Radicalisation: the counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point Contents

5Countering the extremist narrative

Challenging extremism together

88.The former Prime Minister said in October that everyone has a role to play in confronting extremism:

I want to build a national coalition to challenge and speak out against extremists and the poison they peddle. I want British Muslims to know we will back them to stand against those who spread hate and to counter the narrative which says Muslims do not feel British. 111

89.The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which seeks to represent the Muslim community, confirmed to us that it routinely issued statements to condemn acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam and assisted the police with information about extremist material.112 In contrast, organisations such as CAGE told us that they did not think it was necessary for them to publicly condemn acts of terrorism. CAGE also objected to the use of the term ‘religious fascism’.113

90.MCB also told us that they were working within Muslim communities to try to understand and articulate their concerns about terrorism, and focus on how they could effectively tackle the radicalisation of young people in these communities.114

Support to families

91.In their 2015 report on counter-terrorism, our predecessors expressed concern about the support available to parents and other family members concerned about radicalisation of loved ones and those affected by family members travelling abroad to join terrorist organisations. They were also concerned about whether the “anti-terrorist helpline” was the most appropriate channel for encouraging people to report their concerns, particularly as its name alone might act as a deterrent for worried people feeling able to contact the authorities.115 We considered what progress had been made in addressing these issues. As we have set out, there are many different factors which contribute to a person becoming radicalised rather than just two or three triggers. Similarly, there is no single set of signs or “symptoms” which families concerned about radicalisation can look out for.

92.Nor is there always effective support for families affected by relatives joining terrorist organisations. We took evidence from Konika Dhar, the sister of Siddhartha Dhar, who despite having been through the emotional trauma of losing her brother, was not aware of any organisation that could help her nor the right process to follow.116 She was also the victim of unwanted media attention. A greater focus should be placed on the effect on families of their loved ones’ decision to join Daesh. While small community organisations like Families Against Stress and Trauma (FAST) who do assist families exist, they can find it difficult to promote their avenues of support.117

93.We were pleased to hear from Alison Brannick, former deputy principal of the Bethnal Green Academy, that there appears to be a clearer process in place at that school. She told us that concerns are first referred to the safeguarding team, who assess the situation and then make a referral to a social inclusion panel, where a decision is made on the next steps to support the student. The school also worked with the local authority’s parents’ advice centre, organising sessions for parents to help them better understand the risks of extremism, and identify signs of radicalisation, so they knew exactly what support was available if needed.118 Witnesses representing the East London Mosque, who denied any knowledge of radicalisation and were unable to clarify the ideology of their Imams, told us that they were approached for support by the families of the girls from the Bethnal Green Academy when they felt “let down by the police”, and who were “very vulnerable and needed a lot support”.119

94.The support made available to families of individuals who travel abroad to join terrorist organisations is lamentable. We were concerned to hear from Konika Dhar that she received no support from the Government or statutory agencies. Our predecessor Committee previously recommended that there needs to be an easily accessible advice and counselling service, particularly for parents, but also for other family members and friends, who wish to raise concerns and ask for help when worried about their loved ones being radicalised. We reiterate the recommendation for such a counselling service which would provide much needed support to families. We know that identifying the route to radicalisation and the tipping point where individuals start embracing extremism is complicated. By constructively engaging with the families and friends of people who have been radicalised, lessons can be learned, which is crucial to better identifying the tipping point for their transition to extremism. As a minimum, the Government must change the name of the ‘anti-terrorist helpline’ which can be seen as too stigmatising and makes people apprehensive about expressing their worries.

95.We are never going to combat terror effectively unless the communities themselves take on a leadership role. It is these communities that stand to lose the most when atrocities occur. We were deeply concerned to hear CAGE’s views on not condemning terrorist acts, which we believe simply increases the sense of isolation from society that some individuals within the community feel. We also note CAGE’s sensitivity about the use of the term ‘religious fascism’. We commend the speed of organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain in condemning atrocities, but feel they could do more to expose and remove those who preach or advocate race hate and intolerance, and particularly those who draw young people into extremism. Such large community organisations must also show more effective leadership in supporting families concerned about their loved ones. It would be hugely beneficial for the new advice service which we have recommended be established to be staffed by trained members of community organisations. The Home Office should also provide support for existing community initiatives such as Families Against Stress and Trauma (FAST), including publicising their activities, to ensure that people are clearly aware of who they can turn to for support.


