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Children groomed into working in the drugs trade should be treated as victims of exploitation

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victims of exploitation

Whether it be young people used as mules to smuggle drugs across the Mexico-US border, or teenagers coerced into selling substances including crack cocaine and heroin on the streets of provincial towns up and down the UK, organised criminal gangs are increasingly grooming children into doing their dirty work for them. For middle-ranking drug gang members, recruiting expendable vulnerable children into the narcotics trade is a cheap and easy way of having somebody else take the lion’s share of the risk on their behalf. In exchange for a small amount of cash, a new pair of trainers or some designer clothing, dealers are able to groom young people into a life of crime in much the same way that paedophiles approach potential child abuse victims. Some might be forced to take part in smuggling missions, while others may be “employed” to keep watch over industrial-scale cannabis farms, but one thing they typically have in common is their vulnerability.

Children who are groomed into the drugs trade more often than not come from low-income families, and will routinely have experienced disadvantaged upbringings and may have suffered other forms of abuse during their lives. In many cases, they have more in common with victims of modern slavery than traditional street dealers or couriers, facing threats of violence or other forms of punishment if they fail to carry out the orders they are given by their groomers. Drug-dealing gangs will often target the most vulnerable young people they can find.

A recent investigation conducted by the Times of London revealed that British criminal networks regularly focus on recruiting children who have been excluded from mainstream education due to their poor behaviour, and often seek out kids who have problematic or chaotic home lives. In Mexico, drug cartels have even been known to kidnap children as young as 11 and force them to participate in torture and beheadings. While these may be particularly heinous crimes, it is vital not to lose sight of the fact that children who find themselves caught up in situations such as these often have little choice but to agree to the demands made of them.

Regardless of this, children who are groomed into working in the drugs trade are often left facing the full force of the law when they are caught, with little or no acknowledgement of the circumstances under which they became involved in criminality. While gang members higher up the supply chain are often able to avoid the attention of law enforcement agencies on account of their exploitation of children, young people who are arrested while carrying out their groomers’ bidding can wind up serving hefty jail sentences, with little to look forward to in the future thanks to serious drug offences being etched permanently onto their records.

Children who end up being groomed by drugs gangs have typically already been failed repeatedly by the time they are trapped in life of crime, be that by their parents, teachers or social workers who might have been charged with looking out for their welfare. But rather than being met with sympathy and understanding once they are arrested, many are treated as common criminals as opposed to the victims of grooming they clearly are. This has to change. Few teenagers dream of being paid peanuts to risk their liberty and sometimes their lives by ruthless drugs gangs that care absolutely nothing for their welfare, but many lead existences that are so bereft of purpose and meaning that the faux belonging offered by criminal networks can prove seductive.

If it were not for the failed global war on drugs, few children would have their lives blighted by being groomed into the narcotics trade. But as the legalisation of most illegal substances seems a long way off in most countries, law enforcement authorities across the globe have a responsibility to change their approach to young people who are effectively forced into working for drugs gangs. In some cases, one form of criminal punishment or another will be unavoidable, particularly in instances where young people have willingly allowed themselves to become involved in extreme acts of violence. But where this is not the case, and all evidence points to the fact that a vulnerable child with few other options in life has been groomed into criminality, surely we have a responsibility to offer counselling and support rather than punishment for being abused.

Just as the law in most countries does not treat victims of child sexual exploitation or modern slavery as criminals, we must move away from the idea that children involved in the drugs trade are routinely treated as offenders, and instead offer them an opportunity to rebuild their lives once they have escaped the clutches of their abusers.

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New technology designed to identify food fraud will count for little if tighter penalties are not introduced

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new technology designed to identify food fraud

Earlier this week, regulators in Ireland announced they were preparing to deploy new DNA testing technology designed to help inspectors identify food fraud. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) announced on Monday that the technology will be able to scan the DNA contents of food items, allowing scientists to establish the biological sources of ingredients present in food and drink products. Once in use, the scanning tool will allow inspectors to ascertain if food products genuinely contain the ingredients listed on their packaging, or whether the manufacturer of the goods in question has attempted to pass off cheaper ingredients in a bid to boost profits. Ultimately, it is hoped that the new system will help the FSAI identify and prosecute companies and individuals who seek to make money by misleading consumers about what is really in their food.

Apart from the 2013 European horse meat scandal, during which a number of EU food manufacturers were caught selling cheap horse meat as beef, food fraud rarely makes major headlines. Despite this, it has for some years now been an activity that has become increasingly attractive to organised criminal gangs. The reason why is not difficult to understand. As well as being hugely profitable if carried out on a grand enough scale, food fraud carries significantly softer punishments for those who are caught doing it than more traditional forms of organised crime such as drug trafficking, people smuggling or even wildlife crime. The penalties available to judges in many countries around the world when sentencing offenders who have been convicted of food fraud charges are widely considered to be woefully insufficient, be they custodial punishments or fines. As a consequence, when assessing the risk-reward ratio associated with committing food fraud, many organised criminal gangs see it as an attractive option.

