Today marks the 15th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings and yet all these years on the images from that day are still fresh in my mind.
The screams, the panic, anxiety, thoughts of dying… it feels so real and as if it were yesterday.
On that day I was making my way to work, I was running late. I boarded the very same Piccadilly line train as Germaine Lindsay, who at 8.50am detonated his bomb, taking 26 lives and shattering many more.
For more than 45 minutes, I was trapped underground as smoke choked the air. I thought I was going to die and sat still in my seat waiting for it to happen.
When I was finally rescued and brought above ground, I remember rushing to the loos in a nearby McDonalds and studying my face in the mirror. I was covered in black – my face, hands, under my nails… even my hair was thick with soot. It was shocking. But, at least, I was alive.
Since that awful day, it has not been an easy journey.
Having survived 7/7, I left my job in recruitment at an investment bank in the city and went on to work with the women’s charity, JAN Trust, working with BAME women to tackle inequalities and extremism.
I wanted to make sure that no one else ever had to go through the traumatic experience I had. I didn’t want anyone or any family to have to live with the devastating consequences of a terror attack like I’d had to, along with my loved ones who thought I had died that morning.
I knew the best place to start tackling extremism was at the grass roots, working with communities. From that point, over a decade ago, I developed the community based programme, Web Guardians, which works with women and mothers. We equip them with skills and knowledge to ensure they can prevent their children from being radicalised online, creating community resilience and effective counter narratives to the fear and hatred promoted by extremists. In 2015, I received an OBE for my work with communities.
Such fear and hatred has very real consequences. On my journey working with women and mothers across the UK I have heard heartbreaking and scary stories from parents who have lost their children to extremism.
One told me that her son asked her for his passport for a job interview. She found out weeks later that he was in Syria with Daesh. Now he is dead.
I’ve heard mothers tell me that their daughters were brainwashed to join extremist groups. I want to stop this happening.
We have seen repeated terror attacks since 7/7 and each time it proves to be incredibly difficult for me. Not only am I forced to relive my own experience and the images become real again. I am also reminded just how much work there is still to do in order to prevent further attacks.
I’ve worked desperately hard to fight extremism. However, even as a survivor there has been little support and push back for the work I do. For example, in 2014 I offered Tower Hamlets Council the Web Guardians programme, which they declined, and in 2015, Shamima Begum, who was brought up in Bethnal Green, left for Syria with some friends.
I have often wondered if the programme was delivered in Tower Hamlets it might have made a difference to the families there. I do not want to see any more parents lose their children and I don’t want us to suffer further terrorist attacks.
The current crisis makes me fear even more about the danger of young people being radicalised online. We are living in unprecedented times as a result of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The isolation necessary to protect public health has pushed many on to the web and removed the usual support networks available to those at risk of online radicalisation. Many extremist groups are using this opportunity to capitalise on uncertainty and vulnerability, and promote their hate-filled rhetoric.
During the pandemic we have had numerous mothers reaching out to us, concerned by the amount of time their children are spending online, worried by the dangers this poses to their kids.
However, what remains even more disconcerting is that JAN Trust is no longer being funded by the Government to do this very work, to support parents concerned about the risk of online radicalisation for their children – to help them protect their kids and society.
This means that these mums who reach out to us are unable to receive the support from our online programme and in turn, young people are being left at risk – and so is society.
The failure to support a victim of terrorism, a survivor and someone fighting extremism, makes me question the Government’s true commitment to tackling online radicalisation.
I have been vocal previously about Prevent (a governmental strategy to counter-terrorism with the aim of stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting it) and its many failures, which include execution of the plan, inadequate project funding, the toxic culture among some of its civil servants and coordinators, through to a serious lack of transparency of the programme.
However, it is apparent that being critical means I have been side-lined and encountered disregard for my experience as a victim, a survivor and someone fighting extremism.
But I have a vested interest in protecting societies; after all I’ve survived one of the biggest terrorist attacks we’ve faced.
We must act now. The Government needs to address these issues immediately, otherwise I fear the cycle of violence will continue.
For more information visit jantrust.org/project/web-guardians
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