In the 1980s Nigel Bromage joined the far right at the age of 15. After being handed an anti-IRA leaflet outside the school gates, he quickly fell into a world of nationalist extremism.
Twenty years after leaving such groups, Bromage is facing a new, pressing concern: that lockdown, and the boredom and increased time online it has created, is leading to children being radicalised by the far right.
“Getting involved in these groups can lead you on a very, very dark path,” said Bromage. He should know: by the time he quit at the end of the millennium, he had been a member of some of the most notorious far-right groups in Britain, including the National Front and Combat-18.
“Things have really changed [since then]. The main thing, obviously, is the internet,” he said. “In my day, you had to buy a book or know somebody involved in a group. Today, through things like videos and direct messaging online, you can… go down a much faster path in changing your ideology.”
It is not just the methods of radicalisation that have changed, but the profile of individuals targeted. Gone are the days of the far right being made up of “angry young men off council estates”, Bromage said. “Today, there are no stereotypes at all.”
Following an ultimatum from his (now ex) wife, and after witnessing an “awful” racist attack in a Birmingham pub, Bromage left the far right. In 2017 he set up Exit UK, an organisation that supports those looking to do the same.
He has noticed a worrying trend: Exit UK is finding the far right increasingly targeting children, and has dealt with cases involving children as young as nine.
Bromage is concerned that more than a year of lockdowns and school closures have provided the ideal conditions for radicalisation, while also making it much harder to identify early.
“Normally, we would be going into schools talking to hundreds of young people about the dangers of getting involved in extremism,” he said. But the pandemic has interrupted that.
The rise in the amount of far-right online content – which is moving into increasingly mainstream spaces such as popular social media platforms and video games – and the idle time created by Covid are putting children at risk.
“Boredom is a great friend of extremism,” Bromage said. “Instead of two or three hours, people are spending five to seven hours online, and that’s opening more doors for young people to go down where they wouldn’t have before.”
Children spent an average of almost 20 per cent more time on social media during the two national lockdowns in 2020 compared to the rest of the year, research from the internet safety company Qustudio reveals.
Investigations into extremist content are also rising. Figures obtained by the New Statesman under Freedom of Information show that the number of right-wing extremist pieces of content investigated by the Metropolitan Police’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit surged from three in 2016 to 222 in 2020 – a 74-fold rise – while the overall amount of extremist content investigated rose by 5 per cent in the same period.
Despite a decades-long media and political focus on Islamist extremism, almost as many young people are now being referred to Prevent (the controversial anti-terrorism programme) for far-right extremism as Islamist extremism.
Ten out of the 12 under-18s arrested for terror offences in the UK in 2019 had links to extreme right-wing ideology, the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu revealed last year. Meanwhile the proportion of referrals of under-twenties referred to Prevent for far-right radicalisation in England and Wales doubled between 2016 and 2020, as the share of referrals for Islamist radicalisation concurrently fell.
The true figures of those at risk are likely to be higher, as online radicalisation is difficult to detect.
How can Britain hold back this potential wave of far-right child radicalisation? Early intervention by counter-terrorism programmes and charities are key.
“Usually, radicalisation happens when individuals perceive the world as being chaotic, and they don't find sense in what’s happening,” said Bàrbara Molas, the head of publishing at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, who is finding she has “more work than ever” in this field.
Under false pretences, “extremist narratives add sense to the chaos for people”, she added.
While each individual case of radicalisation is unique, there are a number of common themes: trauma, ostracisation, family disorder and other psychological problems might make younger people susceptible to the “typical grooming techniques” used by the far right to lure them in, Bromage said.
He added that such groups take vulnerable, often marginalised young people searching for an identity and purpose, and negatively “manipulate [the] desire for change” seen in people their age.
The rigidity of the us vs them world-view of the far right presents a warped interpretation of how the world works to its younger members. “They usually have a very clear target”, blaming certain groups of people or organisations for things young people may perceive to be wrong in their lives, Molas said.
Breaking that world-view is difficult. But once someone reaches out for help or is referred to a scheme, three things are key: trust, dissection and filling a void.
“At the peak of my far-right involvement, my view at the time was that Islam had to go,” said John*, who was radicalised online in 2014 at the age of 15. “I was under the impression that it had no place in Britain or no place in the world.”
John, who is now 21, left the far right in early 2019. He had fallen into the world of extremist groups after seeing a Facebook post calling for British soldiers not to be left on the streets – a cause close to John’s heart, as his uncle had suffered a number of issues after serving in Iraq.
Under the post, there were what he now recognises to be “false stats and fake news stories” about government spending on foreign aid, building mosques instead of homeless shelters, and Muslim families jumping the housing queue.
Deradicalisation rests on trust. After being referred to Prevent by his college, John built up a rapport with his mentor, chatting about their similar upbringings and sport for the first hour of their initial meeting.
The second key part of deradicalisation is challenging the warped world-view fed to individuals. Through the far-right group he had joined, John believed he had 20 quotes from the Quran that were a “declaration of war against the British people”, but when his mentor asked him to look the quotes up in a translated version of the Quran, he realised that all but one were fake, while the one real quote had been taken “dramatically out of context”.
“It was like a lightbulb moment – I’d realised I’ve been lied to and manipulated,” John said. “And that’s what started the journey to me leaving.”
The final and perhaps most difficult part of the process of deradicalisation is filling the void extremist ideologies once occupied for individuals and helping them reintegrate into society – something the UK has historically struggled to do with adults.
While there is little data so far on state attempts to deradicalise far-right extremists, evidence concerning Islamic extremists demonstrates the scale of the challenge.
Usman Khan, the 28-year-old perpetrator of the 2019 London Bridge attack in which he killed two fellow attendees at a prisoner rehabilitation conference, had completed two deradicalisation programmes and served half of a 16-year sentence he received after being convicted of terrorism offences.
Sudesh Amman, who was 20 when he stabbed two people in Streatham, south London, just two months after the London Bridge attack, had served time for possessing and disseminating extremist material. In both cases, efforts by the criminal justice system to rehabilitate these individuals failed.
Whatever the ideology that has led someone to extremism, the principle for deradicalisation is the same.
“You have to redirect them to useful things in their life,” said the psychologist Anne Speckhard, who has spoken to a number of radicalised youths, including Shamima Begum and Jack Letts (“Jihadi Jack”).
She added that “we should be concerned about all online radicalisation”, and described the societal dislocation that makes some marginalised people susceptible to Islamist extremist groups – and to far right ideology too.
“For deradicalisation programmes to be effective, they need to be individualised, carefully supervised and carried out by skilled professionals… It’s not a cookie-cutter thing you can just apply to everyone.”
It takes time and patience, and the process may not always be successful. But if a radicalised individual can be persuaded to reconnect with society and see that there are people and pursuits in their life that can fill the void that extremist ideology once filled, they can slowly move on.
“I think everybody’s capable of change,” said John. “I made a mistake, and I am ashamed of getting involved in those movements.
“But I’m a changed man now – I don't hold the same opinions or ideology as I did when I was 15… and once you do change, I believe people can stay changed.”
*Name has been changed on request of anonymity.