It was 4am when the phone call came through. The FBI had contacted Scotland Yard, who in turn had contacted my local Police force who had decided I should immediately attend a strategy meeting. A 15 year old boy called Kieron* had just disclosed in a US chat forum that he was going to kill his classmates that day and the investigating officers were unclear what ‘ideology’ might be influencing his intentions. However, the issue wasn’t identifying if Kieron followed a violent ideology, the problem was identifying which ideology he followed. As it turned out, it was all of them.
The UK’s Prevent strategy is a focused, social care approach to reducing the risk from terrorism, identifying what factors are pushing someone towards violence and addressing them within a framework called Channel. This operates as a safeguarding board that can triage the risks and identify a solution that is bespoke to the individual, regardless of what those underlying factors might be, which is voluntary, consensual and highly effective. Since 2012, over 1500 people considered vulnerable to exploitation from terrorist influences have been adopted as cases for this confidential programme of support.
In some cases, the ideology is obvious, well embedded and appears to be the primary factor that is drawing an individual towards supporting or engaging in Terrorism Act (TACT) offences. In these circumstances, identifying and challenging that ideology is likely to be an essential part of how you would seek to reduce that individual’s vulnerability, and the risk posed to themselves and to the public.
However, for an increasing number of individuals being referred to Prevent for support, ideological drivers can appear mixed, unclear or unstable. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this group commonly present with multiple and complex vulnerabilities (such as criminality, substance misuse, social isolation, poor mental or emotional health, and so on). In such cases it often appears that people are being drawn towards an extremist ideology, group or cause because it seems to provide them with a ‘solution’ to the other problems in their lives, or an outlet to express problematic and dangerous behaviours that they may have developed.
We have seen many similar and often overlapping Prevent case examples, including individuals who: demonstrate an interest in multiple extremist ideologies in parallel, such as Salafist militant jihadism (al-Qaeda, Daesh) and white supremacy (National Action); switch from one ideology to another over time; target a ‘perceived other’ of some kind (perhaps based upon gender or another protected characteristic), but do not otherwise identify with one particular terrorist ideology or cause; are obsessed with massacres, or extreme or mass violence, without specifically targeting a particular group (e.g. ‘high school shootings’); and/or may be vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism out of a sense of duty, or a desire for belonging, rather than out of any strongly held beliefs.
The Terrorism Act (TACT) defines terrorism as the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.
The Act does not define or limit what is meant by “political, religious, racial or ideological cause”, nor does it restrict “ideological cause” to being political, religious or racial, or to being solely those ideologies held or promoted by proscribed organisations. The Act certainly does not stipulate that a perpetrator has to have a long-standing and deep-seated belief in the ideology or cause that he or she is ostensibly supporting by committing a TACT offence.
Some individuals seek to commit terrorist offences without a clear understanding of the ideology or cause they are ostensibly supporting
Also, it’s worth noting that the “threat” of relevant “action” is technically enough to complete a TACT offence, and that where this “action” involves the “use or threat” of firearms or explosives, there need be no specific intention on the perpetrator’s part to “influence” (or intimidate) the government or public.
Reducing the risk
Some individuals seek to commit terrorist offences without a clear understanding of the ideology or cause they are ostensibly supporting. Therefore individuals whose ideological motivations are unclear, mixed or unstable, but who demonstrate a connection to, or personal interest in, extremism, terrorism or massacre, should be given the same consideration for support as those whose concerning ideological motivations are more consistent and obvious.
This is not an expansion of the remit of Prevent, but understanding our responsibilities in relation to the Terrorism Act, and seeking to ensure that everyone who needs support receives it, and of course to protect the public from the risk of all vulnerable people who are being groomed, coerced or self-propelled towards TACT offences.
When it comes to preventing people being drawn into terrorism, our responsibility is to offer interventions and support to all individuals who are at risk, irrespective of whether that risk is being driven by a true belief in an ideological cause or group, or whether an involvement to either of these is being driven by other vulnerabilities and complex needs. The strength of Prevent lies in tackling vulnerability early to prevent future harm. Oversimplifying the assessment of risk to offer support only to those with a very clear or embedded extremist ideology risks missing opportunities to support those with perhaps less obvious, but no less relevant or urgent, vulnerabilities.
So we not only need to talk about Kieron, but all the ‘Kierons’ out there who need our support and from whom the public expect to be protected. It may be that words such as ‘radicalisation’ and ‘deradicalisation’, which have become a catch-all to describe a complex set of factors and motivations that can lead to violence or reduce the risk of it occurring, will become outdated or evolve. Some current academic thinking is already moving towards terms like ‘socialisation towards violence’, and even within Prevent we talk of ‘desistance and disengagement’ rather than deradicalisation.
The UK’s Prevent strategy is regarded as a global leader in reducing the risk of violence and this is something to be proud of. It is threat-agnostic and sees individuals not as potential criminals but as people who need support and can be helped to navigate the world with their vulnerabilities reduced and a propensity for violence excised.
For Kieron, we were sadly too late. The effectiveness of Prevent is due to early intervention, and despite several people having concerns about his behaviour and his obsessions with a huge array of terrorist organisations past and present, those close to him didn’t raise their concerns with us. Consequently his journey only came to light once the FBI had identified an imminent threat of violence and he had already crossed over into criminality. He is now receiving the support he needs, particularly with regard to the significant mental health challenges that came to light, but it's happening in the shadow of a criminal conviction. This will follow him throughout his life, but I hope we will get a chance to help him reintegrate into society in the future.
*Kieron’s name has been changed to protect his identity.