How can we tackle radicalisation?

Young people are proving vulnerable to online radicalisation. Hundreds of Britons have gone to Syria to fight for ISIL (sometimes referred to as ISIS) since the civil war began but it would be a mistake to consider radicalisation as new. Impressionable young people have been persuaded to follow radical ideologies and pursue political aims via acts of violence for centuries.

Critically, today’s terrorist groups have a new weapon in their arsenal – new communication technology. They now radicalise and recruit teenagers through extensive use of social media and the Internet. Teenagers, as young as 14, have attempted to migrate to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL and other terrorist factions.

What causes radicalisation?

Sadly, there is no easy way to identify those who will be radicalised in Britain.

In fact, as reported by the Guardian in a 2008 article, MI5’s behavioural science unit determined that there is no single pathway to extremism and that those that become terrorists are “a diverse collection of individuals fitting no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism”.

Whilst there is no single root cause for radicalisation leading to terrorism, there are several contributing factors. Precipitant factors vary according to the individual youth’s experience and personal pathway to radicalisation. This being said, personal experiences, family support and friendship groups, as well as group dynamics are critical in triggering the actual process of radicalisation amongst youth who travel to Syria.

Ideology appears as an important and constant factor in the radicalisation process and ideological indoctrination has no doubt played a key role in turning a small minority of youth dissatisfied with existing social and political arrangements into militants. Ideology usually contributes to the approval of violence as a means to bring about political change and also can lead on to the creation of a subculture of violence.

Similarly, in a report prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation in 2008, it found that:

• Youth who have been radicalised thrive in an enabling environment which is essentially characterised by a widely shared sense of injustice.
• Not all individuals who share the same sense of injustice or are living in the same polarised environment turn to radicalism and even less so to violence or terrorism.
• For some youths the experience of belonging to a group and being accepted by peers or leaders is of primary value, sometimes overruling most other considerations. Moreover, their backgrounds are not characterised by socio-economic problems, unemployment or dropping out of school.

How are children targeted?

Social media has become a vital part of our daily lives and millions of young people have grown up as digital natives. Therefore it is the perfect vehicle for organisations such as ISIL to radicalise and recruit vulnerable young people.

ISIL has cultivated a false image of success online in order to charm young people. Its propaganda includes vivid imagery and compelling videos that portray the group as an exhilarating and powerful alternative to the dreary UK life many of their young targets think they live. Understandably, the propaganda does not inform young people of the atrocities the terrorist organisation commits, such as killing innocent men, women and children.

Popular social media platforms used to target young people include:
  • Facebook & Twitter

Supporters and members of ISIL share content such as fabricated news stories and YouTube videos, among their peer groups and can reach high numbers of young users.

  • YouTube & Instagram

YouTube has been used to broadcast videos from both ISIL and their supporters. These videos are then distributed via social media channels. Instagram has similarly been used by fighters in Syria to showcase how positive and enriched their lives are.

  • & WhatsApp Messenger has been popular amongst British youth who have been charmed by the ISIL ideology and would like advice about how to travel and other related issues. ISIL supporters then reply with highly subjective information that favours ISIL. WhatsApp has been used by ISIL supporters to message young people on closed peer-to-peer networks when asked for sensitive information, such as how to travel to the region, what to pack and who to contact when they arrive.

What can schools do?

The role of schools in sheltering pupils from the harms of radicalisation is vital. Radicalisation should be treated like any other safeguarding issue involving online abuse. Schools must ensure that the Designated Safeguarding Lead has undertaken the necessary training and can provide the advice and support needed on protecting children from the risk of radicalisation. This advice can be one way of increasing safeguarding professionals’ mindfulness.

Building children’s resilience to radicalisation

A child’s resilience to radicalisation can be strengthened by ensuring there is a safe environment for debating controversial or provocative issues and helping them to understand how they can impact and contribute to decision-making. Empowering vulnerable young people so they do not feel disillusioned or marginalised is key to decreasing their susceptibility to radicalisation.

We must remain highly conscious of the fact that often radicalisation in one direction can lead to radicalisation in the polar opposite direction. For example, youths who witness violence on screen or who see classmates being radicalised by ISIL may in turn become xenophobic and lean towards nationalistic or fascist militancy.

What to do if you have a concern?

We must remember that this isn’t about reporting young people, it is about protecting them.
Therefore, if school staff are worried about an individual pupil they ought to follow the school’s normal safeguarding procedures, including discussing with the school’s designated safeguarding lead, and where appropriate, with children’s social care.

The Department for Education has established a telephone helpline (020 7340 7264) to enable staff and governors to raise concerns relating to extremism directly. They have also published a very useful guide for schools that expands upon the issues raised in this post.

However, if you are afraid that a child’s life is in immediate danger or that they may be planning to travel to Syria or Iraq take immediate action to safeguard them dial 999 or call the confidential Anti-Terrorist Hotline on 0800 789 321. Alternatively you can also contact your local police force or dial 101 (the non-emergency number).

Many safeguarding professionals including teachers will be aware of INEQE’s innovative Safer Social Networking Activity Pack training (SSNAP). This October we will be releasing our Safer Social Networking Activity Pack (SNNAP) Masterclass specifically targeting the challenges of safeguarding against radicalisation in the context of access to technology and social media.

Information about our current series of SSNAP masterclasses and how you can better protect children under your care can be found here.