The impact of COVID-19, social isolation and a rise in hateful extremism online is creating a ‘perfect storm’ which is making more young people vulnerable to radicalization and other forms of grooming.
But parents, friends and families in the U.K. can now get specialist support to stop their loved ones being drawn into harmful activities or groups, with the launch of ACT Early – a new dedicated safeguarding website and advice line from the specialists at Counter Terrorism Policing (CTP).
This new resource will provide advice, guidance and support for anyone who is concerned that someone they know may be at risk from being radicalized by terrorists or extremist content online.
Between January 1 2019 and June 30 2020, 17 children have been arrested in relation to terrorism offenses. Some were as young as 14 years old, while nearly all will have been radicalized entirely online.
In the same time period, more than 1500 children under the age of 15 were referred to the Prevent program (a major part of the U.K.’s counterterrorism strategy) to help them choose a different path, away from hatred and violence.
Family and friends are best placed to spot the worrying behaviour changes which can indicate that a loved one is heading down a path towards radicalization, but currently just 2% of referrals into the Prevent program come from that group.
Prevent is just that – a preventative program, 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 sexual exploitation.
And with COVID-19 making regular access to schools, social workers and mental health support more difficult, specialists at CTP are concerned that people who need help are not getting it – which makes it more important for friends and family to use the new ACT Early resources to understand what might be happening to their loved one, and what support Prevent can provide.
“We are seeing more young people being drawn towards terrorist activity,” says the Head of Counter Terrorism Policing, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu.
“What concerns me most is this – there has been a sharp increase in extremist material online in the last few years, and COVID-19 has meant that vulnerable people are spending a lot more time isolated and online, and with fewer of the protective factors that schooling, employment, friends and family can provide.
“In my opinion that is a perfect storm, one which we cannot predict and that we might be feeling the effects of for many years to come.
“But I remain hopeful, because there is something we can do right now to try and stop this. It requires parents, friends and family to help us by acting early, by talking to their children about what they view online, and sharing their concerns and seeking support if they fear someone they know is in danger of being radicalized.
“Asking for help is a difficult and emotional step, but we must see it for what it is – action which won’t ruin their lives but may well save them.”
Someone who knows all about the dangers that extremism and radicalization can pose is Kath, from Families and Extremism Support. Her son was convicted of being a member of the proscribed Right Wing Terrorism group, National Action, after being radicalized online. She now works to help other families in similar situations.
“My son is now trying to rebuild his life in prison after being drawn down a path by extremists. But his story could have been so different if I had advice and support like this available to me,” said Kath.
“I did know something was going wrong in his life but didn’t know enough about what it was, how to talk to him about it without arguments or where to go for help. When the police did try to intervene, he refused to engage with them because by then it was too late. So I would encourage any other parents or wider friends and families to Act Early and seek help and support. The police and other services can help turn lives around if you tell them what’s going on early enough.”
This view was echoed by Nicola, whose son was killed in Syria in 2015 and who now supports people in a similar situation through Families For Life, an independent counselling service.
“I personally know what it feels like to have your family destroyed by terror and to think back over what could have been done differently in the hope for an alternative outcome,” said Nicola.
“My life is now devoted to supporting families who have gone through similar experiences but also importantly safeguard and protect those who may be showing signs of vulnerability. It’s not always easy to know when friends or loved ones are being drawn into terrorism, so it’s great to see communities working with authorities on important work like the Prevent ‘Act Early’ campaign to raise awareness not only of the potential warning signs to look out for but also of the support available.”