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Q&A Factsheet:Worried about extremism, terrorism and radicalisation?

Professor Lynn Davies & Zubeda Limbada 

With concerns about home-grown terrorism, or young people going off to fight in Syria, it is not surprising that a growing number of families may be worried that their children or relatives might be drawn into extremism. We try to answer some questions – starting with definitions (although it is important to note there is not universal agreement on these).

Definitions:

What’s extremism? An extremist is someone who supports an idea, cause, or set of values so adamantly and without compromise that this person will use their views to justify anything they do.

What’s radicalisation? Radicalization is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals, especially with regard to support for or use of violence.

What’s terrorism? Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear in order to advance a political, racial, religious or ideological cause; it uses terror and open violence against civilians to attempt to force people, authorities or governments to change their behaviour.

What’s the Government doing about it? The Government has a national strategy – part of a broader programme – called Prevent, which aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. It addresses all forms of extremisms. It is supported by legislation such as the Terrorism Act (2000/2006) and the Counter Terrorism Security Act (2015).

What is Channel? Channel is part of Prevent and is intended to act as an early intervention. It is a voluntary scheme meant to encourage and support those individuals considered at risk to make positive life choices, steering them away from violent extremism and terrorism. It is a multi-agency approach including the police and local authorities, which make up a Channel Panel. There have been some concerns about how people are referred to Channel, particularly how people are identified as being ‘at risk’. This is why understanding the process is important for both families and professionals. If a person referred is considered by the panel to be vulnerable, and the case accepted, the panel will put interventions into place, for example helping with education, health, housing or employment, or it might involve mentoring.

Can teachers refer children to Channel without telling parents? Yes. This is because there have been cases where families have been radicalizing and therefore influencing children. However, this is unusual, and professionals such as teachers are to take proportionate steps, starting with a conversation with colleagues, safeguarding leads and experts for advice, and involving families wherever possible.

Are there any warning signs? The first thing to say is that there is no one set of signals that would be a cause for alarm. Behaviours – such as increased arguing, dressing in a particular way, being active on social media or becoming more religious or political – might be typical of any teenager. When it becomes worrisome is if there is a combination of some of the following:

  • when a person cuts off ties with friends and family to keep company with a new circle
  • when they start to support violence
  • when they suddenly become disinterested in school or activities they previously liked to do
  • when they express hateful views or use derogatory terms towards other individuals or groups
  • if they are spending time on their computer researching extremist groups
  • if they are liking or retweeting posts made by fighters or extremist ideologues on their social media accounts

Obviously, if a family member commits or plans violent acts, tries to acquire weapons or plans a trip to a conflict zone, then there is a legal obligation to report concerns to the police. 

Recruitment and how might a child be at risk? Radicalisers have three main ways they work: face to face, on-line and through printed or other material. In face-to-face interactions, your child may be approached directly by someone who seems trustworthy – perhaps in a club, group or a religious setting. They would not straight away preach a violent ideology, but initially just show interest, praise them and make them feel important. Later they might stress your child’s significance to the movement, or duty to take part. They might tell of the rewards of belonging, or the excitement. Skilled radicalisers will find a point of vulnerability, even in children who are successful at school and who have a secure home life. Indirect radicalization can occur through peers, i.e. those who have already been conscripted and seek to draw others into their group. On-line radicalization can again be direct or indirect – direct in terms of a person who is able to contact your child and who gradually builds up an on-line relationship; and indirect through your child looking at extremist material and becoming convinced to take some sort of action. Physical material in terms of leaflets, books or videos may also be offered – perhaps handed out at demonstrations. It’s important to point out that there is no one defined route to radicalizing a person. In some cases, people have self-radicalized via the internet.

What if my child actually joins an extremist group? If a child does join a group, or travels to join a group overseas, report the situation and take advice from the police. Former violent extremists suggest that it is important to try to keep contact, and to stress that they will be welcome if they return, even if you do not agree with what they are doing. Being accusatory or angry at any stage may push them further. Radicalizers often use family tensions to draw young people further into a group.

