A View from the CT Foxhole: Dr. Angela Misra, Co-Founder, The Unity Initiative
November 27, 2017
Dr. Angela Misra is the deputy chief executive and co-founder of The Unity Initiative (TUI), a specialist intervention consultancy based in the United Kingdom that focuses on rehabilitating individuals convicted of terrorist offenses; training prison, probation, and police staff; tackling absolutist mindsets in the wider community; and advising governments on countering-extremism strategies. Misra works one-to-one rehabilitating female offenders, as well as British women who spent time with the Islamic State in Syria. Misra, a convert to Islam and a registered National Health Service (NHS) doctor, co-founded TUI with her husband, Usman Raja, in 2009 and has worked at the grassroots level, tackling issues such as physical/emotional/sexual/domestic abuse, honor violence, violent extremism, and hate crimes. She has advised the U.K. Department of Education on issues relating to Islamic education.
Editor’s note: TUI co-founder Usman Raja was interviewed in the July 2015 issue of CTC Sentinel. Paul Cruickshank advises TUI on counterterrorism issues.
CTC: You co-founded The Unity Initiative (TUI) in 2009, and it is now widely viewed as one of the most effective Muslim community organizations working in the countering violent extremism (CVE) space in the United Kingdom. How do you see this effort evolving?
Misra: We’re having to expand significantly because of the demand for the work. We started off with just a handful of people, but our full-time staff and volunteers now number 70 people. Since my husband, Usman Raja, and I founded TUI in 2009, our team has rehabilitated more than 50 men and women convicted of Terrorism Act [TACT] offenses in the U.K. and an additional 180 individuals considered extreme by peers, family, or authorities within the community sphere. When it comes to the cases of convicted terrorist offenders, we’ve had a 98-percent success rate where we define success as having a rehabilitated perception and transformed world view and the subject of the intervention is now voluntarily speaking against their previously held views, some publicly and others privately within their community. Since 2009, I’ve done ‘interventions’ with about a dozen female TACT offenders, which has involved providing them each with many hours of one-to-one Islamic Behavioral Therapy sessions (IBT). IBT is our pioneering rehabilitative ideological therapeutic model that encompasses theological, social, and psychological components.
One of the newer strands of work we are undertaking is working with individuals being investigated for foreign fighter travel to Syria and Iraq. Like with convicted terrorist offenders, this involves working in tandem with British authorities. We’ve worked on about 20 returnee cases and are taking on a rapidly increasing caseload. As our credibility at the grassroots level has gained traction, having transformed well-known extremist group leaders,a we have had unprecedented requests for support from within hard-to-reach ‘insular’ communities. This has created another evolving area of effort where we are working with people seeking rehabilitation, who are directly approaching us for support.
CTC: The more than 400 foreign fighters who have returned to the United Kingdom1 are one of the greatest security challenges the country faces. A significant proportion of Islamic State returnees have been women. How do you find ways to engage in such cases?
Misra: I’ve worked with about a dozen female returnees so far. The foundation for success is building a relationship of mutual trust based on honesty. Let me give you a very recent example. One of the returnee cases I’m working on involves a woman who’s been told she’s under investigation. During our first session, after just three hours, she admitted to me she had actually gone over to ISIS—i.e., crossed the border to join the group—because of her theological and humanitarian beliefs and had lied to the police. She told me this knowing that I was under obligation to report this to the authorities. It wasn’t about trying to trick her into admitting something. It was a case of presenting and explaining to her with complete sincerity and honesty that it was in her best interest to be completely upfront, using the many hints within our conversation that revealed her original intentions and her main concerns. Her main concern after returning was not going to prison but the possibility of losing her child to social services or her child being put into foster care with a non-Muslim family. She was also deeply traumatized by what she had witnessed, often shaking when recounting these specific events. When she was first interrogated for many hours, she was unable to fully explain and answer questions due to this combination of fear, trauma, and tiredness. Our first session was a few days after her interrogation, after she had slept and settled back in the U.K. At the end of the session, she agreed to make a statement for police record, so I didn’t have to report her. Honest communication is key because it’s the first step toward rehabilitation.
CTC: From her case and others you’ve dealt with, what have you learned about the reasons why women from the United Kingdom traveled to the Islamic State?