96.Dr Marsden of Lancaster University told us in her written evidence that even though people who were once radicalised might wish to move away from extremism, it can be very difficult to do so, particularly if they are publicly known as extremists. They have to deal with factors like social stigma and family tension, less access to jobs as they are perceived as less desirable, possible ongoing contact from extremist groups, and likely emotional trauma. She stated: “To rehabilitate former extremists one must recognise that reintegration is a two-way process: society has to permit and support the individual’s rehabilitation as much as the person has to want to do so.”120

97.Ian Acheson, the former prison governor who conducted an independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons for the Government, expressed his concerns to the Justice Committee recently about the readiness of the prison service to deal with returning fighters. He said that a senior National Offender Management Service (NOMS) director told him “quite blithely” that:

[ … ] the service had made no provision at all to forecast the return of jihadi fighters from Afghanistan or from ISIS-controlled territory or anywhere else because the service was big enough to absorb that. I found that quite astonishing, frankly. That is an example of the level of complacency that I observed.121

98.The French government has announced a plan to set up a dozen deradicalisation centres across the country. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said these sites would hold young people who might have stepped back from extremism, and their willingness to reintegrate into mainstream society would be tested.122 Denmark has been running a rehabilitation programme for returnees since 2014. They are first screened by the Danish police and security agencies. The programme then offers medical treatment for physical injuries as well as psychological trauma, and also assists with finding work or further education.123

99.The Government needs to have a more effective strategy to help those who have genuinely moved away from extremism and wish to reintegrate into society, just as it should also seek to support those families who have reported radicalisation by individuals or community groups. Indeed, ways should be found to harness their knowledge and experience in the fight against radicalisation if this can be done safely. The UK should look at the experience of other countries, including Denmark, which has developed a specialist approach to dealing with returning foreign fighters. There is no monopoly of wisdom on these life and death issues. We will look in greater detail at the “detoxification process” for extremists as part of our ongoing work on this subject.

Building resilience

100.The then Security Minister, Rt Hon John Hayes MP, has said it is essential to equip young people with an awareness of the dangers of terrorist and extremist propaganda and the skills they need to protect themselves from it. He stated that: “The Home Office funds local projects that encourage young people to think critically about potentially harmful or extremist views presented on the internet through addressing all forms of radicalisation.”124 We believe that young people’s lack of ability or awareness of the need to critically challenge their beliefs is also central to the problems we have found.

101.The Counter Extremism Project suggested in its written evidence that the first step is to train the educators, social workers and leaders of the local community to ensure they can recognise and engage with young people who might be at risk of grooming.125 The think-tank Demos also believes young people are not equipped to distinguish between truths and lies online and agrees it is imperative that they are taught how to protect themselves—through training on identifying manipulation and grooming efforts and being able to challenge lies and misrepresentation. Education is therefore key to countering extremism in the longer term.126

102.The PSHE Association wrote to us about how Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education provides an ideal opportunity to discuss extremism within a safe classroom setting. The training can be developed to help students better understand how extremists think to identify the “myths, misinformation and manipulative techniques” they use. It can also assist young people in deciding what to do if they are worried about friends, including “when to keep and when to break a confidence”.127

103.Engaging with and empowering young people is a critical element of the effort to counter extremism and provide an effective counter-narrative. From our engagement with young people who are most affected by these issues, it is clear that they are willing to discuss their concerns and share their views, and they should be given a safe space to do so. The Government must move urgently to develop a programme that helps these young people better develop the critical skills required to be conscious of manipulation and grooming and to actively question information they receive—both offline and online. It is only when they are equipped with these skills that they will be able to develop the resilience and tenacity necessary to deal with the complex issues of faith, identity and aspiration, as well as mental health, the role and power of women, the role of prisons, English-language skills and urban pressures. This is also why we have recommended a hotline that is not led by the security services. This resilience programme would best be developed through working with education experts, community organisations, social media companies and policing bodies, including Police and Crime Commissioners and senior police officers, which must all take steps to encourage young Muslims to challenge extreme interpretations of their faith.

Developing and communicating alternate messages

104.Baroness Shields referred to a study by UK think-tank Demos which concluded that not enough is being done to promote “counter-speech”. (We prefer the term “counter-narrative”.) The study suggested that governments should support civil society to develop counter-narrative programmes, to give them “a platform and a greater share of voice”.128

105.While many governments are active in direct counter-messaging, they are not seen as credible in terms of prevention or deradicalisation. The then Security Minister has said that the Government is working in partnership with civil society organisations to confront extremist narratives and provide alternatives.129 However, this does not yet appear to have been hugely effective in preventing young people from being radicalised and travelling abroad to fight.

