How to start tackling home grown extremism

Mohammed Ali Amla works to understand and address issues around extremism and terrorism in Lancashire.

Monday, 5th June 2017, 3:50 pm
Updated Thursday, 8th June 2017, 3:30 pm
Mohammed Ali Amla

On Monday May 22, I watched with shock and disbelief as the news unfolded, the attack at the Ariana Grande concert.

I had a deep sinking feeling with the realisation that a terrorist attack had taken place on British soil. I felt heartbroken as I awoke the next morning to hear of fatalities, as the days have progressed I have felt sadness, upset and anger.

I am a father of two very young children, I can only imagine the pain and loss felt by parents who have lost their children under such tragic circumstances. My heartfelt condolences to all the victims’ families and friends.

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Lancashire saw the loss of Saffie, Georgina and Michelle, the outpouring of grief and solidarity at the vigils has been overwhelming.

This is a time for remembrance and prayer, for the victims innocently killed, those still recovering and the bravery of our emergency services.

The terrorists want to divide us; we will not allow them to succeed in doing so. We stand united against terrorism and hate. Politicians, leaders, analysts and communities have begun to discuss could this attack have been prevented. A question I have been asking for twelve years, since the 7/7 attack on London.

As a British Muslim I could not understand why a British Muslim would want to commit an act of terrorism on home soil.

This has led me on a journey of learning and research, I don’t claim to have found all the answers however I have begun to understand the complexities of radicalisation beyond media headlines and public discourse.

My own journey has led me to think about how can we counter radicalisation and prevent individuals from attacking their fellow citizens. Prevent is the government policy which aims to do this, I have my own criticism whilst believe it is important to engage.

I have argued that Community Cohesion and Integration should be separate policy areas and delivered distinctly different to Prevent.

Prevent should not take a securitised approach or be overly police led, it is not be a backdoor to intelligence gathering. The emphasis should be to work with communities to understand radicalisation, how it happens and how to effectively counter. This requires meaningful engagement, building trusted relationships and the courage to work with communities rather than at communities.

I’m a Prestonian and pray at many mosques in Preston and Lancashire, radicalisation does not take place in mosques or Islamic centres. There is no single profile, however there are common traits, which includes self-alienated from the mosque, social isolation, demonstrating vulnerabilities or susceptibilities, however there’s no easy simple checklist to discover the next radical.

Salman Abedi abused his local Imam for speaking out against Da’esh, there are numerous reports that he was not welcome at mosques in Manchester and numerous Muslims had reported him to the security service.

Whilst Abedi had been reported by friends and family using the anti-terrorism hotline, he was not referred to channel and the Prevent teams were not aware of him. Channel offers a bespoke multi-agency intervention and guidance from a mentor. In time we will be able to learn more about Abedi’s life journey, his personal and social factors that contributed towards his radicalisation, the grievances that drove him into the arms of the terrorist and his exposure to jihadist ideology.

I have been delivering Community Reach for five years in Lancashire, having trained more than 300 faith leaders, teachers, youth workers, practitioners and activists. I take a community development and empowerment approach to Reach, which is funded through the Home Office on the Prevent agenda. I take a constructively critical approach, listening to the concerns, criticism and fears of our participants whilst empowering them with skills, knowledge and confidence.

Our team of skilled facilitators create a safe space to explore the subject of extremism and terrorism from a broad perspective including the far right and Da’esh, exploring the factors causing terrorism, understanding radicalisation, narratives, ideology and challenging extremist rhetoric. My academic research informs the conversation taking place, grappling with the issues head on whilst not shying away from having difficult topics.

The conversation begins with defining extremism, terrorism and radicalisation, followed by understanding the threat level which has been reduced to severe. The Lancashire Counter Terrorism footprint is diverse and includes the arrest of dissident Irish quarter master, far right members, animal rights activists, jihadists and a 15 year old inciting terrorism by encouraging an Australian Jihadist to prepare an Anzac Day attack.

Radicalisation is a complex phenomenon, which includes personal and social factors, ideology and grievances. It is important to note that, without grievances ideology does not resonate and without ideology grievances are not acted upon.

The programme includes a study trip to Northern Ireland, the intense three days is an eye opener for our participants and seeing the legacy of the troubles up close. The peace walls and murals dividing segregated communities are a reminder than the conflict is less violent but haven’t totally gone away.

The locals often comment that these are designed not only to keep them out but also to keep us in. These experiences begin to contextualise our conversation on radicalisation and make it feel very relevant. We meet with peace makers and learn about conflict resolution, to start thinking about how we can do things differently when we return home.

A panel discussion with former combatants from across the political divide gives an insight to the social and political factors to recruitment, the role of grievances and ideology. On our return, participants are encouraged to apply the knowledge they have learnt by creating local solutions.

Our participants have gone to develop different projects including working with young people, creating safe spaces in schools, working with parents, training senior leadership in schools, working at young people at risk, organising conferences on tackling extremism and women’s projects.

We need to create more safe spaces to discuss terrorism and radicalisation without feeding prejudice and hate. Communities are still in shock and need to heal the divisions in society.

Unfortunately some groups have used the attack to sow seeds of division and discord. Our challenge is to continue to stand united as grief turns into anger.

A participant on the reach programme took the initiative to begin healing with students and staff by creating a Peace Wall. This is an inspirational step and has allowed students to share messages of grief, peace and hope for the future.

It is a year since Thomas Mair murdered the MP Jo Cox, her bravery and unifying words are an important reminder for the challenges that lay ahead, “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” Jo Cox first address to parliament

* Mohammed Ali Amla is a freelance project manager, trainer and researcher, with over ten years’ experience in working with communities having worked for local government and the third sector across the Northwest. Ali is the founder of Global Village and Christian Muslim Encounters, with a specialism in preventing extremism, Christian Muslim relations, cohesion, interfaith, women peace building, engaging hard to reach communities and community development.

For further information contact Ali on [email protected] Twitter @mohammedaliamla