Radicalisation is a key part of the increasing issue of terrorism in our country. The prevalence of social media and the increasing time we all spend online has meant that extremist groups can now radicalise individuals without ever having to come in contact with them in person, as well as making it harder to spot radicalisation behaviour and activity.
Those who have a safeguarding responsibility should be aware of how children and young people in particular can be vulnerable to radicalisation from groups or organisations with extreme ideologies. In this article, we cover the four stages of the radicalisation process as well as explaining the key warning signs of radicalisation in young people.
Radicalisation is the term used to describe the process where an individual becomes involved with or starts to support groups or ideologies with extremist beliefs. Those who become radicalised often end up getting drawn into terrorism or serious abuse, which is why radicalisation is classed as a form of harm.
Whilst people of any age can fall victim to radicalisation, children and young people are particularly vulnerable. This is because they tend to be more impressionable and are less aware of how the radicalisation process works, as well as being at a stage in life where they are seeking more independence and forming their own views about the world.
Because children and young people are more at risk of radicalisation, it is classed as a safeguarding issue. Whilst a lot of the radicalisation process often takes place online, schools or youth groups are other locations where children are often exposed to the kind of beliefs and behaviour that leads to indoctrination into extremist groups. Therefore, those that work in these settings should be aware of the process of radicalisation and the warning signs in order to intervene before anyone is harmed.
There are a variety of ways in which radicalisation can take place, but with children and young people the process tends to involve at least one of the following aspects:
Radicalisation is most commonly associated with religious extremist groups and is often perceived as a problem that is only prevalent in certain cultures. Anyone can become a victim of radicalisation given the right circumstances however, and it is important to look for the warning signs and take action before any harm is caused.
The UK’s ‘Action Counters Terrorism’ organisation outlined four stages of the radicalisation process that those who are targeted by extremist groups are likely to go through.
At the pre-radical stage, an individual will not have been exposed to any extremist ideology or adopted any of their core beliefs or behaviours, and will likely be living their life as normal. However, they may have some awareness of groups or organisations with extremist views, and start to identify with some of these beliefs or think about joining the group as a way of feeling more understood and connected.
Individuals in the pre-radical stage often have at least one of the traits or circumstances that classify them as more vulnerable to radicalisation.
In children or young people, the pre-radical stage may involve hearing about extremist groups or beliefs from their peers, or finding material online that is part of these groups’ process of radicalisation.
In the self-identify stage, an individual will begin to accept and adopt the beliefs of the group or organisation that is radicalising them. They will start to move away from their old identity as they take on a new one that is in line with the extremist organisation and start to identify with the people in this group.
Self-identification is often triggered by something that leaves an individual feeling uncertain about the views and beliefs they previously lived by. This could come about by the loss of a job or partner, a political event, an economic trigger or a social issue that leaves them feeling isolated.
In children or young people, the self-identification stage could be triggered by an upsetting event at home or elsewhere in the world, or by a friend or person online using manipulative tactics to make them doubt their previous beliefs and values.
Once a person self-identifies with an extremist group, they are likely to seek other members out and feel a strong desire to join.
The third stage of the extremism and radicalisation process is indoctrination, where an individual will be groomed by an extremist organisation and further influenced by their beliefs. The individual’s beliefs will intensify and they will move further down the pathway towards terrorism.
In the indoctrination stage, an individual commits to adopting the ideology of the group or organisation that is radicalising them. They may reach the stage where they are so convinced by this ideology that they believe action needs to be taken to share these views with others, punish those that believe differently, or further support the cause they believe in.
A part of this stage of the radicalisation process is interaction and affiliation with other members of the group who also hold extremist beliefs. This makes the individual feel more affirmed in their new attitudes and ideas, as well as making it easier for those in charge to indoctrinate large numbers of people at the same time and let bonds form between members, making it harder for them to leave or change their minds.
In children and young people, the indoctrination stage may involve grooming behaviours where those attempting to radicalise children build emotional relationships with them, manipulate them, engage in exploitative or sexual behaviour and even abuse them. They may also start to spend an increasing amount of time with their peers who have the same beliefs and become very withdrawn from their old friends and family members.
