How to combat the online radicalisation of young people

When three teenage girls flew to Syria to join Islamic State earlier this year, there was a lot of soul searching across the UK.

Newspapers claimed Britain was losing the battle to stop extremists radicalising young people online through chat rooms and social media networks.

Former government minister Lady Warsi said it was now clear that more young people were being radicalised in their bedrooms rather than in places of worship. She admitted that Islamic State “has been incredibly successful at using the internet and social networking spaces for their own propaganda”.

Meanwhile, Jamie Bartlett, director of the centre for the analysis of social media at thinktank Demos, identified a counter-culture, anti-establishment sentiment manifesting itself in a “jihadi cool” image. Islamic State had harnessed the immediacy and reach of social media to ensure its image was instantly and globally recognisable.

In November last year the UK Safer Internet Centre published a special bulletin to all Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards warning of the “unprecedented online threats posed to children across the UK from radicalisation and extremism”.

I quote the following passage:

“The internet, in particular social media, is being used as a channel, not only to promote and engage, but also…as a command structure. Often this promotion glorifies violence, attracting and influencing many people including children and in the extreme cases, radicalising them.

“Research concludes that children can be trusting and not necessarily appreciate bias that can lead to them being drawn into these groups and adopt these extremist views, and in viewing this shocking and extreme content may become normalised to it.”

Prevent – combating radicalisation

A recommended solution is to ensure that addressing radicalisation has to be embedded in safeguarding practice. As a result, coordinators of Prevent – the government strategy on combating extremism – should be engaged and signposted to consider how the threat of radicalisation through the internet and Social Media is being addressed.

The Prevent Strategy was presented to parliament by Home Secretary Theresa May in 2011.  In the opening message she emphasised that “the threat comes not just from foreign nationals but also from terrorists born and bred in Britain”.

So the Prevent aim is to reduce the threat to the UK from terrorism by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

The strategy has three specific strategic objectives:
  • Respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it;
  • Prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and
  • Work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation that we need to address.

Prevent work depends on effective partnership arrangements. Social workers and their partners have a responsibility to identify and report extremism as identified in the guidance from the Home Office. Local authorities and their partners need to ensure all frontline staff have a good understanding of Prevent, that they are trained to recognise a child’s vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism, and are aware of programmes that can deal with this issue.

The Channel process for multi-agency working

The Channel process forms a key part of the Prevent strategy. Channel is a multi-agency approach to identify and provide support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorist-related activity. Channel provides a mechanism for safeguarding vulnerable individuals (both adults and children) by assessing the nature and extent of the potential risk they face before they become involved in criminal activity and where necessary, provide a support package tailored to an individual’s needs.

The process needs to be managed by a senior lead locally via a multi-agency forum that meets at regular intervals. Channel models implemented, however, will vary from one area to another and as this is developed and embedded in practice locally.

The Office for Security and Counter Terrorism in partnership with ACPO explains that the Channel process comprises three discreet steps:

  • Identification;
  • risk assessment and referral;
  • support.

The guidance states that identification of vulnerable people should be made by a wide range of statutory organisations. They include local authorities; police; youth offending services; social workers; housing and voluntary groups. Identifications must be made carefully and against a range of possible indicators.

As with any partnership arrangement it can only work well if this is actively supported and attended by partner agencies and if staff identify and refer as expected without delay.

Frontline staff who engage with the public should understand what radicalisation means too and why people may be vulnerable to it. An area for immediate development to be considered therefore is to raise awareness generally to the process to encourage referrals from professionals (other than the police) and the wider community and to promote the referral process.

WRAP training (Working towards raising awareness to Prevent) should also be actively promoted and managed as part of Local Safeguarding Children Board’s and its training programme.

Lastly to ensure the rights of individuals are fully protected, it is important that information sharing agreements are in place at a local level. When considering sharing personal information key guidance and legislation still applies and in addition consent should be considered and recorded.

By Marisa De Jager