On the 28th of March 2015, the UK National Union of Teachers voted to oppose the Government’s PREVENT programme, on the grounds that it is silencing debate in the classroom and damaging community cohesion. The decision was both short sighted and naïve, and reflects a basic lack of understanding about what the strategy is actually intended to achieve.
The PREVENT strategy has always been controversial in some quarters because it is perceived to criminalize people who have not actually engaged in criminal activity. However, the strategy is primarily intended to identify people who are potentially vulnerable to being recruited into violent extremism, which will enable the authorities to intervene and draw them away from extremism, before they commit a criminal act. Some actual terrorists may be identified as a result, but the strategy can primarily be defined as a safeguarding strategy.
Teachers routinely refer children who are vulnerable to other forms of exploitation, anti-social or criminal activity, for appropriate interventions. Vulnerability to violent extremism be treated no differently to these other problematic behaviours. If teachers themselves do not act to try and draw young children away from potentially being drawn into violent extremism, who else will?
A growing evidence base
There is an increasing body of evidence that radicalisation and recruitment into violent extremism is taking place among children in their early teenage and pre-teen years. The youngest convicted terrorist in the UK was 15 years old at the time he was arrested, and had previously been referred to Government’s de-radicalisation programme (the Channel programme), when he was just 13. Prior to that, another schoolboy had been convicted of terrorist offences committed at the age of 16, whilst the youngest British suicide bomber was seventeen at the time of his death in Syria. Likewise, a significant number of girls of similar ages have now travelled, or attempted to travel, to Syria to join Islamic State (IS).
And it is not just among the Muslim community that this is happening. Matthew Collins, the former right wing extremist who is now a leading figure in the anti-racism Hope Not Hate movement, has described how his descent into extremist politics began while he was at school. Whilst the youngest person convicted of right wing terrorism in recent years was 19 at the time of his conviction. He had been drilled in right wing ideology by his father, and may also have begun his journey into violent extremism while he was still at school.
The latest available data show that a total of 415 children aged 10 and under were referred to the Channel programme in England and Wales between January 2012 and January 2016, along with 1,424 children aged between 11 and 15. In one case, a child as young as three was referred to the programme as part of a family referral.[i] In August 2015, Scotland Yard reported that over 30 children aged between two and 17 have actually been removed from their families due to concerns about radicalisation. The youngest of these children was a one year old baby, whose parent had tried to take it to Syria.[ii] These cases, cover all communities, not just the Muslim communities, and very few details about them are children involved, other than the reasons for some of the referrals include drawing pictures of bombs, making Islamist threats, and in some cases young children watching beheading videos with their families.[iii]
Reports of a small number of parents taking their young children to Syria, to live under the rule of IS also suggests that a small number of children in the UK might be being brought up to believe in the ideology of IS. One widely reported case involved a 16 year-old girl from east London, who was removed from her family because her parents had filled the family home with IS propaganda, including bomb making guides and images of people being beheaded.[iv] Another well publicised example was Muslim convert Ibrahim Anderson, who was convicted in January 2016 of ‘inviting support for IS’. He was found to have images of his children on his mobile phone, in which they are standing in front of an IS flag, holding swords and raising their right index finger, mimicking a gesture jihadis use to signify their one God.[v] Believing in the ideology of IS does not necessarily mean that either the parents or the children will ever commit a terrorist act, but research shows that belief in extremist ideologies is a significant risk factor for individuals being recruited into violent extremism.
The best documented example of the methods by which some parents are radicalising their children is the case of Parviz Khan, who was convicted in 2008 of plotting to behead an off-duty British soldier. In exchanges recorded by covert police surveillance, Khan made his son stand in front of him and repeatedly demanded: “Who do you love?” The child answered in turn: Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh” who provided spiritual guidance to the 1993 World Trade Centre bombers), and Abu Hamza (the militant former Imam of Finsbury Park mosque in London). Khan then repeatedly demanded, “Who do you kill?”, and the boy responded in turn: America, Bush, Blair and Saddam Hussein. Then the pair began chanting at each other, when Khan said: “Kuffar” the boy said: “Kill”; when Khan said: “Mushrik [polytheists]” the boy said: “Kill”; the exchange then continued with: “Hindu?… Kill… Sheedi [blacks]?… Kill… Pathan [thieves]?…Kill…Sharab [alcohol]?…Kill…And who do you love?…Sheikh Osama bin Laden, I love.”