Since 2011, a coalition of law enforcement agencies including Interpol and Europol have been conducting a global annual crackdown on food fraud, resulting in thousands of tons of dangerous food items being seized and the arrest of scores of suspected fraudsters. Last year’s Operation Opson investigation, which involved authorities from a record 67 countries, saw more than 3,620 tonnes of substandard food being taken out of international supply chains, and the dismantling of nearly 50 organised crime networks said to have been involved in the illegal trade in counterfeit food and drink.

In Belgium, a company behind a meat processing plant had its licence withdrawn after it was found to have knowingly sold rotten meat to supermarkets across the country. Elsewhere, police in Spain arrested four people after seizing eight tonnes of counterfeit baby milk destined for sale in China at an illicit factory in Barcelona. The operation also resulted in Russian officials dismantling 48 illicit alcohol factories, seizing more than 1.6 million litres of illegally-produced beverages in the process.

Only last week, an investigation conducted with Europol in collaboration with police in Italy broke up an organised criminal syndicate that was said to have been involved in the counterfeiting of high-quality wine. Another recent Europol food fraud operation, the results of which were revealed last October, saw scores of people detained in relation to a scam involving the illegal sale of Bluefin tuna in Spain. People who consumed the tuna reportedly fell ill after the gang behind the plot illegally smuggled illicit fish into the country and kept in unhygienic conditions.

Along with DNA testing, a number of companies and research institutions are working on systems based on the blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to track food through supply chains as a means by which to identify fraud. This works by embedding information about a food product’s passage through its supply chain in codes on its packaging, allowing suppliers to have confidence in how the ingredients used to make it were sourced. In time, it is hoped that this information can be made available to consumers, allowing shoppers to not only check that the product they are buying is what it purports to be, but also whether or not it has been made with ingredients that may have been genetically modified or treated with antibiotics.

While it is certainly encouraging that these types of new technologies might help identify instances of food fraud in major supply chains, the fact that penalties for producing and distributing counterfeit and substandard food remain so comparatively light when compared to other forms of organised crime makes it likely they will make little difference alone. If global food and drink regulators are to have any chance of truly fulfilling the potential of DNA testing, blockchain tracking and other forms of new technology designed to identify food fraud, they must be given the teeth to impose meaningful punishments on those who are caught putting consumers’ health at risk by abusing the system.

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Shamima Begum could not have made a less compelling case as to why she should be allowed to return to Britain

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Shamima Begum

Disenchanted jihadi brides currently languishing in Syrian refugee camps desperate to return to their countries of origin owe a huge debt of gratitude to British teenager Shamima Begum, who ran away from home in London four years ago to join Daesh. Over the course of the past week, the 19-year-old has put in a series of extraordinary media performances from the al-Hawl refugee camp in north-eastern Syria, during which she has begged the British government to allow her to return “home”. In doing so, she has provided a textbook example to anybody who might find themselves in a similar predicament of how not to go about facilitating a safe return to the country from which they came in search of a quiet life away from the daily demands of being a terrorist’s wife.

Leaving the question of whether or not Begum should be allowed to return to the UK to one side for a moment, it has to be asked who was advising her before she embarked on her mission to win over hearts and minds back in Britain through a near week-long media campaign that has included interviews with the Times, Sky News, the BBC and ITV. During the course of these interviews, she has made a number of statements that will have done little to endear her to the British public, or make her return any more likely.

Speaking with the BBC, Begum said the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attack, during which 22 people lost their lives, was “justified” in retaliation for airstrikes in Syria. She also said she would have been quite content for her late son, who she claims died of malnutrition, to become a Daesh fighter had he lived, but would much rather her new-born baby boy be brought up in Britain. Perhaps somewhat ill-advisedly under the circumstances, she named her new son, whom she gave birth to last week at the refugee camp from where she launched her bid to be returned to Britain, after an Islamic warlord who was famed for slaughtering Jews and other infidels. At the request of her Dutch jihadist husband, Begum named her boy Jarrah, which translates from Arabic as “one who wounds” or “able fighter”.

Throughout all of her UK media outings over the course of the past week, Begum has appeared without a scintilla of remorse, instead smirking her way through interviews with an air of entitled arrogance. She has spoken dispassionately about the relaxed manner in which she responded to first seeing a severed head in a bin, and has voiced tacit support for the murder, rape and enslavement of Yazidi women by Daesh militants.

Back in Britain, Begum’s lawyer has embarked on an equally perplexing campaign to make the jihadi bride’s case before the country’s media. Tasnime Akunjee, who has in the past been linked with a UK advocacy group that described Daesh executioner Mohammed Emwazi as a “beautiful young man”, has compared the teenager’s current situation as akin to that of a First World War British soldier. Akunjee has also sought to blame everybody but Begum for the fact that she was able to travel to Syria while aged 15 without the intervention of authorities, despite the fact that she did so entirely of her own free will.

