The photos published this week of radicalised German teenager Linda Wenzel emerging from rubble in the devastated Iraqi city of Mosul are as heart wrenching as they are shocking.
Her story is a sad and frightening account of a troubled young girl from a small town near Dresden who was targeted online by Daesh extremists and lured to Syria to marry one of its militants. Wenzel was described by her family as a quiet, sensitive and lonely child. At school, she was a promising student, but she had become withdrawn after her parents split up.
It’s thought she found solace in internet chat rooms and in a matter of months had become interested in Islam, started learning Arabic and reading the Quran. But an extremist saw his chance and ‘brainwashed’ her into Daesh’s twisted ideology and groomed her into travelling to Syria and becoming his wife.
She had told her worried parents she was staying at a friend’s house the weekend she disappeared, in July 2016. Having been brought up in a Christian household, they had learned of her sudden interest in Islam only months before. They apparently had no idea she was becoming radicalised.
She is now just 16 years old.
One of the most saddening aspects of Wenzel’s story is that she believed she had found love, online. The Daesh militant she had been chatting with had targeted a girl he probably recognised as hurting and impressionable. Perhaps she was looking for a better life, a new start, a purpose – we don’t yet know.
Her devastated mother has told reporters that after her daughter’s disappearance, she searched her room to find an Islamic prayer mat and a tablet computer which held a second Facebook account they did not know about. On this second account Linda was in touch with people in the Middle East and shared messages such as “Pray, the end is approaching”.
“I am devastated by the fact that she was apparently completely brainwashed and persuaded to leave the country by someone and that she managed to hide it from me,” her mother said at the time of her daughter’s disappearance.
From testimony, it appears that Linda Wenzel had become distant, lonely, and withdrawn. She had been spending increasing amounts of time online in chat rooms and not with her usual circle of friends. She had expressed a sudden and unexpected interest in Islam. And she was a sensitive and impressionable teenager.
At FAST, we fully understand that there are many paths to radicalisation, and that spotting the signs is not an exact science. But we must educate ourselves and our communities about the factors and behaviours that are commonly found in those who may have been exposed to extremist ideas.
FAST offers support to families going through challenging times by providing a non-judgmental helping hand and guidance. Where required, we match you with a professionally trained person or agency to deal with your matter, including scholars, advisors and local council departments. Get in touch with us if any of these issues are affecting you.
Reports say that when Linda Wenzel was pulled from the rubble, she was part of a group of 20 female fighters from numerous countries. Radicalisation of young women can and does happen. We must remain vigilant to protect our children from online extremists and keep communication open so we can better understand what is happening in their lives.
(Image credit: Twitter)