Young people have become particularly vulnerable in falling prey to radical right-wing propaganda online.
A surge in right-wing extremism online, at a time of isolation during the pandemic, has generated a “perfect storm” for radicalisation, according to a top UK counter terrorism official.
Speaking with Sky News, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said a growing number of young people in particular have been lured in by a spike in hateful ideology online and nudged down a path towards violent extremism.
Basu revealed that 17 children – some as young as 14 – were arrested on terrorism charges over the past 18 months.
During the same period, more than 1,500 children under the age of 15 were referred to the Prevent counter radicalisation programme.
“We are seeing more young people being drawn towards terrorist activity,” Basu said.
“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.”
According the Home Office, there were 131 under-18 cases referred to counter terrorism programmes in 2015 and after four years that number rose to 682 cases – a fivefold increase.
While MI5 and Counter Terror Command at Scotland Yard remain focused on the threat of ‘Islamist’ extremism, Basu warned the threat from far-right extremism is rapidly growing – adding that 10 out of the 12 under 18s who were arrested for terrorism in 2019 were linked to extremist right-wing ideology.
“There has definitely been a growth in nationalistic material online, white supremacist literature, things that are extremely disturbing.”
Last month, the new head of MI5 Ken McCallum warned that nearly 30 percent of major terror plots disrupted at a late stage since 2017 have been from far-right extremists, and that “quite a few young people [are] attracted to this ideology, which does tend to suggest that this threat will be with us for some years to come.”
How are children in Britain being brainwashed and radicalised? And what is being done to prevent it?
Rise in online manipulation
The internet has made it possible for anyone, including minors, to succumb to far-right messages. Neo-nazi-styled shoot ‘em up video games and chatrooms have become breeding grounds for manipulation. Even though social media sites have taken to moderation more seriously, it has been notoriously hard to tackle; if one is flagged, another pops up in a different guise shortly after.
Nigel Dromage, former neo-Nazi and founder of Exit UK, a group which helps people leave far-right organisations, told Sky News that video games, memes and other extremist content on social media were being used as recruitment tools for the far-right.
“These video games are just like many others with regards to chasing and shooting people. But when you look at the sort of content of the game, what you will see is that the people who are being chased are from different ethnic communities, different religions,” he said.
Exit UK stated that 70 percent of people they helped leave extremist groups had been recruited online. Bromage said that the youngest person that they’ve supported has been, shockingly to him, nine years old.
“I think the far-right in Britain today is actually at its most dangerous it’s ever been.”
UK authorities launched the website Act Early on Tuesday aimed at encouraging family and friends to report anyone they know at risk of extremist grooming, while also providing advice, guidance and support.
Basu said part of the reason for the new website was driven by the extremely low referral rate to Prevent by family and friends of those suspected of being radicalised.
Only 2 percent such referrals were logged last year.
“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.”
A government spokesperson told Sky News that it already was providing “training, resources and direct support” to schools to help them identify children who were at risk of “twisted ideologies of groups including far right-wing extremists.”