Misra: There are many reasons, and they are as diverse as the age range and the ethnicities of the women who go out there.
For some, it’s because they have difficulties within their own lives here, and they see it as a new beginning or as an opportunity for escapism. I’ve seen cases where there have been young girls that have gone out on the ‘romantic’ idea of meeting a ‘gangster hero’ who they could get married to because either they were escaping a forced marriage in this country or they were looking for a ‘theologically sanctioned’ way to have a relationship of their choosing. Often they were recruited online by guys who were grooming them with promises of adventure, love, and purpose. I’ve also seen divorced women who went there to find a strong father figure for their children or a husband to help take care of them as they were ostracized from these opportunities in the insular U.K. communities they were part of.
For some, it was adventure. It was a way out of their daily life. I had one case of a woman who was the eldest child of a very large family. As per the cultural norm, she found herself taking care of a number of the younger siblings almost as a surrogate mother and felt trapped. She left to join the Islamic State not because of any particular theological commitment to their worldview, but because it was the only way she could justify to her family setting a life up somewhere else.
There have also been women I’ve worked with who originally went over to Syria for humanitarian reasons, to volunteer as nurses and aid workers. There are some who found that their original intention of compassion-driven migration mutated into a fixed extremist belief when they were immersed within ISIS rhetoric in the region. The British female returnees I’ve been dealing with told me that some European women they encountered did not wholeheartedly believe in the ideology, but were satisfied with the position they attained through their husbands’ horrendous actions. An example that was recounted to me was an ISIS soldier’s beheading of his mother who had asked her son to leave ISIS. It was considered the ultimate act of loyalty, and he accelerated up the ranks. His wife was a ‘white’ woman from a Western country, and whilst she detested the act, was able to live in more comfortable residence and had a greater quality of life as a result.
While the timeline of women’s travel can help indicate their original intention, it isn’t clear cut. It is important to note that many simply got stuck and were forced to marry continually as each husband was killed fighting. To avoid being killed for apostasy and maintain the resulting children and not have them removed by ISIS courts, they had to outwardly pretend to be supportive of what ISIS was doing.
For other women, pre-existing theological commitment to ISIS’ worldview was the driving factor. One woman I’m working with traveled there with her children to “bring her faith alive.” Often, people think that having children would be a protective factor that would stop women from going over. This is a myth for the theologically driven woman. There is a very strong desire for such a woman to protect her children from an environment [in which] they may be exposed to alcohol, drugs, and immorality. Their understanding of immorality is anything outside of [what they see as] the literal sharia rules. Traveling away from such “immoral lands” is, therefore, considered a holy journey. The loss of a child during such a journey would be considered a route to heaven for a mother who suffered this loss patiently.
Another motivating factor for this migration is that the mother wants to physically show her children how to practice their faith by being a warrior and not just talking about her beliefs but actually practicing them.
CTC: You used the term ‘warrior.’ Until the ‘caliphate’ began to collapse, the Islamic State cast women as mothers and wives rather than advocating combat roles.b What do you mean by warrior?
Misra: A case I worked with viewed it as an act of jihad to go abroad. By having as many children as possible, she felt she was sacrificing herself to expand the ‘caliphate.’ For the woman who wanted to “bring her faith alive,” it wasn’t enough to be here in the U.K. and support from afar. She felt she needed to demonstrate this support and actively join the group’s efforts.
This particular lady was living a very insular life with very little interaction with the outside world other than her children and a small circle of other Muslim women with similar beliefs. In that enclosed echo chamber, the conversation went along the lines of “wouldn’t it be great if we were able to get out of the house and be part of society.” They felt they couldn’t practice the lifestyle they wanted in the U.K. because of the pubs, the ‘immorality’ present in society, and the men ‘eyeing them up.’
Leaving for the caliphate would, in their view, allow them that freedom. Their thought process was that by going over and helping setting up the Islamic State, not only were they setting up something that was pure, they were also setting up a place that could free other women and other people in this country to practice their faith fully without compromise. And in that way, they were warriors because they were pioneers, fighting for the oppressed. In their minds, they were the Muslim equivalents of suffragettes. It was a question of female emancipation.
