We too often think of radicalization in terms of Islamic fundamentalism. Recent UK data shows the far-right to be a growing concern for the young.
Younger children are increasingly being drawn into a “far-right ecosystem” that a Guardian investigation shows is becoming more pervasive online. Among the recent cases was a 13-year-old boy arrested for terrorism offenses in the UK.
Though the real numbers are small, the figures are growing and showing an effect on an ever-younger audience:
Teachers, police officers, academics and community leaders said there was evidence that long periods of unsupervised online access, compounded during Covid lockdowns, were resulting in children and young people across the UK encountering far-right groups in greater numbers than before.
Gaming forums, private chatrooms and slickly produced online leaflets or “study guides” are among the platforms and tactics used to introduce young teenagers to racist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi and involuntary celibate (“incel”) ideas.
Prevent is one of the governmental mechanisms in the UK in place to tackle terrorism and radicalization. It is a multi-agency, government-led program, with police working alongside statutory partners and communities, that aims to safeguard vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism.
Initially, and post-9/11, it was set up to counter Islamic radicalization, which was becoming a growing problem in many communities across the UK. Now, the organization has seen an uptick in concerns about young people being radicalized by the far-right, predominantly online.
Prevent’s recently retired national coordinator, Det. Supt. Vicky Washington, has claimed that the pandemic, with its social and physical isolation, has created ideal conditions for such a phenomenon. “There’s no one path, there’s no one sort of child who’s particularly vulnerable but I would say online, in a variety of ways, it’s something we are seeing more and more of,” Washington told The Guardian.
Although the pandemic saws a drop in referrals to Prevent, it saw record levels of referrals for right-wing extremism. Arrests for terrorism-related activities have risen the sharpest with those under 18. The Guardian reported on some more worrying stats:
Ken McCallum, the director general of MI5, has warned that teenagers are being swept up in a toxic ideology of “online extremists and echo chambers”. Matt Jukes, Britain’s most senior counterterror officer, said 19 out of 20 children aged under 18 who were arrested last year for terrorism offences were linked to an extreme rightwing ideology….
In one case, a boy aged 15 from Bootle became radicalised after being befriended by far-right extremists in virtual hangouts connected to the online game Fortnite. He made connections with online personalities, described in court as “professional trolls”, who invited him into private online forums, giving rise to what the judge called “some of the most appalling behaviour by a young person I have seen”. He pleaded guilty to racial hatred and possessing terrorist material and was given a 12-month referral order.
These opportunities for radicalization can take the form of many seemingly innocuous online hang-outs. People who want to exploit others for whatever reason will use any tool to hand: Fortnite or the latest game, special media, forums, and so on. At a time when people go out less, hang about on street corners less, find themselves in the corner of a youth club less, the online world is the new place to meet.
Meanwhile, contender for UK PM, Rishi Sunak, has ignored this in favor of targeting a more traditional bogeyman for his conservative party-member audience (‘a significant portion of whom have “extremist” views about Muslims, according to the current definition of extremism’): Islamic fundamentalists.
As ever, the online world offers so much, but with it comes the collateral of potential for entrapment, and being sucked into any given ever-descending vortex and subsequent dangerous ecosystem.