News and Comment

The draw of Syria is proving too great a temptation for many nascent jihadists – working with young people is the key

Tuesday 4 February 2014

According to a report by the respected Kings College Centre for the Study of Political Violence, there are between 200-350 British citizens who have travelled to Syria with the intention of becoming fighters since the start of the conflict.

The fear– which is based on what happened with Afghanistan in the 1990s – is that if these people are not killed in the conflict, they will return to our shores with the mindset and skills to engage in terrorism.

As part of its analysis, the College has produced a simple profile of those travelling. They are usually men, from the South-Asian community and with recent connections to higher education. They are also young – typically in their twenties, but as recent coverage has highlighted, some are even younger

Accepting that we don’t want these people leaving in the first place (once they have gone, it may only be possible for the intelligence services to stop them), it seems essential that a major focus of our counter terrorism strategy is on working with these young people before they become attracted to global jihad. This is where Prevent comes in – the strategy that seeks to stop people supporting or engaging in terrorism.

There has always been a focus on young people and schools in the Prevent strategy – in fact OPM helped produce a review of what works in tackling extremism in schools in 2010 – but our recent research has often shown that Prevent continues to struggle to engage younger people and with schools in particular. One research participant from a London local authority told us ‘as soon as you say to the school you want to talk about extremism, they switch off’. The stigma of being seen as having ‘a problem’ with extremism is proving too great a risk for schools to make them to want to take part. But it is young people – often in their formative years and as they make the transition to adulthood – who may become drawn to the ‘excitement’ of global Jihad.

Concerned that some Prevent funded areas do not have the confidence or inclination to push the Prevent agenda forward, the Government has said it will impose a statutory condition on local authorities to take Prevent seriously.

But in some parts of the country local authorities and their partners are trying to grapple with this very problem and coming up with interesting and potentially successful strategies. One London borough we have conducted research for has employed a Prevent schools liaison officer whose specific task is to reach out to schools, educate pupils on the risks and signs of extremism, and debunk myths which are deployed by extremists.

In another a charity is delivering a programme that targets NEET young people through outreach work and draws them into a fun but educational programme that seeks to deconstruct and challenge young people’s assumptions about extremism. Our evaluation of this project found that the views of some participants who were initially extreme, moderated significantly during the course of the programme.

Coming at it under the banner of child safeguarding rather then Prevent, one local authority in the north of England is now training Imams and scholars at supplementary faith schools about the dangers posed by extremists.

So what needs to change? Firstly, efforts to spread this good practice need to be re-doubled, not least because there is little awareness about what works in engaging schools. A coherent national statement and supporting guidance would help in this regard. Secondly, more effort needs to be expended involving teachers so that they are aware of their role in supporting efforts to educate young people about the dangers of extremism. Pitching Prevent under a wider banner of children’s safeguarding would help as a way of opening doors to schools which already have strategies in place to protect pupils from various forms of harm, such as gangs and drug misuse. Finally attentions need to be turned to schools that lie outside a select group of Prevent funded local authorities. As recent cases show, not all the young people who have become radicalised come from local authority areas where there is an established concern about extremism and attendant funding to support local projects.