Counter Terrorism Policing U.K. (CTP) has warned that the impact of COVID-19 and social isolation could make some of society’s most vulnerable people more susceptible to radicalization and other forms of grooming.
The National Coordinator for Prevent, Chief Superintendent Nik Adams, has emphasized the help and support available for families that may be struggling to cope. Prevent is part of the U.K.’s counterterrorism strategy, delivered locally by teachers, healthcare practitioners, social workers, the police, charities, and religious leaders. It places protection around people vulnerable to radicalization, stopping them from being drawn into terrorism – regardless of the ideology. It works in a similar way to safeguarding processes designed to protect people from gangs, drug abuse, and physical and sexual exploitation.
People concerned that someone they know may be at risk from being radicalized by extremists are urged to seek help early, and access the advice and assistance available online and from experts. But as a result of schools and other statutory agencies closing during the nationwide lockdown, CTP has seen a decline in the number of people referred to the Prevent program for support since restrictions were put in place.
Urging the public to contact local services or the police directly if they need help and advice, Chief Superintendent Adams said: “What concerns me greatly is that the decline in the number of referrals doesn’t mean that there are fewer people that need our help, but that fewer people are able to access the support they need.
“Schools, mental health workers and other public services provide vital support and protection to young and vulnerable people, and the combination of those services being impacted by COVID-19 and the fact people are spending more time online means a small number of vulnerable people are at greater risk of being drawn towards terrorist activity.
“As we all adapt to the prolonged lockdown, I want parents to know that there is help and support available if someone in your household’s behavior has changed and you are worried that they may be being groomed.”
Despite the reduction in referrals the threat to the U.K. from terrorism has not diminished, and CTP has adapted at pace to changes brought about by the pandemic to ensure continued protection of the U.K. from that threat. This includes embracing new ways of working, new technology and maintaining essential services to ensure that the CT network is evolving to meet this change in risk and threat head-on.
Indeed, the risk of radicalization may increase for some vulnerable people, as the pandemic is driving young people to spend more time online, where feelings of boredom and isolation may be exploited by negative influences and online groomers of all kinds.
Chief Superintendent Adams added: “Isolation may exacerbate grievances that make people more vulnerable to radicalization – such as financial insecurity or social alienation.
“The extremists and radicalizers know this and, as ever, will look to exploit any opportunity to lead those people into harm, often using topical issues as hooks to lure them in.
“The national Counter Terrorism network is incredibly resilient and we have adapted in key areas to make sure we’re still able to provide our vital service through things like virtual interventions and working with school safeguarding leads, who continue to provide their services throughout this period.”
Despite safeguarding leads continuing to provide support, the removal of key face-to-face interactions with them through schools, colleges and social work means Counter Terrorism Policing is calling on the public to help identify warning signs and have the confidence to seek help for those who may need it.
Chief Superintendent Adams said: “Of course, I recognize that these are unsettling times for a lot of people and I know that families are under a lot of strain at the moment, but we’re seeing great examples across the country of how communities are pulling together to support each other.
“It’s vital that safeguarding remains at the heart of that support, so we can remain vigilant as a society and make sure the vulnerable people in our communities stay protected from those intent on doing them, and us, harm.