When ISIS declared a caliphate in June 2014, there was a significant increase in the number of British women departing. One of them explained to me how she’d listened to Anwar al-Awlaki videos when together with other women in the U.K., and they would afterwards discuss his idea of setting up a utopian caliphate and how great it would be to go over there. She and the other women began to question the masculinity of their own husbands for not going over straight away after the caliphate was declared. They started to question whether their husbands were actually Muslim, given their apathy and reluctance to join ISIS, and began to seriously doubt their husbands were the right examples for their children. I know of a case where the wife actually left her husband and took her children to go and join. She didn’t want her husband to taint her children’s beliefs and therefore decided it was in their children’s best interests to travel as their marriage was, in fact, invalid given his ‘non-Muslim state.’
In some cases, it’s been the wives who have pressured the husbands to migrate.
CTC: And that’s an important point to make because there’s a stereotype of men always being the ones pressuring women to go.
Misra: That’s right. What we’re dealing with is a social movement.
CTC: What has been the experience of British women in Islamic State territory?
Misra: Some British women who went over there appear to have embraced the group, whilst some recoiled at what they witnessed. Let me talk about what I’ve learned from one woman I’m currently working to rehabilitate. I’ll give her the pseudonym ‘Zaina.’ She’s a convert, and she traveled to the Islamic State to join her partner, who attained a position of high rank in the group. She says she just wanted to see him again and so traveled out to see him. She was alone with no children at the time of the original journey. It seems she didn’t have any theological driver but ended up spending approximately three years with the group in Raqqa. She suffers from post-traumatic stress after witnessing a number of atrocities.
Zaina told me she saw young girls being married off to elder men. She met a pregnant girl of 13 married to a man over 50 years old. She met women who were being injected with fertility drugs because they couldn’t get pregnant straight away. She explained that not getting pregnant the night of the wedding was frowned upon. She came across pregnant women who were so severely beaten by their husbands that the ultrasounds showed the complete disintegration of children within their wombs.
While Zaina was out there, she herself had a baby and that strongly triggered her decision to escape. She didn’t want her child to grow up there. She says she had to try to pretend she agreed with what was going on around her or she wouldn’t have the freedom to leave. Despite knowing the consequences, she found herself at one point not being able to withhold her true feelings. They told her they would kill her after she had the baby, but she managed to convince them she was just being ‘hormonal’ and continually apologized, increased her outward religious practice as proof of her repentance, and after a period of weeks, this proved sufficient.
Zaina spoke of the sheer volume of sex slavery, how Yazidi women were passed around. She said that other woman not only supported the concept, but would violently reprimand women who expressed revulsion over it. She described a situation in which there were ‘guard woman’ watching and listening to her and the other women. She was extremely cautious in picking the right friends in order to get help to get out.
CTC: It sounds like an even darker version of The Handmaid’s Tale. There must have been a lot of pressure to conform.
Misra: Yes. One thing the women used to quote to each other was a verse from the Qur’an: “Sometimes you hate that which is good for you.”2 It was a way for them to rationalize their horror. They would explain to each other it was the result of being brainwashed by Western values, and the feeling of revulsion needed to be ignored for pure values to take hold of them.
CTC: So this should not be understood just as the males of the Islamic State domineering over females. This is women of the Islamic State who believe this and were trying to institute this.
Misra: Yes, and this gets back to the reality that there is a female-driven social movement at work.
CTC: To what degree has the collapse of the ‘caliphate’ and the chaotic and difficult conditions in Syria and Iraq deflated this social movement?
Misra: To some degree, it has demoralized them because from their perspective, it’s revealed that it was not the prophesized caliphate. But many ISIS supporters here in the U.K., including even some of those who witnessed its horrors first-hand, still fervently believe in the concept of an Islamic State-style caliphate and are now awaiting the declaration of another such state elsewhere.
CTC: What is the approach you use to try to transform extremists’ mindsets?
Misra: What sets Unity apart generally is we have a theological credibility because of the Islamic scholars that support us, who have millions of followers worldwide and a lineage of learning stretching back to the Prophet Mohammed that predates the writing down of the Qur’an. This lineage is historically verifiable. We believe this oral tradition of how to interpret the Qur’an has primacy over literalist interpretations of the text. We work to convince those who have become radicalized that their previous interpretation of Islam was misguided and to instill in them a humanistic, open-minded, and tolerant understanding of the religion that holds interdependence and symbiosis of the whole of humanity, living beings, and the environment at its core.