The final stage of the radicalisation process sees the affected individual start to get involved in acts of terrorism as a way of supporting the cause they believe in or trying to force others to adopt the same beliefs. They will have accepted a belief that they must undertake terrorist acts as a way of showing their support for an extremist ideology, and not care about the consequences of these actions as long as they are doing what is right in the eyes of the other group members.
This stage of the process of radicalisation is the most harmful, as the terrorist activity that groups undertake often seriously harms or even kills the people around them. Intervention techniques aim to identify the signs of radicalisation in children or young people before they reach this stage of radicalisation, as the actions they take could have serious consequences on the rest of their lives.
As well as understanding the radicalisation process, knowing the warning signs of radicalisation is another key way that safeguarding professionals can prevent radicalisation in schools and other places where children or young people interact with each other. If you begin to suspect that a child may be in the process of radicalisation from an extremist group or individual, it is important to intervene and report the issue as soon as possible to minimise the harm done.
A key warning radicalisation sign is if a child starts to isolate themselves from their friends or family and becomes increasingly withdrawn. Those who seek to exploit and groom children for radicalisation will encourage them to cut ties with anyone who doesn’t share their new beliefs, and a young person suddenly stopping spending time with or talking to people they used to is a key indicator of this.
As well as stopping spending time with their old friends, a child who is being radicalised may become very secretive about the people they are now spending time with or talking to online. Groomers will frequently tell their victims to keep their relationship a secret, so if a young person is refusing to tell you who they are interacting with, it could be a sign that they are being radicalised.
Children and young people who are in the process of radicalisation tend to become increasingly unwilling to share their views with their peers, teachers and family, especially in the early stages before they have been fully indoctrinated and know that most people have opposing opinions.
On the flipside, a child who is being radicalised may suddenly become a lot more outspoken and aggressive about their beliefs and opinions after they have been exposed to an organisation's ideology and encouraged to adopt it. Young people who are getting increasingly angry with events or issues may have been exposed to extremist propaganda and encouraged to be vocal about things they now disagree with. They may also show an increasing intolerance towards those who have opposing or different views, with aggression towards these groups being another key warning sign.
It’s important to understand that many of the warning signs of radicalisation can also be explained by common experiences that young people go through as they grow up, and that the above behaviours don’t automatically link to radicalisation. However, if a child is showing multiple warning signs and also has traits that make them more vulnerable to the process, it should be further investigated to ensure that they don’t come to any further harm.
Radicalisation is not a process that only affects children and young people, but they are often considered the most vulnerable victims of abuse because they are so easily influenced. Professionals who spend their time around the children are often the first ones to see the early warning signs of radicalisation and therefore often have the best chance of preventing the process, which is why it has been made a safeguarding matter.
The rise in terrorist activity around the world has also meant that it is more important than ever to protect children and young people from the influence of extremist groups, which is why there has been an increase in safeguarding training around radicalisation and extremism in the past few years.
Anyone can be radicalised, but certain traits or factors make an individual more vulnerable to the process. Children and young people are more vulnerable because they have less experience of the world, tend to be more trusting, and are more impressionable than adults. However, adults who are undergoing a personal crisis, are struggling in their career, feel isolated or abandoned and those who have been affected by terrorist activity are also more likely to fall victim to radicalisation.
De-radicalisation is the opposite of radicalisation and involves helping an individual with extreme views or beliefs to adopt a less radical position. It’s an important part of helping individuals who have been radicalised to recover from the abuse they have suffered and return to living a normal life, and is often a long process of unlearning harmful opinions, attitudes and behaviours.
There has been an unfortunate rise in the number of children and young people who have fallen victim to radicalisation in recent years, thanks to the increase in terror activity across the world and the growing integration of social media in our daily lives. Understanding how radicalisation works and the common warning signs are the best way to prevent this issue from worsening and protect those who are vulnerable to this kind of abuse.
If you’d like to find out more about how to prevent the kind of abuse associated with the radicalisation process, we offer a ‘Radicalisation and Extremism’ online course for anyone working with a safeguarding responsibility who may interact with children vulnerable to radicalisation.