Countering the Radical Right: Opinion

How can we prevent acts of violence such as the mass shooting in Plymouth?

Can families stop loved ones from falling prey to extremist ideologies or terrorism? An officer from the UK’s Prevent strategy speaks

Sean Arbuthnot
14 September 2021, 9.14am
People attend a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in Keyham, Plymouth, 13 August
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The UK is still coming to terms with the unbearably tragic events of 12 August, when police were called to a mass shooting in the Keyham area of Plymouth. The 22-year-old perpetrator shot and killed five people, including his mother and a three-year-old girl, before shooting and killing himself.

Alongside this devastating, senseless loss of life, the incident has (thanks to the attacker’s online footprint) focused attention on misogyny and, in particular, inceldom. This is a predominantly male online subculture that promotes victimhood narratives resulting from the inability to find a sexual partner – incel is short for ‘involuntary celibate’.

Some have advocated that these fixations should be recognised as extreme ideologies in their own right that can accelerate the radicalisation of young men. At time of writing, Counter Terrorism Policing is not treating the murders as a terrorist incident, and debate about whether they meet the UK definition of terrorism continues on social media.

I’m a co-ordinator for Prevent – the government’s strategy to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, in the UK and overseas, which was launched in 2007. My responsibilities include safeguarding vulnerable people against being drawn into extreme ideologies, so horrific events such as the Plymouth shootings always prompt a great deal of soul-searching.

I can’t help but ask, could this tragic attack have been prevented? What would have happened if the perpetrator had been referred to Prevent? Have we been caught unawares by emerging ideologies and subcultures such as inceldom?

I always cringe when I hear seemingly trite platitudes, such as ‘the need to learn lessons’ from horrific events (even though I often use this phrase myself) – but how do we ensure that lessons are genuinely learned, rather than merely observed?

‘Mixed, unclear or unstable’ ideologies

The Prevent strategy has traditionally been associated with tackling specific extremist ideologies, such as Islamist or right-wing radicalisation. But in the year to March 2020, 51% of the 6,287 referrals made to Prevent were categorised as having a “mixed, unclear or unstable” ideology. Such referrals have been increasing steadily since 2018, a trend somewhat unacknowledged by the wider public, but at the forefront of Prevent practitioners’ attention.

Experience has demonstrated that preventing people from being drawn into terrorism can be very challenging. It often involves addressing complex, individual needs that have no simple or single answer. Into this arena add the emerging phenomenon of “mixed, unclear and unstable” ideologies. Put simply, these are cases where ideology does not appear to be obvious, well embedded or the primary factor that is driving an individual towards supporting or engaging in terrorism.

The most common manifestations in the UK of “mixed, unclear and unstable” ideologies are school massacre fixations (often inspired by US mass shootings such as Columbine) or inceldom. It should be stressed that incels are not a monolith. As with many of the extreme ideologies that Prevent deals with, most are not violent and do not act out their feelings.

That said, self-loathing, misogynistic rhetoric, hatred of society and feelings of hopelessness are common themes. While school massacre and incel fixations can cross over with more established forms of extremism, they can also independently present safeguarding concerns, to varying extents.

This is predominantly a problem with young, white males. The element of misogyny cannot be ignored

It is also worth noting that less than 1% of spree killings in the US are committed by women. At the risk of sounding blunt, this is predominantly a problem with young, white males. The element of misogyny cannot be ignored.

‘Mixed’ cases may demonstrate an interest in several (sometimes disparate) ideologies, often simultaneously. For example, a joint interest in extreme right-wing content and incel subcultures is not uncommon. In ‘unclear’ cases, ideological influences are less coherent, but individuals may be fixated with mass violence, such as school attacks, or the hatred of a perceived ‘other’, such as women.

‘Unstable’ cases refer to those who initially appear to adhere to one ideology but then switch to another. Unlikely as it may seem, I recall a number of individuals referred to Prevent for right-wing extremism, only to be re-referred months or years later for violent Islamist-inspired ideologies – and vice versa.