The other aspect is Unity has community credibility because we’re engaged heavily at the grassroots [level], and there is wide understanding in Muslim communities in the U.K. that we’re here to help. One of the first questions the women I work with often ask is “why are you doing this work when you’ve got four kids at home and could be working full time as a doctor?” When I explain to them “I’m here because I’m trying to help you, because I believe I can really help you in the situation you’re currently facing and we’re doing this with a good and clear intention,” it means something. It’s real. So that sincerity makes a huge difference, because regardless of what methodology you employ, if you’re not able to get that rapport or build that trust, you’re not going to be able to get anywhere.
Once we build that initial trust, then we move into the realm of perception—understanding what their mindset is, how they’re feeling, why are they viewing things a certain way. Slowly, you piece together and then dismantle the factors that have led to this mindset, and you’re able to passively guide them to a different understanding. What I’ve found is that once this dismantling occurs, the motivation to replace this with a correct understanding is one that ignites within the person, and you are there to direct and support this process. It is really important that once this dismantling occurs that the process is not stopped. The deconstructive phase needs to work in parallel with a reconstructive process that is case centered and involves the development of a sustained change in perception. A critical aspect here is helping them develop self-understanding so that they can regulate how they react to particular triggers, for example, racist abuse or anger over current events.
We’re training up new staff at the moment—it’s generally a two-year process including learning on the job—and one of the things we explain to them is when you’re walking in and speaking to someone, you can’t drag somebody from this corner of the room to the door. The process often involves going one step forward, two steps back, but that’s still progress because you’ve learned the triggers and the mindset reflexes specific to the case.
One question that can often help these women’s thinking is the question “which part of Islam are they not allowed to practice in the U.K.?” The answer by the end of the sessions is that they are fully free to practice their religion here. The other thing I point out is that I myself converted from Hinduism to Islam 15 years ago, but ISIS believes ‘disbelievers’ can be put to death. Would the women I’m engaging with have wanted me to be put to death?
I hope my example can also make an impact. These women see that I’m a mother of four, an NHS doctor, a Muslim, and very well integrated into British society, and that’s a walking contradiction to a lot of what they’d been led to believe. This appeals to the warrior woman movement followers also as there is a clear example of positive activism at work in front of them that is hard for them to refute.
CTC: How much do you focus on theology in these sessions?
Misra: We try to avoid getting bogged down in exclusively theological debates. The problem about taking on specific interpretations is that you’re essentially arguing from the same book. And then it comes to a case of “well, you hold onto your understanding, and I’ll hold onto mine.” I’ve come into a lot of cases in which a radicalized woman has refused to carry on speaking to another intervention provider from another organization because they’ve taken this approach. We describe this in our training as throwing rocks at each other over a wall. Sessions become about point scoring. There’s no connection, there’s no need for the other person to consider the other option because you’re speaking about the same subject, and there’s no middle ground.
The approach we take is to get them to question the deep basis of their understanding. Where are you getting that information from? How is it legitimate? It’s well known that hadith—the reported sayings of the Prophet Mohammed—are often used by extremists to justify their action. We impress on them that the hadith only began to be written down 120 years after the death of the Prophet, and there’s an oral tradition that was in place prior to this that is historically verifiable. We then focus on their own past experience. We ask a number of questions that appear basic, but [we] have found a number of people struggling to answer [them]. For example, “Why do you pray five times a day?” There’s nothing in the Qur’an or the hadith about praying five times a day. It’s tradition, based on practices in the community that have been inherited over the ages, just like the oral traditions the scholars who support Unity have inherited. They find the answers very intriguing, and this leads to building that rapport on a theological basis that then can lead to productive discussions that are theological but not in a rock-throwing or point-scoring format.
At this point, we point out something to them that is so obvious that it is earth-shattering. The humanistic, tolerant, open-minded approach to Islam we are advocating is followed by the majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims on the planet. And in a faith centered so strongly on the Sunnah—the customs inherited en masse down the generations—how is it conceivable that the majority of people practicing Islam would be led astray? When you put that across and you explain that a significant proportion of Muslims today live in the Malay Archipelago in which you see a very spiritual and humanistic interpretation of Islam, you can start to make real progress in dismantling their arguments.
