LONDON – Mizanur Rahman laughs when he recalls the de-radicalization program he was sent on in 2008 after being released from a British jail where he had served two years for inciting violence against British and American troops.
“I’d go there, I’d sign my name, play pool with some other radicals that I was in prison with, and I’d go home,” said Rahman, arrested again last month on suspicion of terrorism offenses. He denies wrongdoing and has not been charged.
The 31-year-old Londoner denounces his fortnightly de-radicalization sessions over a six-month period as a gimmick. It is a conclusion shared by many British politicians. For more than a decade.
Interviews with several people with direct knowledge of these efforts highlight flaws including misdirection of funds, poor communication and difficulties in identifying those most likely to turn to violence. At the forefront of Western countries’ efforts to prevent their citizens becoming radicalized, Britain may have lessons for others.
After the shock of 9/11, Britain adopted a two-pronged approach to tackling radicalization. The first was to get tough with “preachers of hate” who whip up extremism. The second was to help Muslim leaders counter extremism among Britain’s 2.7 million Muslims.
But in 2010, the new Conservative government declared the second part of the program, known as “Prevent,” a failure. Money was going to groups that were sometimes sympathetic to the extremist messages they were supposed to be countering, the government said, and other groups were neither effective nor value for money. Many Muslims, meanwhile, saw Prevent as a police-led spying exercise.
The emphasis has shifted to tough action — promises to strip British jihadis of their passports and stop radical preachers from speaking in public or using social media.
Having undertaken the “most significant domestic program by any Western country to foster a moderate version of Islam and prevent radicalization,” said James Brandon, former head of research at the anti-extremism Quilliam Foundation, “the U.K. has effectively given up trying to stop jihadists from being created.”
Ripe for radicalization
Part of the difficulty is in identifying those who might launch attacks in Britain or be drawn to fight in Iraq or Syria.
A study by researchers at Queen Mary University lists the social groups most susceptible to extremism: people suffering from depression, those who are isolated and, surprisingly, those whose families have lived in Britain for several generations and are financially well-off. The findings chime with other studies.
Religious ideology does not appear to be a major influencing factor. Many of those seeking to fight in Syria and Iraq have poor knowledge of Islam. They are motivated by images they have seen online, or are lured by the promise of adventure.
“The idea that . . . a structured ideology is motivating these young men is actually quite untrue,” said Jahan Mahmood, a community worker from the central city of Birmingham. He has reason to know — the area where he works has one of the highest numbers of terrorism convictions in the UK.
Finding a way to reach those at risk is difficult.
Some moderate groups have no resonance with young people. Other have slick publicity machines but zero credibility.
Sulaimaan Samuel, a mentor with the government’s ongoing “Channel” de-radicalization program, said the authorities have to reach vulnerable Muslims before they succumb to the message of militants.
Channel, a surviving part of the discredited “Prevent” program, aims to identify those at risk of radicalization and then work with police, councils, health, education and prison services to guide them away from extremism.
In 2012, it was expanded nationwide. Up to the end of March this year, 3,934 people had been referred to the program.
Samuel mentors about five young people, aged between 18 and 25, in two-hour weekly sessions. They have been referred because of what they’ve done at school or their online activity, or because people have noticed a change in their behavior.
“Channel is about cutting off the oxygen, it’s about getting ahead of the curve,” Samuel said. “From my first-hand experience with the young men I’m dealing with, it is working.”
Samuel gave the example of young man who was moved by the suffering of Muslim women and children. He had wanted to travel to Syria and could well have ended up fighting for a radical group such as the Islamic State, which has carried out beheadings, crucifixions and mass killings in its sweep across northern Syria and Iraq.
“Without Channel’s intervention . . . what would his options be, with his ideas and the passion he has?” said Samuel, who convinced him that supporting militant groups in Syria only compounded the suffering, and persuaded him to put his efforts into getting money to official charities.
“The arguments they (radicalizers) use are normally deliberately constructed and aimed at people who probably don’t have an in-depth understanding of Islam,” Samuel said.
“A mentor will be able to dismantle those arguments and . . . show that young man or woman: ‘This is actually what Islam says’ and ‘This is the proper context of that verse.’ “
Its critics note that Channel is a voluntary project and figures indicate that only about 20 percent of those referred were assessed to be vulnerable to being attracted to terrorism.
Spotting those at risk is also far from straightforward, and families of some of the Britons who have fought in Syria have often spoken of their shock to learn that their sons or daughters had traveled there.
The crucial battleground in the radicalization struggle is the Internet, and it’s a fight the authorities have been losing.
Britain has a police unit dedicated to dealing with extremist material on the Internet and British Home Secretary Theresa May recently said authorities had removed more than 30,000 pieces of terrorist material since the start of the year.
But the lack of any international agreement means British police can only deal with content hosted in Britain. Material that is taken down will often crop up again elsewhere.
What is needed instead is a propaganda war to undermine the message of extremists, said Julian Lewis, a member of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, the body charged with overseeing the work of Britain’s security agencies.
“You mirror what they’re doing and you beat them at their own game. There is no other way to do it,” he said, likening it to the West’s battle against communism during the Cold War.
Lewis, who last year co-authored a paper for Prime Minister David Cameron’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalization and Extremism, said people needed to be “inoculated” against the extremists’ ideology.
“By all means arrest the ones that break the law, by all means tighten the law and close the loopholes as long it’s not incompatible with our values of society . . . but what you also have to do is make sure your countermessage is out there on a scale comparable to theirs,” he said.
But Muslim groups say little or no progress can be made on radicalization until politicians confront the elephant in the room — the foreign policy of Britain and its allies.
Radicals say Britain and the West prop up dictators in Muslim lands, and turn a blind eye to oppression if it suits their political and economic interests.
As Britain banks on tough action to curb radicalization, those like Rahman are uncowed. Banned from talking to other radicals after his recent arrest, he says such action will not silence him.
“The idea of a Caliphate is a core element of the Islamic faith, it has been for 1,400 years. David Cameron using us as a scapegoat is not going to change that,” he said.