Parsons Green, Finsbury Park, London Bridge, Manchester Arena and Westminster – five major incidents of terror that shook the UK in 2017. More than 200 people were injured and another 30 were left dead.
And yet, while incredibly tragic, events such as these are not unheard of. In fact, they add to a long history of terror in Britain.
Take the 1970s, for instance, which were plagued with attacks carried out by Irish republican and loyalist factions, and the Lockerbie Disaster in 1988, which saw a Pan Am transatlantic flight destroyed by a bomb killing 270 people.
So, decades later, why are these atrocities still happening in society and what fuels people to carry them out?
“The starting point for people to commit an act of terror is often something ordinary,” says Dr Phil Henry, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Derby, who is conducting research in the field of terrorism. “They are very often described as vulnerable people who feel they lack opportunity, equality, and discriminated against. These feelings of uncertainty can often spiral into extreme thoughts and even actions, but it does not happen overnight.
“The double bind here is a confused environment of Islamist extremist narratives on one side, fuelling and being fuelled by far and extreme right-wing narratives on the other. Both feed and mirror the other with similar grievances. This can escalate through perversions of religious or political ideological views into dehumanising ‘others’, creating division and violence.”
Andy Thomas, Head of Community Safety at Derby City Council, who is responsible for managing and raising awareness of extremism, as well as community cohesion in the city, agrees. “You can’t become radicalised without first having extreme views. 99.9% of people share the values of family, love and community, but there are, unfortunately, some who don’t.
“Very often extremism and radicalisation is borne out of other vulnerabilities such as mental health issues, alcohol and drug problems, or family difficulties; there tends to be an underlying cause which triggers an incident.
“People go through a process; they become susceptible to extreme ideas, then begin to take these views on board before becoming radicalised. Some of those individuals who want to cause harm do actually go on to do it.”
Social media plays a huge role in spreading the message of extreme views across the globe and in recruiting people to join terror groups, such as Islamic State, says Phil.
“Technological advances allow communication to happen instantly, so it is easy for people from Syria and Iraq, for example, to communicate with people in Western Europe. There is ease in communicating de-humanising messages online and to spread feelings of hatred and divisiveness between communities.
“Communication online is very often how people are lured in and is a platform to prey on their already existing vulnerabilities. Recruiters will recast sound religious views and manipulate people into believing they have a responsibility to their faith to act in a certain, misinformed way. They present an idea of Utopia and people fall for it.”
But when these vulnerable people join extremist groups, they are faced with a stark reality, explains Phil.
“The sadness of it all is that what they were promised is nothing like what they get. They are often subjected to medieval attitudes and receive punishment, such as whipping, for minor infringements like smoking and drinking alcohol. The perpetrators recreate these acts because they want to be seen as the most brutal organisation on the planet.
“Islamist terrorists need to do two things; they need to create fear and they need to act as a convincing by proxy to God."
“These vulnerable people are not convinced the right thing to do is to commit violence, but they do because they are told to in the name of religion. This is not what they bought in to. Often, it was the promise they would be supporting people who are suffering and a better life for themselves; a husband or wife, a house, and a good education for their children.”
In 2003, two years prior to the first Islamist extremist suicide bomb attack in the UK – 7 July 2005 – the government introduced its anti-terror UK wide Contest strategy, designed to support people at risk of joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities. It is designed around the four P’s – pursue terrorist attackers, prevent people from becoming terrorists, protect the public and prepare for attacks. The Prevent element was formally introduced in 2006 (as a pilot) and rolled out from 2007.
Fifteen years on – and some revisions later – are the strategies in place fit for purpose?
“Following the Manchester attack, MI5 has said it has about 20,000 people it is concerned about – or ‘persons of interest,’” explains Phil. “These are people who are not committing criminal offences, so the law cannot be used to manage them, but they also don’t meet the thresholds of intervention programmes. So, what do we do with them? Do they just sit in the worry box?