But dismantling theological arguments isn’t enough. If you’ve got somebody who’s intrinsically linked to a group or an ideology because they’re part of a social community and they have comfort within that, unless you’re able to provide an alternative, you’re not going to be able to rehabilitate them.
CTC: So because they’re being brought away from their previous social circle, they also need a support structure. You become their friend, counselor, and confessor.
Misra: That’s right. I become part of these women’s lives. I see them at least once a week. I’ll answer a call in the middle of the night. I also introduce them to other women so they can start to make friends who are not in those extremist circles. But however important the emotional support is, again it is not sufficient. You also need to provide them with an alternative, positive activism, something that gives their life purpose. Invariably, what they were searching for—whether it was driven by theological intention, the desire to help suffering people in Syria, or bringing up their children in a more ‘pious’ community—[was] to do something ‘positive.’
CTC: How do you channel them in positive directions?
Misra: A good number of the men Usman has worked with are now helping Unity in its work. That can be incredibly beneficial to them and the people they are now helping still struggling through the process. One of our scholars has this saying, “if you wash the dishes, the dishes are clean but your hands are the cleanest.”
Some of the women I’ve worked with are now helping me to do outreach and help with current cases, but with women there’s often a different dynamic than with the men. I’ve found most of them want to disappear from their former circles and start again in anonymity for the sake of their children. So I focus [on] family matters and their children’s upbringings in trying to give them a sense of positive purpose. One of the ladies who came back from Syria I was working with, she had a young child with her. One of her driving factors for going over was to be a good mom. When she came back, there was a sense of failure. This obviously took time to get out because it’s quite a big admission. But she felt that she failed because she wasn’t able to stay over there. So when she came back, she needed to find another way of being a good mom, and we talked about ways she could do that.
CTC: What can authorities do to help with the process of rehabilitation?
Misra: Where a number of governments are going wrong is in the interrogation that occurs right after these men and women come back. They can be very abrasive and reinforce that us-vs-them perception. It’s incredibly hard to break that down and whilst the prison sentence is a measure that, if required, should absolutely be enforced, this is only a short-term solution. I appreciate there are limited budgets, but if they spent the time and the energy on training interrogators to have more cultural sensitivity or getting intervention providers into the room earlier, there’d be a lot less burden for the justice system.
CTC: A British minister Rory Stewart, referring to foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State, recently said “these people are a serious danger to us, and unfortunately the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them [in Syria and Iraq].”3 Your work appears to be a strong counterargument to that.
Misra: At Unity, we’ve shown that it is possible to rehabilitate people who have been with the Islamic State. Of course, they’ll have to answer for any crimes they’ve committed and pay their debt to society, but their mindsets can be transformed.
We have a number of individuals previously convicted of terrorist crimes now helping Unity in its work.4 The international coalition against the Islamic State cannot kill their way out of this problem. The only sustainable way of dismantling this ideology around the world is the path we’re taking, and the focus should be on expanding these kind of efforts.
CTC: How do you aim to expand your efforts?
Misra: I hope in just three years we can bring on board and train 500 to 750 people in IBT that we are hoping to put on a digitalized platform for global impact. We are aiming to achieve U.K.-wide impact, but we want to expand our work to the U.S. and Europe through strategic partnerships. As part of our outreach efforts, another thing we’re planning is a viral video campaign.
CTC: We’ve recently seen radicalized women arrested for plotting jihadi terrorist attacks in various European countries.c In a shift, the Islamic State recently issued guidance that appeared to pave the way for its female followers to play combat roles. How has this changed the stakes?
Misra: I’ve long feared it was only a matter of time before ISIS embrace this form of female jihad. It’s incredibly worrying because there are very few female interventionists like me who can address this challenge. We’re trying to change that at Unity, but many Western countries risk being caught on the back foot. There is a real shortage of female interventionists, and the success rate of male intervention staff with female cases is extremely limited. Given this emphasis by ISIS, it is important that more women are trained to do this work.
The stakes are really high. There is a real risk we’re going to see a surge in female terrorism in Western countries. You’ve got to understand that when you’re looking at the cultural makeup of these radicalized girls, joining or fighting for the Islamic State is a religiously sanctioned form of feminism.
