade later, nothing like it has.
But when three sisters left their homes here last month and traveled to Syria with their nine children, ostensibly to live within the Islamic State, the local reaction illustrated just how much has changed in Britain’s fight against extremism.
Authorities whispered that something must have gone wrong in the women’s homes or communities. Family members countered that the police had driven the women to a desperate act.
Rather than bring people together, the sisters’ departure has become another flash point in an increasingly bitter and divisive national argument: Who is to blame for the troubling flow of hundreds of young British Muslims into the ranks of an organization that has declared war on the West?
It is an argument that pits the government against some of its own citizens, and that reflects the deep mistrust that many in Britain’s Muslim community feel toward the nation’s security services.
“What’s happened in the past 10 years is that we’ve become more polarized as a society,” said Alyas Karmani, a Bradford city councillor and Muslim community leader. “We haven’t really achieved anything. We’re just repeating the same mistakes.”
Britain is hardly alone in that respect. Thousands of young Muslims from Western countries have heeded the bloodcurdling call of the Islamic State, leaving behind societies they see as decadent, hypocritical and irreligious to start new lives in a war zone.
But British volunteers have made particularly grisly contributions to the wars in the Middle East and North Africa. The knife-wielding executioner who became known to the world as “Jihadi John” was raised in a middle-class area of northwest London. Other Britons have taken leadership roles in the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab or carried out suicide attacks across the North Africa and Middle East region — including one in Iraq last month by a 17-year-old who grew up just down the road from Bradford.
[‘Jihadi John’ is a Kuwaiti-born Londoner named Mohammed Emwazi]
With fears growing that it is only a matter of time before homegrown radicals turn their focus to another attack on British soil, the debate over who’s responsible for the alienation and radicalization has intensified.
To many in the government, the answer is for Muslim communities to look within. Most recently, officials from Prime Minister David Cameron on down have cited the case of the three Bradford sisters to push British Muslims to do more to combat extremism in their own families and neighborhoods.
In a speech, Cameron lashed out at those Muslims who “quietly condone” radical views. Using an acronym for the Islamic State, he said such people enable others to more easily transition “from a British teenager to an ISIL fighter or an ISIL wife.”
But here in Bradford, where the sisters lived on a block of century-old yellow-brick row houses among neighbors who are as likely to speak Urdu as English, Cameron’s words were seen as a provocation.
“The prime minister says it’s not the time to point fingers. But that’s exactly what he’s doing. And it’s what government policy is doing,” said Selina Ullah, chair of the Muslim Women’s Council, a Bradford-based nonprofit group.
Ullah knows government policy well from her four-year stint leading this city’s efforts under the national government’s signature counter-extremism program, Prevent.
The program, launched to great fanfare after the 7/7 attacks, was intended not just to stop would-be terrorists, but also to discredit extremism itself and to steer impressionable young people along a better path.
[Muslim comedian’s anti-extremist message a big hit with British teens]
“Prevent was a radical change — the idea that you could engage with people at the fringes of terrorism and seek to dissuade them and produce a better ideology,” said Clive Walker, a University of Leeds professor who has advised the government on counterterrorism policy. “This was new for the U.K.”
In the program’s early years, the government showered cash on groups nationwide with goals as disparate as building community cohesion, mentoring young people and empowering women. It flew in religious scholars from Pakistan to tour the country promoting the “right message” about Islam and worked with mosques to challenge radical narratives.
But when a Conservative-led government was elected in 2010 with a mission to impose austerity, it decided that Prevent was ripe for cuts. The program had no way to measure which initiatives were truly effective in countering extremism. More troubling, Prevent had funded individuals and groups that the government considered extremist.
“When talking to a youth group, you ask, ‘Who is going to do the talking?’ ” Walker said. “A number of local organizations said, ‘Well, the best people are people who have been through it — jihadis themselves.’ ”
The new government swiftly severed those ties. It also refocused Prevent away from its softer goals and toward the harder-edged mission of stopping terrorist attacks.
Today, Prevent is a dirty word among many Muslims, a shorthand for a government more interested in surveillance than in protecting vulnerable young people from radicalization.
“The whole agenda feels much more loaded, much more suspicious,” said Ullah, the former Prevent official. “We’re being watched all the time. It feels like ‘1984.’ ”
That sentiment has deepened this week with the implementation of a law that obligates teachers, health workers and local-government employees to inform law-enforcement agencies if they suspect that a young person is being radicalized.
The law, officials say, is designed to introduce much-needed accountability. But when it comes to the disappearance of the three sisters, many Muslims here are convinced that the police are the ones who should ultimately be held responsible.
Born and raised in Britain, the three — Khadija, Sugra and Zohra Dawood — were married to Pakistani immigrants. Neighbors said they were rarely seen outside their homes, and when they did go out, they wore the niqab, an all-encompassing veil with a slit for the eyes. Among them, they have nine children, the youngest just 3 years old.
On June 11, the sisters and their children failed to turn up for a return flight to Manchester after a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Days later, Zohra Dawood called her parents to explain why: The group had flown to Turkey, then crossed into Syria.
The women’s husbands, who were not along for the trip, have since pleaded with their wives to return.
“I’m not angry. Please come back. Everything is normal, come back to normal life,” said a tearful Mohammed Shoaib at a news conference with one of the other husbands, Akhtar Iqbal.
The men said that they had had no warning and could think of no explanation for their wives to knowingly shepherd their children into a combat zone.
But in a letter written by their lawyer, they offer a theory: For over a year, police had been secretly encouraging the women to contact their brother, who had gone to Syria.
It is a tactic the police occasionally use to gather intelligence on British foreign fighters. But in this case, the husbands’ lawyer has claimed, the contact radicalized the women.
According to the letter, Zohra Dawood explained in her call home that she and her sisters had fled Britain because they believed they were under constant police surveillance.
“The actions and misjudgment of the [police] has placed the lives of 12 British citizens at risk, 9 of which are innocent children,” the letter reads.
Police have categorically rejected that claim. But they have not publicly commented on whether they encouraged contact between the sisters and their brother. In an interview, West Yorkshire Police Commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson said the case is being investigated internally and is “a complex situation.”
Regardless of the truth, the theory that the police were responsible is widely accepted here — although not by all.
Karmani, the city councillor, said there is more than enough blame to go around.
The women, he said, were caught at the intersection of two cultures that prize secrecy — a highly conservative Muslim community on one hand and security services on the other. Ultimately, no one intervened to stop them from doing what had once seemed unthinkable but that has now become a nightmarish fear for Muslim families across Britain.
“Everyone,” Karmani said, “has to realize that they failed these women.”
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.
Should Westerners who joined the Islamic State be barred from returning home?
Hoping to create a new society, the Islamic State recruits entire families