106.The Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which works on producing counter-radicalisation messages, has been criticised for the implementation of programmes through campaigns which do not always seem to acknowledge that they are supported by the Government. Critics say this could cause serious damage to the relationship between the Government and Muslim communities. For example, the vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations has stated that people discovering that programmes are backed by the Government can undermine the trust of Muslim civil society organisations, which she blamed on the “toxicity” of the Prevent strategy.130

107.In contrast, the Counter Extremism Project, while setting out how civil society should work with Government and the private sector to find the best way to counter the extremist narrative, believed it was important for them to have clear information on what operational and financial support is available from the Government, and what training can be accessed.131 Quilliam agreed that counter-narrative campaigns work best when Government enables a partnership approach because civil society organisations can lack funding, whereas the private sector lacks knowledge of extremism and community engagement.132 Other witnesses, including Baroness Warsi and Inspire, were in agreement that it was better for the source of the counter-narrative to be community-led and non-government.133

108.The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank which has experience in organising partnerships of civil society networks and the private sector within the countering extremism field, stated that governments could be very effective in facilitating networks behind-the-scenes and also in removing any legal barriers that could make many former violent extremists reticent to speak out.134 The Institute advocates working with former extremists, defectors, and affected communities to find creative ways of tackling recruitment by extremist organisations.

109.Similarly David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, told us counter-extremist messaging would be much more effective if it came from people who were viewed by young people as “one of their own”. He cited the Abdullah-X YouTube channel, where a reformed extremist has created a series of cartoons aimed at preventing young British Muslims from joining jihadist groups, and stated: “The testimony of people who have come back from Syria and said it is not like they say, is likely to be much more powerful than something that the Government says”.135

110.FAST has also produced a YouTube film with testimonies from parents whose children have travelled to Syria, and designed an online guide for parents on the dangers of radicalisation.136 The short film was commissioned by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and focuses on three Syrian refugee mothers speaking directly to mothers in the UK about the realities of living in a war zone like Syria. It is complemented by letters from the women urging mothers here to prevent their daughters from travelling to Syria.137

111.The approaches to counter-terrorism of successive governments have not so far achieved the success we would all have desired (although the success of the UK’s security services in preventing tragedies on the scale which have been seen elsewhere should be noted). Instead, in some circumstances, they have created suspicion and alienation amongst the very people they need to reach. Most of the communities that one might expect to say that radicalisation was present within them gave little evidence that they believed it was on their doorstep. This raises suspicions that the extent to which Prevent has reached those it needs to is limited. This is exacerbated by the fact that families who identify radicalisation may tend to retreat, making them even harder to reach, and is a failure of so-called community groups.

112.The success of Abdullah-X’s YouTube channel in appealing to young people shows how, if done sensitively and in collaboration with community organisations, Government involvement can be effective in engaging with the target audience. The UK has the brightest and the best talent in the creative industries in the world, including in video-games. We should be using this talent to ensure that every sophisticated piece of extremist propaganda is countered by even more sophisticated anti-radicalism material. The Government must facilitate regular meetings of the leaders of the UK’s Muslim communities, while also recognising that many communities have no leadership and taking the necessary proactive steps to reach out to them. These regular meetings should also include think-tanks with expertise in the field and the private sector, to begin to build a bank of best practice counter-narrative case studies that will help civil society and business to implement effective counter-narrative programmes. Its scope should include training for community organisations and working with former extremists to develop and target online counter-narratives.

113.Terrorism is an overwhelming global crisis, and violent extremism is what fuels it. Countering it involves the portfolios of education, health, justice, home affairs, foreign affairs and international development. Local communities in the UK are ready and willing to enter the fray and defend the British way of life. The Government must not squander any opportunity to harness this beneficial force. It must forge and disseminate strong counter-narratives that will address the wilful blindness and blame-games of vested interests and combat the lies and deceit that the extremists want to feed to our young people in order to send them to their deaths.

111I want to build a national coalition to challenge and speak out against extremism”, Prime Minister’s Office press release, 13 October 2015

112 Qq35–39

113 Qq266–268, 271–5

114 Qq15–16

115 Home Affairs Committee, Nineteenth Report of Session 2014–15, Counter-terrorism: foreign fighters, HC 933, para 19

116 Q842

117 Q1115

118 Qq161–162

119 Qq50–51, 53, 57-59, 61–63, 65

120 Dr Sarah Marsden, Lancaster University (CEX0058) para 3.6

121 Oral Evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 13 July 2016, HC 417, Q23

122France to set up a dozen deradicalisation centres”, The Guardian, 9 May 2016

123Denmark: Extremism & Counter-extremism”, Counter Extremism Project, 15 February 2015

124 HC Deb, 3 November 2015, 14632

125 Counter Extremism Project (CEX0003) para 2.l

127 PSHE Association (CEX0023) para 12

128 Home Office speech, “Beyond business: the responsibility of global players, 12 January 2016

129 HC Deb, 3 November 2015, 14632

131 Counter Extremism Project (CEX0003) para 2f and 6

132 Quilliam (CEX0025) paras 13–18

133 Qq104, Q227

134 Institute for Strategic Dialogue (CEX0039) paras 3.4, 3.6

135 Qq948, 952

137Plea from Syrian refugee mothers”, National Police Chiefs’ Council press release, 12 January 2016

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

2 August 2016