Lessons from Columbine

It seems tragically prescient that some months ago, during lockdown in the UK, I sought to unpick some of the issues around mixed, unclear and unstable ideologies when I ran a webinar, entitled ‘Reaching for Hope’, with Sue Klebold. Sue is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two gunmen responsible for the shootings on 20 April 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Sadly, we know that Columbine was neither the first – and certainly not the last – mass shooting that has devastated the US, but somehow, more than any other, it continues to fascinate and inspire many young people around the world, including individuals who have been referred to Prevent.

The webinar contained numerous valuable lessons, and I was struck by the parallels between Sue’s heartbreaking personal experience in the US and many of the cases that are coming to the attention of Prevent in the UK. Some of these lessons bear repeating because families, friends and loved ones can often be well placed to spot the warning signs of radicalisation, extremism or even potential suicide and mass violence.

Sue believed that she was a good mother, that her kids would tell her everything and that her love for them would always be a protective factor. However, as she wrote in her book, ‘A Mother’s Reckoning’: “There is perhaps no harder truth for a parent to bear, but it is one that no parent on earth knows better than I do, and it is this: love is not enough. My love for Dylan, though infinite, did not keep Dylan safe, nor did it save the thirteen people killed at Columbine High School, or the many others injured and traumatized.”

Many of the warning signs that Sue acknowledges as being a factor in her son’s path towards horrific murder-suicide bear a close resemblance to the vulnerabilities and indicators that feature in Prevent training. Changes in behaviour; misuse of alcohol or drugs; less care with schoolwork; increased recklessness; isolation and withdrawal from family and society; obsession with cases such as Columbine; dehumanising others; giving unexpected gifts or giving away prized personal possessions; and even seemingly getting back on track and appearing happy following a period of depression – all these can be signs of a journey towards violence.

Sue also mentioned a joint US Secret Service and Department of Education report, which says that 78% of school shooters in the US are suicidal. Similarly, up to 70% of current Prevent referrals have complex mental health needs and require specialist support. I hesitate to say that we are in the midst of a full-blown mental health crisis in the UK, but it certainly feels like it sometimes.

Simply listen

So, what should friends and families do if they have concerns that a loved one may be radicalised, or immersed in a potentially violent ideology or subculture? UK counter-terrorism police have launched a website, actearly.uk, which specifically provides advice and guidance for people who find themselves in this situation. Understandably, Sue has agonised over what she could have done differently as a parent. Her advice to today’s parents is simply to listen.

As parents, relatives or friends, it is natural to want to help, to encourage our loved ones to feel better by providing them with solutions, perhaps sharing our own experiences (“I remember when I was your age”) or reassuring them (“But I think you’re beautiful”). Yet by doing so, we may actually be inadvertently minimising their experience.

In 2013, 50% of my personal caseload as a police Prevent officer related to right-wing extremism

It can be more important and more effective to provide a safe space, to listen, to allow them to express themselves, to honour them as a person. This is exactly the sort of approach that many intervention providers, or mentors, take when they are supporting vulnerable Prevent referrals.

Historically, Prevent has been misrepresented as focusing solely on Muslim communities and Islamist extremism. Yet, more than ten years ago it was formally acknowledged that Prevent tackles all forms of extremism; as far back as 2013, approximately 50% of my personal caseload as a police Prevent officer related to right-wing extremism.

Similarly, when people question whether Prevent is doing enough to tackle emerging threats (such as incel subcultures), potential school attacks and violent misogyny, I would point to the evolving focus on “mixed, unclear and unstable” ideologies in recent years.

Of course, no preventative strategy can be 100% effective and stop every single act of violence. Prevent is certainly not a panacea. But practitioners absolutely acknowledge the need to continuously develop, improve and adapt our responses to emerging trends and threats.

This is vital because – regardless of the ideological motivations of the Plymouth attacker, and whether or not the incident should be formally acknowledged as an act of terrorism – there is no doubt that this tragic event could galvanise others, intentionally or otherwise. If vulnerable individuals can readily identify with previous killers, whether from Plymouth, Columbine or elsewhere, then there is a greater risk that they will attempt to emulate them.

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