Roots of violent radicalisation - Home Affairs Committee Contents

2  Who is at risk of radicalisation?

The scale of radicalisation

10. In 2007, the Director-General of MI5 said that there were "at least 2,000 people" in the UK who posed a threat because they supported terrorism, a figure that had increased by 400 from the previous year. Charles Farr, Director-General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office, told us that, more recently, "we have seen that sympathy for violent extremism is declining rather than increasing".[11] Most witnesses were more or less in agreement, in relation to Islamist terrorism. Professor Peter Neumann, of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, said that is it "definitely" on the decrease, citing a large decline in the number of people mobilised by organisations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Al-Muhajiroun.[12] Witnesses did not consider that this was necessarily reflected in the conviction data;[13] however, we note from the most recent statistics published in December 2011 that only four people were convicted of terrorist or terrorism-related offences in Great Britain in the 2010/11 financial year, compared with 19 the previous year and a peak of 51 in 2006/07. Even allowing for the fact that some cases are still awaiting prosecution, only three individuals were charged for these offences in the year ending June 2011, compared with 27 during the previous year.[14]

11. Charles Farr thought that the reasons for this decline were unclear. While we received no definitive answers, it was suggested to us by a student from SOAS, during our round-table discussion, that supporting violent extremist preachers had been a "novelty" for some young Muslims, which had largely worn off.[15] Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who now runs a counter-radicalisation organisation, also posited that the Arab Spring had contributed to the waning appeal of global jihad.[16]

12. However, some witnesses were concerned about a growth in non-violent extremism, including Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation.[17] Jamie Bartlett of the think-tank Demos told us:

Other types of extremism appear to be on the increase. Part of that may be what Professor [Roger] Eatwell [of the University of Bath] calls cumulative, that groups feed off each other. Classic examples are the English Defence League and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who require each other's presence in order to justify their continuing existence and just continually spur each other on.[18]

The Government cites in the Prevent Strategy examples of where those who have previously been members of non-violent extremist groups have gone on to support terrorism.

13. Some witnesses and participants in our conference at De Montfort University suggested that the threat from the far right was increasing in two ways. The number of supporters for non-violent extremist groups was growing, and, while support for more explicitly violent groups remained low, Dr Matthew Goodwin, of the University of Nottingham, asserted that "the far right is becoming far more confrontational and willing to engage in violence".[19] Much of the current discourse about the far right tends to focus on the self-styled English Defence League, which recent research estimates has 25,000-35,000 online supporters but is not seen as a terrorist threat.[20] Dr Matthew Feldman, of the University of Northampton, made the point that there are other groups that are far more extreme, such as the Aryan Strike Force, four members of which have been convicted of various acts of preparation for terrorism.[21]

The drivers of radicalisation

14. The Prevent Strategy cites research suggesting that, in relation to Islamist terrorism, the following groups are particularly vulnerable to radicalisation:

  • young people and people from lower income and socio-economic groups;
  • those who distrust Parliament and who see a conflict between being British and their own cultural identity; and
  • those who perceive discrimination, experience racial or religious harassment, and have a negative view of policing.[22]

15. It became apparent during our inquiry that radicalised individuals come from a wide range of backgrounds: recent research described them as "demographically unremarkable".[23] For example, although only five women were convicted of Islamist offences between 1999 and 2009 and over 90% of referrals to the multi-agency Channel programme, which evaluates referrals of individuals at risk of radicalisation, were male,[24] we heard that Al Qa'ida is "specifically launching and targeting women for violent acts of radicalisation" and that "there is absolutely no gender imbalance whatsoever" in terms of support for extremism.[25] The majority of individuals referred to the Channel programme were aged between 13 and 25 and just over two-thirds of all terrorist offences since 2001 were committed by those under 30, but the age of offenders ranged from 16 to 48.[26] Education levels and economic status vary.[27] Those particularly vulnerable to radicalisation include converts to the Muslim faith, meaning they may originate from many different ethnic communities rather than what we would regard as "traditional" British Muslim communities. Rashad Ali, of the counter-radicalisation organisation Centri, concluded that "I don't think there is a typical profile ... It actually could be anybody".[28]