“The strategy needs to be refreshed now. Islamic State may have lost geographical and territorial space, but extreme ideas haven’t died and those ideas will continue. We know, cyclically, that terrorism works generationally, so we see shifts in the way terror works globally over time."
“What you need to know about bomb making and terrorism you can find on the internet. The cry is for internet service providers and social media platforms to take this type of material down and they are making every effort to, but it is needle in a haystack territory – there’s so much, it’s not possible to police it all.”
Derby City Council, which has been supporting the Prevent strategy for more than 10 years and was a pilot city for the scheme when it was first introduced, is focusing on community cohesion to tackle the risk of radicalisation.
From projects to empower women in identifying signs of extremism, to working with young people and religious groups, the Council has a string of schemes in place under the branch of Channel – a multi-agency approach to provide support for people who are assessed as being vulnerable to supporting any form of extremism.
“Channel has been operating successfully in Derby for around seven years, and covers all forms of extremism,” explains Andy. “If a person is identified as at risk of extremism, the support that is offered is tailored for each person and could include help with family or relationship problems, mental health support, mentoring, and faith guidance.
“On a one-to-one basis the schemes are working but it is very challenging. A lot of what we do is based on consent and, because it’s pre-criminal, you cannot force people to engage.”
A vital way of raising awareness of radicalisation is through education, says Helen Beecher Bryant, who works at children’s charity Kidscape. She was involved in running an Extremism and Radicalisation Awareness (EARA) programme with more than 2,500 young people and staff in 25 schools across London in 2017, after the organisation secured a share of a £2m Department for Education grant.
“Young people are exposed to a range of negative information, which can be shared very easily through social media. It is all about sharpening their critical thinking skills and getting them to rigorously question and challenge where that information comes from.”
As part of the scheme, school staff were trained in how to spot the signs of extremism and radicalisation among their pupils and the children were given the tools to identify when someone may be trying to groom them online and encouraging them to take part in extremist or radical behaviour.
“It’s extremely important to protect and educate young people about radicalisation,” stresses Helen. “The voluntary sector has a unique role to play in the delivery of this type of programme, because we are able to go with a safeguarding prerogative, which is extremely effective.
“I was in classrooms where children knew a lot about terrorism and others who didn’t. Sometimes people don’t necessarily link what they hear in the media with extremism and radicalisation, but then when you mention something like the Manchester Arena attack and the Ariana Grande concert, there is not a young person who hasn’t heard of that – that really bought home how real the threat is.”
The current threat level for international terror in the UK is severe, which means an attack is highly likely.
Derby was identified by the Home Office as a priority risk area in 2011 and remains a tier two priority city, along with Leicester, below only the London Boroughs, Birmingham and Manchester.
“What goes on internationally and globally can and often does have a big effect on communities locally but the UK is very resilient and a lot of our vulnerable communities experience crime far more often and regularly than they would ever a terrorist attack,” says Andy.
So, can terrorism ever be tackled?
“Extremism – if it’s not undermining our core values and is not criminal – can sometimes be a force for good. Anti-slave campaigners 200 years ago were deemed extremists and, at one time, women’s rights campaigners and suffragettes were labelled extremists, so one can argue that extremism or radical thinking is good for society because it can create change for good. However, it can also create change for evil,” Andy says.
“With the money and resources we have from government, I believe as much as possible is being carried out by agencies to tackle radicalisation. I do worry that we will become a more divided society in the future, which will leave people behind. This could cause anger and alienation and a lack of association and commitment by people for their community, city and country. There’s some real systemic issues in British society and cuts in public services, particularly in the homelessness provision and mental health services, which means vulnerable people are even more vulnerable and that leads to the risk of people committing acts of violence.
“We are doing a good job at trying to manage but I worry it’s a sticking plaster when the causes of alienation and vulnerability are not actually being tackled.”
Phil agrees: “We aspire to live in a society without evil. Somehow, perversely, we believe we can make the world a wonderful place where equality is a reality and racist and other hate-filled ideas are not going to exist. But they will – always.”