Stephen McGinty: Scots citizens in world troubles

TWO families are separated by the boundary of ideology, but united by having to live with the possibility a child of theirs may never return home to Scotland, writes Stephen McGinty.
Family of Glaswegian Aqsa Mahmood. Picture: John DevlinFamily of Glaswegian Aqsa Mahmood. Picture: John Devlin
Family of Glaswegian Aqsa Mahmood. Picture: John Devlin

THE distance from Ayr, the sleepy west coast seaside town, to Pollokshields, the leafy suburb of Glasgow and then on to Perth, the gateway to the Highlands, is less than one hundred miles, but for two Scottish families the route forms an arc of anxiety and fear.

For months (17 months for one family, ten months for the other) two sets of parents have been living in fear for their child’s safety, both forced to hide their anxiety under a blanket of secrecy, one at the firm request of the British government, the other through the added weight of shame.

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Yet their separate plight was revealed within 24 hours of each other with the tragic revelation that one’s son and the other’s daughter were on opposing sides of the current crisis in the Middle East: as victim of and collaborator with the Islamic State (IS).

In our fragile, interconnected society Scotland cannot hope to sit out the world’s troubles but it is still disturbing and distressing when our fellow citizens become players on a bloody stage, either by choice or force.

In Ayr, two pensioners are experiencing a parent’s worst nightmare. Herbert Haines, 77, and his wife Mary, 79, are being supported by staff from the Foreign Office as they wait to see if IS will carry out their threat to behead their son David, a 44-year-old aid worker who was kidnapped from a refugee camp in Syria in March 2013 and is now being held in northern Iraq by the same group who murdered the two American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

In Perth, David’s first wife Louise and his 17-year-old daughter Bethany have also endured 17 months of secrecy as the British government sought to secure his release. In Sisak in Croatia, his second wife Dragana and the couple’s four-year-old daughter Athea continue the vigil. During this time the British media had agreed to abide by the Foreign Office’s guidance that any reporting could further endanger the hostage’s life, either by revealing details such as military service or ethnicity or giving the false impression of their victim’s heightened or lower commercial value. Clandestine rescue missions or complex negotiations are rarely, if ever, assisted by the media’s spotlight.

Yet secrecy became an irrelevancy on Tuesday when IS released a video of the British IS fighter dubbed “Jihadi John” standing over David Haines, who was dressed in an orange Guantanamo Bay-style jumpsuit, whom he then threatened to decapitate.

When the foreign media and television stations began reporting Haines’ identity, both the Foreign Office and his family understood that the veil of secrecy was shredded and could offer no more protection. Since then they have said little, if anything. Bethany tweeted: “What I want most is to have my dad home for good.” Really, what else is there to say?

The picture that has emerged of David Haines is of a hard-working man who, after 17 years in the RAF where he served as an aircraft engineer, moved into charity work, first in the Balkans where he worked for a German NGO assisting those affected by the war in the former Yugoslavia, then later for a de-mining programme in Libya and South Sudan, and then as a security consultant for the French group Agency For Technical and Development in a refugee camp at Atmeh close to the Turkish border. He was taken hostage along with the group’s Italian co-ordinator, who was released in May amid suggestions that the Italian government paid a ransom – an exit barred by the British government’s understandable refusal to provide IS with “funds” to embark on further terrorist attacks.

One can only feel the deepest sympathy for the family of David Haines and yet the emotion is certainly not absent from the plight of Muzaffar Mahmood and his wife Khalida, an affluent Pakistani couple from Pollokshields in Glasgow who earlier this week gave an anguished press conference in which they condemned utterly the behaviour of their daughter, Aqsa, 20. Last November she left the family home and travelled via Turkey to Syria where in February she married an IS fighter and has since tweeted inflammatory messages urging British Muslims to carry out acts of terrorism. One read: “Follow the example of your brothers from Woolwich, Texas and Boston. If you cannot make it to the battlefields, bring it to yourself.” The family’s powerful statement, read out by their solicitor Aamer Anwar, stated that their daughter had “betrayed us, our community and the people of Scotland”.

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At the press conference the family were asked to comment on the plight of David Haines but Mr Anwar insisted it would be utterly inappropriate to do so. It was good counsel but there is a connection, one her parents cannot help but feel, as their daughter, by her words and the decision to marry into the IS organisation, clearly supports the foul treatment of David Haines. It still seems strange to click a link on an American website about “The Bride of ISIS” and read about a girl raised a few streets away from my home. How a privately educated girl from Glasgow became so radicalised as to abandon her family and country and take to preaching violent jihad on Twitter is not so unbelievable when the world with all its pain and poisonous ideologies is a click away in the privacy of her bedroom. Young people, like middle aged and old people, believe certain things because of what it makes them feel. In her mind there is a nobility in selflessly leaving the dull comfort of life in the Scottish suburbs to “serve” her faith and those of her people, oppressed Muslims, in Syria. The intoxicating rush of direct action, the camaraderie of being with “brothers and sisters” who share your faith and ideology, this would be utterly understandable for those Scots who, 80 years, ago defied their government to fight for the oppressed in the Spanish Civil War. The difference is that today Aqsa has rushed to the equivalent of the Nazi party, a twisted ideology whose adherents will commit atrocities for the good, not of a 1,000-year Reich, but the restoration of the Caliphate.

Yet what do the revelations of the past week mean for the rest of us? They can only serve as a tragic reminder of how each country is fused to the next and that no-one gets a free pass. Those who are religious will offer a daily prayer for David Haines’ safe return and those who are not will be thinking about him and his family.

It is but a crumb of comfort, but as a nation a crumb is all we can give and we give it willingly. I’d like to think that as Scots, our attitude is akin to that of Nato and that an attack on one of us is an attack on all.

A rescue mission, in fact – a successful rescue mission as they are not always so – would be the best possible outcome but that lies in the hands of British and American military. We, like the family, will have to wait in hope.

The family of Aqsa Mahmood are, of course, in a different position but their fears are the same: that their daughter will never come home.

At the press conference Mr Mahmood insisted that he still loves his daughter and that he and her mother wished her to come home. She at least has a choice.