16. Evidence to our inquiry suggested that there were also many drivers of, and routes into, Islamist radicalisation. We initially heard that there were four main pathways: ideology, theology, grievance and mental health problems.[29] Further evidence emphasised grievance[30] and its links to social exclusion.[31] Arguments about social exclusion were not entirely convincing, given that 42% of offences were perpetrated by individuals either in employment or full-time education, and the recent Home Office research finding that individuals tend to have similar socio-economic status to the broader population in which they live.[32] Genuine theology also appeared to play a very limited role: Alyas Karmani noted that the Islamic understanding of individuals at risk of radicalisation seen by his organisation, STREET, "equated to a primary school level".[33]

17. Charles Farr argued that "we have a fairly good idea about what is driving radicalisation".[34] However, a recent Home Office-commissioned research paper contradicted this:

The empirical evidence base on what factors make an individual more vulnerable to Al Qa'ida-influenced violent extremism is weak. Even less is known about why certain individuals resort to violence, when other individuals from the same community, with similar experiences, do not become involved in violent activity.[35]

The weakness of the evidence base came across strongly during our inquiry. Jamie Bartlett said that there were three reasons for this: the difficulty in generating primary evidence because of the lack of research subjects and their unwillingness to participate; the fact that research tended to be theoretical rather than evidence-based; and the difficulty in analysing personal stories in a rigorous, scientific way.[36] Much of what is cited as "evidence" is often anecdotal. Professor Peter Neumann, of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, told us there was some good understanding of the "ingredients" for radicalisation but "do we not know absolutely everything about how these ingredients fit together, how to cook the recipe".[37]

18. However, most people with whom we spoke mentioned the centrality of grievance to the radicalisation process.[38] The Prevent Review found that sources of grievance included 'stop and search' powers used by the police under counter-terrorism legislation; the UK's counter-terrorism strategy more generally; a perception of biased and Islamophobic media coverage; and UK foreign policy, notably with regard to Muslim countries, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq.[39] This was supported by evidence to our inquiry. Maajid Nawaz, who was formerly a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, told us:

I had many grievances, including experiencing violent racism on the streets of Essex as a teenager before the age of 16; being stabbed at in the street by Combat 18; being falsely arrested by Essex police authorities. I saw what was happening in Bosnia.[40]

Murtaza Hassan Shaikh, of the Averroes Institute, argued in particular that "the common denominator is not the foreign policy but the perception, whether it is perceived or real, that there is an attack or a targeting or a singling out or a discriminatory attitude towards Muslims and Islam."[41]

19. Charles Farr told us that the drivers of terrorism in Northern Ireland-related terrorism, Al Qaeda-related terrorism and far right extremism tended to be "comparable in type but not in detail" in terms of the combination of ideology and personal vulnerabilities.[42] In Prevent, the Government claims the drivers for extreme right-wing terrorism include a combination of supremacist ideology—which in recent years has increasingly encompassed Islamophobia—peer pressure, and the prospect of personal benefit, with individuals involved tending to be male, poorly educated and unemployed, in some cases with a criminal record.[43] Dr Goodwin stated that, while their demographics might vary dependent on the organisation they supported, far right supporters were:

United through a heavy preoccupation with immigration, profound levels of concern over the effects of immigration on British society, high levels of dissatisfaction with all of the mainstream parties and anxiety over the role of Islam and British Muslims in wider society.[44]

As with supporters of Islamist terrorist groups, however, "not enough systematic, longitudinal research has been done to paint an accurate picture of who they are, how they come to be radicalised".[45]

20. Violent extremists reject mainstream methods of political participation. Dr Goodwin argued that "the vast majority of far right supporters are so dissatisfied with mainstream parties, and so distrustful of the political system generally that they either refuse to believe anything is being done or they simply take the view that what is being done is insufficient".[46] Akeela Ahmed, of the Muslim Youth Helpline, considered that the summer riots had highlighted some of the challenges facing young Muslims: they do not feel like they are being heard; they do not have the tools to express their grievances in the right way; and they feel disempowered and unable to effect change or influence what is going on in their lives.[47] A student from SOAS told us that Muslims felt particularly targeted by the police in legitimate protests.[48]

