Photograph: Jozef Polc/Alamy
The Metropolitan Police have taken the unprecedented step of writing to parents of school-aged children, urging them to watch for signs of radicalization as they fear the six-week summer vacation could lead to a surge in extremism.
Detective Superintendent Jane Corrigan, of the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command and officer in charge of the Prevent counter-terrorism programme, has sent a letter to primary and secondary schools in London – the first time such a step has been taken – to be distributed to parents the week last . In it, she expresses her fear that children are spending more time online during the summer holidays, and that this creates the risk that they may come into contact with those who try to radicalize young people.
She advised parents to use the ACT Early website identify signs of radicalization, such as becoming obsessive or expressing extreme views, and contact Prevent for support.
The government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation welcomed the development, saying the police had concluded that tackling the radicalization of young people required the efforts of society as a whole.
Jonathan Hall QC said: ‘What’s so striking is that counter-terrorism usually operates behind the scenes – they have a minimal public presence – and that’s why this letter seems really important. They come out and say, “We can’t do it alone.”
Prevent aims to turn people away from extremist ideologies. Corrigan runs the Vulnerability Support Center in London, which works with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses. “Our job is really to make sure we catch people and support them before it’s too late,” she said. “The purpose of my letter was to ensure that we reach out to parents, as they are usually the ones who will identify this deterioration, this vulnerability.”
Corrigan said around 30% of Prevent’s referrals came from schools, so the letter was important to ensure children did not slip through the net when not seen by teachers.
She said the police often did not need to intervene because families were already receiving support from children’s mental health services, education support workers or social services. “If you think they are vulnerable to radicalization and need support, call the advice line and we will ensure they get the support they need,” she added. “That’s our job, and sometimes that means tough conversations with statutory partners.”
Corrigan said the nature of terrorist threats had evolved from groups with clear ideological motivations to individuals often described as “lone actors” with “mixed, unstable or unclear ideologies”, which accounted for more than half of the references to Prevent across the country.
“We’ve also seen these ideologies diversify and become less fixed,” Corrigan said. “Subjects often pick and choose extremist content from a range of sources. People therefore oscillate between ideologies and beliefs, and in most cases, but not all, they are inspired to carry out unsophisticated attacks.
Vulnerable and marginalized people were often targeted by extremists, Corrigan added, noting that an Islamic State promotional video included a sign language interpreter. “The reason they have someone signing up is because they’re trying to reach out to the deaf community. Who plans to approach the deaf community in terms of radicalization? It’s not something that comes automatically in mind.
London continued to see more references for Islamist threats than far-right threats, a situation “at odds with the rest of the country”, she said.
In May, a leaked version of a report by William Shawcross, the independent reviewer for Prevent, said the program “carried the brunt of mental health services” due to lack of resources and people were referred simply to access other types of support.
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The issue of young people being drawn into extremism has posed a growing challenge to police and intelligence agencies with a recent speech by Hall warning that teenagers suspected of sharing and promoting terrorist material online should be spared prosecution if they do. they were just “keyboard warriors”.
Data shows that of the 20 minors under the age of 18 arrested in 2021, only five were charged and one convicted, suggesting police were aware of the difference in threat between young people coming forward online and a real terrorist .