Preventing violent extremism

There is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be recruited

We now have a new record: last month Britain’s youngest terrorist was convicted. Hammaad Munshi was only 15 when he was recruited by the then 20 year-old Aabid Khan. Khan, according to the Guardian, had “links to proscribed terrorist groups” including al-Qaeda, and is believed to have visited a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

A recent MI5 report confirmed what many scholars of terrorist and cultic groups have long known: there is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be recruited. Social psychologists such as Philip Zimbardo have for years argued that it is the strong situation of increasing isolation within closed, coercive groups that creates these dangerous behaviors. This is what is critical, not the particular psychology or disposition of the individual.

Further, and contrary to Mark Sageman, a former CIA agent, these are not simply “bunches of guys” who organise themselves into suicidal acts of terror. What we are seeing is the deliberate targeting and recruitment of youth by well-organized internationally-linked extremist groups, as, for instance described by Ed Husain in his book The Islamist, or by Masoud Banisadr in his account of the Iranian Mojahedin.

How then do we protect both the potential victims of these acts, and the young people who are recruited into these extremist groups? We know young people are being recruited in further education colleges and now, like Munshi, at even younger ages. How are we preparing these young people for these assaults on their autonomy and, eventually, on their lives?

Social psychologists, such as Zimbardo, who study extremist groups, cults and coercive persuasion understand that the key to prevention is education. This is education about the structures and processes of totalitarian, ideologically extremist groups.

I recently taught a course on Cults and Totalitarianism to two groups of students at the University of Minnesota in the midwestern US. We covered the social psychology, structures and processes of groups as varied as Lyndon LaRouche’s right-wing political cult, the sexually abusive Children of God, and Pol Pot’s totalitarian and murderous regime in 1970s Cambodia. Several students stated that during the term of the course itself they had cause to use this new information to help either themselves or friends and family to stay away from dangerous groups. Other students asked me why this sort of information hadn't been made available at an earlier stage in their education.

We must teach young people how to recognize totalitarian groups. Drawing on work from Hannah Arendt, Robert Jay Lifton and others, we can start with this five point definition:

  • The group is led by a charismatic and authoritarian leader
  • It is isolating and has a closed, steeply hierarchical inner structure
  • The group adheres to an absolute and exclusive belief system (a total ideology)
  • Processes of coercive persuasion are used to isolate followers and control them through a combined dynamic of “love” and fear
  • Followers are exploited

These groups succeed because they operate based on universal human (and usually adaptive) responses of people seeking comfort and connection when afraid. The process unfolds by isolating recruits from prior sources of comfort, establishing the group as the new safe haven, and then instilling fear to create what is known as a trauma bond. This is now well-understood by social psychologists. It can be taught in interesting and understandable ways to young people.

We must take a strategic view to introduce this into the curriculum. Educators must collaborate with experts in this field to train teachers in both the classic social-psychological studies as well as the most up-to-date research available and work to develop materials and curricula for classrooms at various age levels.

For over 60 years social scientists have been developing a broad knowledge base about these fundamental human vulnerabilities and the groups and situations that exploit them. In her 1987 volume, Prisons we choose to live inside, nobel laureate Doris Lessing argued for disseminating this knowledge to our children in order to challenge our “most primitive and instinctive reactions” -- those reactions which so often have led us to act against our own interests and our own survival. We cannot wait any longer to take this on.

Perhaps then a future 15-year-old – one who has had some basic education in the structures, processes and dangers of totalitarian groups – will be able to recognize and turn away from a recruiter who promises liberation and glory but who will deliver only suicidal sacrifice.

Alexandra Stein is visiting lecturer, Birkbeck, Faculty of Lifelong Learning

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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