21. We suspect that violent radicalisation is declining within the Muslim community. There may be growing support for nonviolent extremism, fed by feelings of alienation, and while this may not lead to a specific terrorist threat or be a staging post for violent extremism, it is nevertheless a major challenge for society in general and for the police in particular. There also appears to be a growth in more extreme and violent forms of far-right ideology. Indeed it is clear that individuals from many different backgrounds are vulnerable, with no typical profile or pathway to radicalisation. However, there is a lack of objective data, much of the evidence inevitably being anecdotal. Only 250 people have been convicted in the UK of terrorism-related offences since 11 September 2001. However, there is a wealth of knowledge held by people working with individuals judged to be vulnerable to violent radicalisation at a local level that could better inform our understanding of why some of these individuals do become radicalised and, crucially, why some do not. One of the aims of the increased auditing demands to be placed on Channel providers should be the collection of a wider range of data to contribute to this evidence base. We recommend that the Government publish the methodology whereby this data will be collated and analysed, and make arrangements for suitably de-sensitised data to be made available to the wider research community.

22. One of the few clear conclusions we were able to draw about the drivers of radicalisation is that a sense of grievance is key to the process. Addressing perceptions of Islamophobia, and demonstrating that the British state is not antithetical to Islam, should constitute a main focus of the part of the Prevent Strategy which is designed to counter the ideology feeding violent radicalisation.

23. The Government notes in the Prevent Strategy that individuals "who distrust Parliament" are at particular risk of violent radicalisation. This appeared to be borne out in our inquiry, both in terms of Islamist and extreme far-right- radicalisation. Individuals are frustrated because they feel unable to participate in the political process and feel that mainstream parties do not recognise their concerns. This may not be true and we stress that we are talking about perceptions. Clearly there is much to be done by Parliamentarians and by the political parties to ensure that there is a nonviolent outlet for individuals throughout society, but we also consider that there is an insufficient focus within Prevent on building trust in democratic institutions at all levels. This should be emphasised more strongly, including how work currently being undertaken by the Government Equality Office to implement the 2010 recommendations of the Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation feeds into Prevent.

11   Q 299 Back

12   Q 349 Back

13   Ibid Back

14   Home Office, Operation of police powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 and subsequent legislation: Arrests, outcomes and stop and searches, Quarterly update to June 2011, Great Britain, December 2011, Table 1.04; Home Office, Operation of police powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 and subsequent legislation: Arrests, outcomes and stop and searches, Great Britain 2008/09, November 2009, Table A Back

15   Annex C Back

16   Q 105 Back

17   Q 93 Back

18   Q 349 Back

19   Q 205 Back

20   Q 359 [Mr Bartlett - citing his own research published by Demos, 2011] Back

21   See Annex A Back

22   HM Government, Prevent Strategy, June 2011, paras 5.26-5.30 Back

23   Home Office Occasional Paper 98, Understanding vulnerability and resilience in individuals to the influence of AQ violent extremism, November 2011 Back

24   Robin Simcox, Hannah Stuart, Houriya Ahmed, Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections, Centre for Social Cohesion, 2010 Back

25   Q 55 [Mr Ali; Mr Nawaz] Back

26   HM Government, Prevent Strategy, June 2011, para 9.23; Robin Simcox, Hannah Stuart, Houriya Ahmed, Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections, Centre for Social Cohesion, 2010 Back

27   Q 214 [Sir Norman Bettison] Back

28   Q 53 Back

29   Qq 45, 54 [Mr Ali] Back

30   See for example Q 139 [Mr Hassan Shaikh] Back

31   See, for example, Q 139 [Mr Karmani] Back

32   Robin Simcox, Hannah Stuart, Houriya Ahmed, Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections, Centre for Social Cohesion, 2010; Home Office Occasional Paper 98, Understanding vulnerability and resilience in individuals to the influence of AQ violent extremism, November 2011 Back

33   Q 139. STREET is a Brixton-based project working with young Muslims at risk of criminality, social exclusion and violent extremism. It was until recently funded as a Channel provider by the Home Office. Back

34   Q 306 Back

35   Home Office Occasional Paper 98, Understanding vulnerability and resilience in individuals to the influence of AQ violent extremism, November 2011 Back

36   Q 347 Back

37   Q 348 Back

38   See also Annex A, Annex B, Annex C Back

39   HM Government, Prevent Strategy, June 2011, para 5.27 Back

40   Q 48 [Mr Nawaz] Back

41   Q 140 Back

42   Q 309 Back

43   HM Government, Prevent Strategy, June 2011, paras 5.43-5.45 Back

44   Q 187 Back

45   Q 187 Back

46   Q 189 Back

47   Q 145 Back

48   Annex C Back

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Prepared 6 February 2012