Begum and her lawyer could not have made a less compelling case as to why she should be allowed back into Britain. This has been reflected in a Sky News poll that revealed 78% of the British public do not believe she should be permitted to return to the UK, and a petition that calls for all Daesh members to be stopped from entering Britain that has attracted nearly 500,000 signatures and counting, the majority of which have been added since Begum’s case came to light.

US President Donald Trump this week pressured European governments to take back and prosecute the 800 or so foreign fighters from the region who are thought to have been captured in Syria and Iraq. Unfortunately though, it remains unclear as to whether prosecutors in countries such as France, Germany and the UK will be able to gather enough evidence to put these people on trial. What is clear, however, is that the European public has little appetite for Daesh jihadis such as Begum being allowed to return to the countries they turned their backs on. When Islamist extremists tell us so clearly who they really are even while trying to convince us to welcome them back into our communities, as has been the case with Begum, we would have to be quite insane to even consider allowing them to return even for one moment, regardless of what the law in its current form says.

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Daesh could emerge in a deadlier form after the fall of its so-called caliphate

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Daesh could emerge in a deadlier form

Nearly five years after Daesh appeared to be at the peak of its powers, controlling huge swathes of Syria and Iraq under its so-called Islamic caliphate, the jihadi group is finally facing defeat in the region. US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokespeople have said it is now only a matter of days until the last few hundred hardened Daesh fighters holed up in the Syrian village of Baghouz close to the country’s border with Iraq are “annihilated”. As the clock runs down for these Islamists, the days of gruesome Hollywood-style execution videos and dreams of a final battle against “Crusader” armies in the Syrian town of Dabiq must seem a very long time ago indeed.

While the cleansing of Daesh fighters from the region is obviously good news for the people of both Iraq and Syria who were forced to live under the group’s brutal rule, and will likely be used by US President Donald Trump as an example of how effective his approach to its physical presence in the Middle East has been, the fall of the caliphate will do little to diminish the threat the terrorist organisation poses, nor slow the spread of the ideology that underpins its existence.

Despite the fact that its income has dropped radically as the territory it controls has shrunk, the UN estimates that Daesh is sitting on a war chest of some $300 million that it can use to fund attacks on Western targets once it has regrouped from its losses. Some of this money is said to have been smuggled out of the group’s caliphate to be invested in legitimate businesses. The UN also notes that as a result of its loss of land, Daesh now has fewer liabilities, and will consequently be able to use more of its money to fund operations.

As well as retaining considerable financial muscle, the group also continues to pose a significant threat online. One of the most remarkable aspects of the rise of Daesh’s caliphate was the skill with which the group was able to use technology to spread its propaganda and attract recruits. Speaking with CNBC last November, EU Security Commissioner Julian King said the group remains a major online threat, and is continuing to produce and distribute terrorist content across the internet. This is significant, King said, because Daesh-inspired terrorist attacks that have taken place across Europe and elsewhere over recent years have been carried out predominantly by home-grown extremists, many of whom would have been at least partly radicalised online.

It is also important to remember that as the terror group’s caliphate has crumbled, foreign fighters who left their countries of origin to join its ranks have returned home, many taking with them skills learned on the battlefield, and in some cases and even greater hatred of the West than they harboured before they pledged their allegiance to the organisation. While there has been much debate about the fate of high-profile Daesh foreign fighters who have been captured by Syrian and Kurdish security forces, such as Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, the reality is that nobody knows how many of the group’s militants have sneaked back into their home nations.

In some cases, concerns have been raised that countries such as Britain might not be able to successfully prosecute jihadi fighters who do travel home under current laws. This has raised worries that in a limited number of instances extremists who have committed the most heinous and brutal of crimes, and who may consider mounting terrorist attacks in the future, could end up freely walking the streets.

Elsewhere, the group has been building its presence in a number of countries that are experiencing their own security issues, and forging alliances with other jihadi organisations that share its worldview. In Nigeria, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2015, leading to the breakaway of a splinter group named Islamic State West Africa Province the following year. Similarly, senior members of jihadi Philippines group Abu Sayyaf have repeatedly sworn oaths of allegiance to Daesh, which the latter group officially recognised in 2016. Meanwhile, militants from Daesh who have fled the group’s caliphate are said to have been regrouping in countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen, prompting fears that the organisation could use these countries as bases from which to launch fresh atrocities.

While the imminent end to Daesh’s presence in Iraq and Syria should of course be celebrated, it must not be allowed to lull the group’s enemies into a false sense of security. Daesh, like jihadi terrorism more generally, shows no sign of declining any time soon, making it a very real possibility that the extremist organisation could remerge in the not too distant future in an even more deadly form.

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