The impact of Covid-19, social isolation and a rise in hateful extremism online is creating a ‘perfect storm’ which is making more young people vulnerable to radicalisation and other forms of grooming.
But parents, friends and families are now being encouraged to access specialist support to stop their loved ones being drawn into harmful activities or groups, with the launch of ACT Early – a new dedicated safeguarding website and advice line from the specialists at Counter Terrorism Policing (CTP).
The new resource will provide advice, guidance and support for anyone who is concerned that someone they know may be at risk from being radicalised by terrorists or extremist content online.
Between 1st January 2019 and 30th June 2020, 17 children in England and Wales were arrested in relation to terrorism offences.
Some were as young as 14 years old, while nearly all will have been radicalised entirely online.
In the same time period, more than 1,500 children under the age of 15 were helped by the Prevent programme to choose a different path, away from hatred and violence.
Family and friends are best placed to spot the worrying behaviour changes which can indicate that a loved one is heading down a path towards terrorism, but currently just 2% of referrals nationally into the Government’s anti-radicalisation programme Prevent come from that group of people, although the figure is slightly higher in the South West at 3.5%.
The Prevent programme is delivered locally by teachers, healthcare practitioners, social workers, the police, charities, and religious leaders.
It places protection around people vulnerable to radicalisation, stopping them from being drawn into terrorism, regardless of the ideology.
It works in a similar way to safeguarding processes designed to protect people from gangs, drug abuse, and sexual exploitation.
With Covid-19 preventing regular access to schools, social workers and mental health support, specialists at CTP are concerned that people who need help are not getting it, which makes it more important for friends and family to use the new ACT Early resources to understand what might be happening to their loved one and what support Prevent can provide.
Head of Counter Terrorism Policing, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said: “We are seeing more young people being drawn towards terrorist activity.
“Last year, 12 children under the age of 18 were arrested in relation to terrorism offences, some as young as 14-years-old. That is a relatively new and worrying trend in the UK, because just a few years ago we were not seeing anyone that young amongst our casework.
“What concerns me most is this – there has been a sharp increase in extremist material online in the last few years, and Covid-19 has meant that vulnerable people are spending a lot more time isolated and online, and with fewer of the protective factors that schooling, employment, friends and family can provide.
“In my opinion that is a perfect storm, one which we cannot predict and that we might be feeling the effects of for many years to come.
“But I remain hopeful, because there is something we can do right now to try and stop this. It requires parents, friends and family to help us by acting early, by talking to their children about what they view online, and sharing their concerns and seeking support if they fear someone they know is in danger of being radicalised.
“Asking for help is a difficult and emotional step, but we must see it for what it is – action which won’t ruin their lives but may well save them.”
Detective Chief Inspector Alastair Stenner, of Counter Terrorism Policing South West, added: “Like all regions across the country we have noticed a significant drop (63%) in Prevent referrals in the past year.
“I hope ACT Early resources give confidence to anyone who might be concerned someone close could be heading down a path towards terrorism that support is available.
“Family and friends are best placed to spot worrying behaviour and together we can help prevent their loved ones from being drawn into harmful activities or groups.
“I’d also like to reassure people that we won’t tell the person they’re worried about they called us, unless they say we can.”
If you are worried that someone you know is being radicalised, visit Actearly.uk.
Alternatively, call the national Police Prevent Advice Line on 0800 011 3764, in confidence, and the specially trained Prevent officers will listen carefully to your concerns.