CTC: It’s a dynamic in which these women, because they’ve grown up in the West, have a desire to play more equal roles. The fact the Islamic State is finally giving them equal status as fighters can be incredibly alluring.
Misra: Exactly. And the other challenge we’re facing is that some woman launching attacks in the name of the Islamic State are being celebrated as heroes here in the U.K. I know of one woman who received ten marriage proposals within a few weeks of going to prison after she launched an attack. Although the attack was almost ten years ago, her father is still congratulated within his community with people standing in queues to shake his hand because people want to shake the hand of the father of a female warrior.
CTC: What is the number one thing Western governments can do better in the field of CVE?
Misra: Empower those of us in the Muslim community working at the front line who have a proven record of working directly with people to dismantle this ideology. There’s been so much fatalism among government officials and think tanks that extremism is a problem we’ll be living with forever. We at TUI, believe it can be decisively tackled.
The strategy of only focusing on increasing security measures and military efforts are short sighted. The breakup of ISIS hasn’t made the threat go away. If anything we have seen an acceleration of attacks in the U.K. By focusing on only punitive measures and sending people to prison without effective rehabilitation is short sighted and a missed opportunity. You can’t just rely on putting people in prison because the ideology still flourishes in prison. Cases gain notoriety and celebrity status in their insular groups thereby only reinforcing their extremist beliefs which they disperse during this time. Those not serving life-terms will, of course, also eventually come out and therefore the problem only continues.
There needs to be a greater emphasis on allocation of resources to programs that have proven an elimination of this issue with a greater emphasis placed on true rehabilitation as a measure of success. There’s a whole interventions industry that has grown up here in the U.K. built on just ‘tick box engagement.’
CTC: You’re working in a very challenging environment. Unity has received death threats. Why are you doing the work you do?
Misra: It is difficult, no doubt. Waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning to answer phone calls from cases who need to speak to you because they’re feeling suicidal, the verbal abuse you sometimes get in the early stages of an intervention, receiving death threats publicly and privately, and then being told by friends and family that you’re insane for giving up the opportunity to work as a private-practice doctor to do this, it can be draining.
However, we have been told by academics and trusted experts in this field that our success is unprecedented and simply not available elsewhere. When I think of that and the number of people we have successfully stopped from following this ideology and therefore carrying out acts of terrorism, I feel very strongly that I would have to answer for not continuing this work despite the above. I feel morally obliged to continue, and the sense of accomplishment and service that you get from being able to facilitate such a change is incredible. CTC
[a] One of those rehabilitated by TUI was Ali Beheshti, who was previously the number-two leader in the British extremist group al-Muhajiroun. In 2009, he was convicted of an arson attack on the house of a publisher of a controversial novel about the Prophet Mohammed. After his release and subsequent change in mindset, Beheshti started helping TUI counter the extremist message on the streets. See Paul Cruickshank, “An Interview with: Usman Raja,” CTC Sentinel 8:7 (2015).
[b] In October 2017, in what appears to be a significant shift, the Islamic State’s al-Naba publication called on women within the group to prepare themselves for potential combat roles. While its predecessor group, founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had deployed female suicide bombers, until the summer of 2017 the Islamic State had cast women as wives and mothers rather than combatants. Rita Katz, “How do we know ISIS is losing? Now it’s asking women to fight,” Washington Post, November 2, 2017. See also Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin, “The Mujahidat Dilemma: Female Combatants and the Islamic State,” CTC Sentinel 10:7 (2017).
[c] For example, plots by women in the United Kingdom and France. See Danny Boyle, “Mother and daughter in terror plot case ordered to lift veils by magistrate who demands to see their eyes,” Daily Telegraph, May 11, 2017; Gérard Bon, “Arrested French women, directed by Islamic State, planned Paris attack,” Reuters, September 9, 2016.
 Raffaello Pantucci, “Britain on Alert: The Attacks in London and Manchester and the Evolving Threat,” CTC Sentinel 10:7 (2017).
 Qur’an 2: 216.
 “Only option is to kill British Isis fighters in Syria, says minister,” Press Association, October 22, 2017.
 For more on this, see Paul Cruickshank, “An Interview with: Usman Raja,” CTC Sentinel 8:7 (2015).