What about on-line recruitment?  You can also anonymously report material promoting terrorism you have found on the internet to the Home office on https://www.gov.uk/report-terrorism 

What should I do if I am worried? There is a scale of action, from informal conversation through to referral to authorities. Firstly, it is best to try to open up dialogue, not being judgmental but trying to find out what is behind the worrying behaviour. Young people often want to explore issues, for example talking about politics or religion – this is a positive thing. Former extremists often tell us that parents should try to keep the lines of talking open, try to listen, and tackle the tricky questions together. The idea is to help young people learn and grow, while building resilience to negative ideas and arguments. Talk to your child’s teachers, youth workers, community organisations and other parents – there are always people to get advice and support from.

For those worried about a relative in prison who seems at risk of being radicalized, any dialogue may clearly be less possible. The main advice is similar to above – to keep lines of communication open, and for those in prison to know the family is there for them. There is the choice of contacting the prison pastoral team to see if they could talk to your relative. Religious conversion is common in prisons, but this is not the same as support for terrorism.

There are a number of organisations that work with families affected by having relatives in prison and they may be able to help – Family Lives itself, and also PACT www.prisonadvice.org.uk/. There is a government helpline: The Offenders’ Families Helpline [email protected] telephone: 0808 808 2003 or St Giles Trust who work with ex-offenders and their families and who can be contacted on http://www.stgilestrust.org.uk

What if my child actually joins an extremist group? If a child does join a group, or travels to join a group overseas, report the situation and take advice from the police. Former violent extremists suggest that it is important to try to keep contact, and to stress that they will be welcome if they return, even if you do not agree with what they are doing. Being accusatory or angry at any stage may push them further. Radicalizers often use family tensions to draw young people further into a group.

What about on-line recruitment?  You can also anonymously report material promoting terrorism you have found on the internet to the Home office on https://www.gov.uk/report-terrorism 

What should I do if I am worried? There is a scale of action, from informal conversation through to referral to authorities. Firstly, it is best to try to open up dialogue, not being judgmental but trying to find out what is behind the worrying behaviour. Young people often want to explore issues, for example talking about politics or religion – this is a positive thing. Former extremists often tell us that parents should try to keep the lines of talking open, try to listen, and tackle the tricky questions together. The idea is to help young people learn and grow, while building resilience to negative ideas and arguments. Talk to your child’s teachers, youth workers, community organisations and other parents – there are always people to get advice and support from.

For those worried about a relative in prison who seems at risk of being radicalized, any dialogue may clearly be less possible. The main advice is similar to above – to keep lines of communication open, and for those in prison to know the family is there for them. There is the choice of contacting the prison pastoral team to see if they could talk to your relative. Religious conversion is common in prisons, but this is not the same as support for terrorism.

There are a number of organisations that work with families affected by having relatives in prison and they may be able to help – Family Lives itself, and also PACT www.prisonadvice.org.uk/. There is a government helpline: The Offenders’ Families Helpline [email protected] telephone: 0808 808 2003 or St Giles Trust who work with ex-offenders and their families and who can be contacted on http://www.stgilestrust.org.uk

The above is a blog we wrote for Family Lives which is a national charity providing support in all aspects of family life.

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9/11: The Al Qaeda attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington on 11th September 2001, which triggered President George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and the  wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

7/7: The co-ordinated bomb attacks on London by four young British men in the name of Al Qaeda, on 7th July 2005, which killed 52 people.

Al Qaeda: Terrorist group founded in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden, which committed the 9/11 attacks.

Islamic State (Daesh/IS/ISIS/ISIL): Terrorist group formed after the fall of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. It is the most prominent recruiter of Westerners to its mission to establish its own state.

CONTEST & the ‘4 Ps’: The British Government’s Counter Terrorism strategy initiated in 2006, revised in 2011, consisting of 4 strands: Prepare, Protect, Prevent and Pursue.

Prevent: Aiming to stop (prevent) individuals from supporting terrorism or becoming terrorists.