Khan taught his daughter that her duty was to take food to mujahideen in the mountains, and his wish was that she would marry a fighter and give birth to more fighters. Khan was also recorded talking to his children as he played a DVD featuring chanting in Arabic with gunfire and screams. He also made them sleep on the floor to condition them for life in the mountains of Afghanistan.[vi]
An Implementation Problem not a Conceptual problem
Critics of the PREVENT programme in schools highlight a number of issues. In particular, around 90% of referrals resulting in no action being taken. There have also been some widely reported spurious referrals, including:
- a 17-year-old who had a “Free Palestine” leaflet in his possession;
- a 4-year-old boy who misspelled cucumber as something resembling “cooker bomb”;
- a 10-year-old who mistakenly wrote that he lived in a “terrorist house” rather than a “terraced house”; and
- a boy who was found to be perusing the website of the UK Independence Party.
However, these cases say less about the efficacy of the concept of PREVENT and more about the way that it is being implemented in schools. If these really were the only reasons why those four children were referred to the Chanel programme, then it either indicates a lack of effective tools for helping to identify children who should be referred, or lack of training among the teachers who are implementing the strategy.
Research conducted by the Tactical Decision Making Research Group, which has underpinned the development of one such tool for helping to identify people who are vulnerable to radicalisation (see: http://www.tacticaldecisionmaking.org/research/ivp/), identifies a range of key indicators. Sometimes a single indicator, such as watching beheading videos with the family, may be enough to justify a referral. In other cases, a single indicator may in itself not be enough, and a combination of indicators would justify a referral. The issue of one of the weight attached to any particular indicator and the judgement of the teacher considering the information available to them.
Overall, the cases referenced in this article show teachers can play critical role in enabling early interventions with children who are vulnerable to being drawn into violent extremism. As with all interventions, the earlier they are applied, the higher the chance that they will be successful. But it is also apparent that the overall number of children being referred both can, and should, be reduced.
[ii] Baby Taken Into Care Over Fears It Could Be Radicalised: Child Is Among 20 taken From Their Parents In Crackdown On Islamists, Daily Mail, 9 October 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3265799/Baby-taken-care-fears-radicalised-Child-20-taken-parents-crackdown-Islamists.html#ixzz4154Xdm1q.
[iii] Baby Taken Into Care Over Fears It Could Be Radicalised: Child is among 20 taken from their parents in crackdown on Islamists, Daily Mail, 9 October 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3265799/Baby-taken-care-fears-radicalised-Child-20-taken-parents-crackdown-Islamists.html#ixzz4154Xdm1q
[iv] Baby Taken Into Care Over Fears It Could Be Radicalised: Child is among 20 taken from their parents in crackdown on Islamists, Daily Mail, 9 October 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3265799/Baby-taken-care-fears-radicalised-Child-20-taken-parents-crackdown-Islamists.html#ixzz4154Xdm1q
[v] Age SIX And Groomed For Jihad In British Suburbia: Shocking Image Of UK Extremism, Taken By Little Boy’s Muslim Convert Father, Mail On Sunday, 24 January 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3413806/Age-SIX-groomed-jihad-British-suburbia-Shocking-image-UK-extremism-taken-little-boy-s-Muslim-convert-father.html#ixzz3y9Hzc6oQ.
[vi] Plot Leader ‘Groomed Children For Terrorism’, Daily Telegraph, 18/02/2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/02/18/nkidnap218.xml
Kidnap leader ‘showed