Teenagers and young people who flee Britain to fight jihad are just depressed and lonely and should be allowed to return to the UK without being criminalised, a leading professor has said.
Kamaldeep Bhui, Professor of Cultural Psychiatry and Epidemiology, at Queen Mary University of London, said that radicalisation should be treated as a health issue in the same way as drugs or alcohol abuse.
He has found that those on the path to radicalisation are most likely to be educated and come from wealthy families, but feel bored with their lives and socially isolated.
And girls are just as likely to start down to path to radicalisation as boys.
MI5 has said that there could be as many as 500 British fighters in Syria and dozens of women are believed to have travelled to the country to join Isis or marry jihadists.
One man known as “jihadi John” was filmed beheading American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
But Prof Bhui said that many teenagers were suffering from ‘youthful naivetee’ and were quickly disillusioned after travelling aboard to fight.
He interviewed more than 600 people in Muslim communities in Bradford and London to learn what drives Britons to risk their lives in a foreign country.
“Something about them suggests they are disaffected,” he said.
“The group who sympathised were younger, in full time education and generally wealthy. They were more likely to be depressed and socially isolated.
“There is a bit of youthful naïveté . They have romantic fantasies. They have never experienced sharia law or a caliphate before and they get there and it’s not like they thought.”
Prof Bhui found that people who expressed sympathy with jihadi or terrorist ideologies were likely to be well-educated, middle class and come from households earning more than £75,000. And women were slightly more likely to become more radicalised than men.
“We found women were no less likely and they were slightly more likely to have some of those sympathies. There is an increasing epidemic of girls,” he added.
Muslim parents have been warned to keep a close eye on their children to pick up signs of depression or loneliness.
He warned that youngsters who engaged in fantasy worlds or video games, comics or had online alternative identities were at greater risk.
David Cameron has said that Britons who travel to Syria or Iraq to join Islamic State (IS) militants will be treated as “an enemy of the UK” and could be stripped of their citizenship.
Lat month the Telegraph reported how hundreds of al-Qaeda recruits, including Britons, are being kept in safe houses in southern Turkey, before being smuggled over the border to Syria wage jihad. Two British men are already known to have died in the conflict including Mohammed ‘Mo’ El-Araj, 23, from Notting Hill, in West London.
The Prime Minister is pushing for increased legal powers to monitor suspected extremists and said passports could be removed for people attempting to travel abroad to fight.
But Prof Bhui added: “I think it would be a disaster, you criminalising them and disowning British citizens. Some of these kids are young and probably inexperienced and police in Wales took a different stance. They didn’t want to criminalise. I am happy to work with them”
Intriguingly, Prof Bhui found that migrants are unlikely to become radicalised because they are poorer, busier struggling to make a living, and they remember the problems of living in non-westernised countries.
“Those who are having a hard life, who are migrants, are too busy to have fantastic thoughts about attacks,” he said
“They are too busy to form a caliphate. They’ve already experienced adversary,” he added.
And he said that local imams could be crucial to keeping youngsters on the right path.
“A mosque is a protective factor,” he added: “These young people are disconnected from their families, disconnected from origins and when they come into contact, they think they are doing the right thing by connecting in a more orthodox form of Islam.
“I am suggesting that it’s important to have access to forms of orthodox teaching.”