The guildhall, Portsmouth, England. David Blaikie/Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Q: What is the difference between a Paris terrorist, a Portsmouth-Syria jihadist and a Right Wing Extremist?
A: Nothing. They all lack a tolerant, integrated national identity.
This is not a joke. Prevent, the UK Government’s strategy to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, is regularly criticised. Perhaps it is easy to criticise because there is no obvious measure of success.
Whilst a reduction in victims of robbery or sexual assault is quite rightly heralded, no one celebrates the fact that no explosions have happened in a certain locality or that fewer people have travelled to Syria. A lack of further events on the scale of 7/7 might be considered as success, whereas media commentators have argued that the murder of Lee Rigby indicates a failure. During 2014, commentators argued that Prevent had failed because those who have travelled to Syria from Britain should have been stopped.
The public is not provided with examples of successful preventions in the same way that convictions are reported. This is because these individuals are subject to ongoing safeguarding and public reporting of their deradicalisation would surely jeopardise this good work. The public therefore, does not know how much terrorism prevention has actually occurred.
A great deal of Prevent work occurs within education institutions. But can education really be used to prevent radicalisation [see Paul Thomas and Ted Cantle on ‘Prevent: the need to trust in education’]? What is currently being done and by whom and who should deliver Prevent work in schools, colleges and universities?
7/7 was a shock to us all. That 4 men, educated in British schools, colleges and universities should commit mass murder and suicide in pursuit of their beliefs was initially seen as the fault of the police and the security services. The fact that each of these young men exhibited signs and behaviours that were observed by friends, family members and professionals in the years leading up to 7/7 means that the ‘fault’ was shared with those they interacted with. It is well known that Hasib Hussain wrote comments in his schoolbooks that were not challenged, just 18 months before he became a suicide bomber. We know that others who have gone on to follow an extremist path have also shown ‘signs’ of becoming radicalised.
The trouble is, professionals like nurses, doctors, social workers and teachers are still frightened to challenge behaviour and are still reticent to report their concerns. Police teams continue to be the main deliverers of Prevent across the UK.
In 2013, 6 young Muslim men from Portsmouth travelled to Syria to join ISIS. One returned to the UK a few weeks later and became the first man to be charged and convicted of terrorist offences related to Syria. Sadly four others have been killed in battle whilst one still remains fighting in Syria.
All six of them exhibited changes in behaviour that with hindsight could have been acted upon. All six used social media to research their activities, to plan their travel and also to glorify their cause.
Portsmouth is 88% white, with a significant Far Right footprint. In reporting about the 6 Portsmouth men who travelled to Syria, the national media depicted the city as a haven for Al Qaeda terrorists. Supporters of Right Wing views made their opinions known through demonstrations and racist graffiti. Portsmouth had the potential to become the location for a spiral of hatred, for grievances to lead to extreme behaviour from Muslims and non-Muslims.
Since these events, the Muslim community in Portsmouth along with leaders in schools, colleges, the university and the city council, have supported a wide-ranging engagement plan which so far has reached more than 5000 students and 600 professionals, implemented by the Hampshire Police Prevent Team, as no other agency was able to provide resources.
(i) Discourage any further travel to Syria
(ii) Discourage any racist response
(iii) Unite the communities of Portsmouth
Head Teachers from all secondary schools in Portsmouth, agreed to allow the Prevent Team lesson time with Year 9s and Year 10s. The lesson that was delivered was consistent: it utilised the Cleveland Police film, Pathways, which depicts a young Asian man and a young white man being radicalised towards opposing groups. These lessons were delivered in a range of curriculum subjects including History, Geography, RE, PSHE and Drama, using a range of teaching alternatives. In one memorable drama lesson, students used ‘hot seating’ to take on the role of characters in the film, to ensure that the plot of the story changed to a non-violent conclusion.
References to other forms of extremism such as animal rights and the Irish troubles are made and students are asked ‘What does a terrorist look like?’ This often leads to naïve responses but also effective debate on stereotyping, before a picture board of 24 British educated terrorists is shown, indicating that terrorists can be white, black, male, female, young or old.
Sessions have been delivered by police officers and police staff. However teachers have welcomed these sessions as they fit so well with curriculum areas and reinforce lessons on internet safety, responses to bullying and also what it means to be British.
One aspect of the lessons is to encourage students to seek their own identity. Research of a number of recent travellers to Syria as well as Right Wing Extremists, evidences a lack of an integrated identity. This would appear true of the Syria travellers from Portsmouth as well as some of those encountered in Portsmouth, with extreme racist views.
For example, the Muslim travellers seemed caught between (i) a British, westernised identity which loves Rihanna, hiphop, social media and Premier League Football and (ii) a devout form of Islam where music is haram, football is the culture of the infidels and social media is only good for sharing extreme messages. The young men found themselves in a no-mans land of trying to be British whilst vowing revenge on the country of their birth for perceived crimes against the Ummah.
The parents of these young men work hard, and have integrated well into British life. With the best of intentions however they seem to have encouraged dual personalities in their offspring – of integrating into British life whilst also holding fast to the culture, language and tradition of the home of their ancestors.
By the same token, the parents of those students who presented with extreme right wing views appear to have encouraged their offspring to hold views that are extremely narrow: producing singular identities. These narrow identities seem to reject any form of integrated society consisting of immigrant groups.
Our students are growing up with different ideas of what Britain is and what it should be in the future. But for all our young people, Identity is an extremely important aspect of their learning. Most students have an online identity – sometimes more than one. Educators, including police officers and staff must find ways to teach young people about their identity, in a way that encourages full understanding of the past; so that they can go on to play a full and active part in their British future.
Notable academics such as Professor Roger Griffin, Shiraz Maher and Rachel Brookes all agree that ‘identity’ is one of the key areas for educational development to prevent radicalisation.
The older FE age group warrant a slightly different approach. Act Now is a product created by Lancashire Police and Lincolnshire Police. It allows students to take on the role of the police in a fictional terrorist incident. Issues dealt with include offender profiling, the use of stop and search, how much information police give to the public and the press and how to use social media effectively. The climax of the session arises when students become Chief Constables during a spoof press conference, when they must justify their decisions.
This leads to much hilarity and a great deal of learning. Act Now has been successfully delivered in many locations, including the House of Lords (where Peers recommended that every student in the UK would benefit from a session) and with Palestinian and Israeli students who were astonished to find themselves able to have a debate with the police. British police are much maligned but we regularly forget that some nations do not allow citizens to debate and argue with officers with a view to improving things. Whilst Act Now is not a pure Prevent resource, the learning gained from it is so helpful that it easily leads onto Prevent discussions – such as those used within schools explained above.
The University of Portsmouth has 25,000 students which constitutes a city within the city. Reputationally, they had much to lose in the competitive world of Higher Education due to accusations of extremism within Portsmouth. As a consequence the university and the students’ union have become key stakeholders in the ongoing Prevent engagement. Many awareness sessions were held with staff and students via excellent relationships built up with the students’ union. An exercise titled Operation Graduate allows students to see the implications of allowing extremists a foothold on campus by discussing an incident from the viewpoint of different people on campus. There are no ‘right answers’ – the exercise simply allows students to understand the issues and to make informed choices. They can develop the learning by having wider debates and creating speaker policies which ensure safety for students and staff.
Education is not confined to institutions. Prevent officers have hosted events with youth groups, women’s groups and professionals, using a range of educational resources such as Operation Hindsight and internet safety tools. Solitaire, a briefing tool aimed at improving understanding within the shooting community has also been very well received.
Education is a lifelong process, so we must not restrict ourselves by assigning only specific institutions for Prevent delivery. However there are clear benefits for delivery within schools, FE and HE.
Students already know about global events and their local context. They want to discuss them and educational premises are the right place to learn, challenge and research. Students know much more than their parents are aware of and parents therefore need to learn how to supervise their offspring’s online time.
Prevent is easy to criticise. The programme is not 100% perfect but it is admired across the world for its effectiveness. Without the Prevent programme, the number of terrorist incidents in the UK would have been much larger.
Prevent lessons delivered in Hampshire support internet safety, anti-bullying, safeguarding policies and can be incorporated into history, geography, drama, RE and PSHE lessons.
Crucially the lessons also encourage students to seek an integrated British identity.
Since the lessons were introduced, no further Syrian travel from Portsmouth has been reported and radicalisation towards racist violence is believed to have fallen.
However teachers do not have the knowledge or confidence to challenge controversial comments by students. And they do not have the local context of what is happening. Similarly police officers may not possess teaching skills.
The Government is keen to make Prevent a genuine partnership activity, reflected in the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill currently being discussed by Parliament. Perhaps the next step should be properly integrated Prevent teams, consisting not only of police officers but a range of partners, including teachers, social workers, health practitioners as well as police. ‘Prevent Tutors’ in schools, colleges, universities and community settings would be briefed on local issues, be skilled to provide lessons and use a variety of resources with thorough knowledge of educational curricula.