The path to violent extremism starts young

August 22, 2014 | Nick Taylor

Kelly Simcock, Director of Commissions at the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace writes after giving expert opinion on ITV national breakfast TV following the death of James Foley:

I spoke on Good Morning Britain (Thursday 21 August 2014) briefly highlighting some of the challenges we face in preventing young people from following a path of radicalisation leading to violent extremism. As I concluded what was a five minute interview, I knew that that five minutes was not enough to really do justice to this incredibly important and complex topic.

Watch the interview by clicking here

At the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace, we have been interested in preventing violent extremism since the Provisional IRA chose the small town of Warrington to wreak its havoc on an innocent population killing three year old Johnathan Ball and 12 year old Tim Parry. From that day, the parents of Tim and Johnathan chose to ‘wage peace’ by creating an organisation and a centre that would provide programmes and create safe spaces to bring people together, including those from opposing sides; in an aim to broaden understanding and educate people on how to manage conflict and difference.

The tools and programmes we have developed at the Foundation have stood the test of time and have been carried out with groups ranging from teams of police officers to young Palestinians and Israelis. The work that we do has retained its value and uniqueness and our techniques have made a difference to and impacted so many groups and communities. The work has evolved and our learning has grown but the approaches remain broadly unchanged – even though the nature of violent conflict appears to have.

Click here to find out what we do

The recent gruesome murder of James Foley reminds us of the contemporary challenges that we face in turning young people away from violent conflict. Not only do we see these images and films being used to send messages to Western governments – but they’re also being used to attract new followers to these movements with the promise that their tactics are succeeding in what is being promised the sought after Islamic Caliphate.

Click here to see BBC News explain what is a Caliphate in 90 seconds

How do we counter this?

This is the topic on everybody’s mind as politicians, policy makers, academics and practitioners alike search to respond to a cause that seems to be attracting more and more of our young people each day. Whilst thankfully, the proportion of young people that are choosing to join in with the ‘jihad’ are a minority – their decision to do so still has to be a matter for concern. Not only because they are British and therefore ‘our’ young people and we should be doing everything we can to prevent our young people from choosing this path – but their actions threaten the safety of themselves, other human beings, in Iraq and Syria and more widely- and potentially here, at home, later on.

As a Foundation, we believe that the critical thing is to approach this at the earliest possible stage. Once people have already become involved in these groups and convinced to take action in the name of a group or ideology- it is very difficult to pull them back. Not impossible, but difficult. The key to truly preventing violent extremism is to work with young people in the classroom, in the playground, and in their youth groups; helping to build their cognitive resilience to stop them falling prey to these attractive ideologies and their promises of a a better life and a better way.

This means that we need to equip our young people with the skills to manage their conflicts, both personal and interpersonal.

It means working with them to understand the roots of prejudices or how prejudicial thinking can create the conditions for an ‘us and them’ mentality.

And, it means working with them to explore how each and every young person can develop their own talents and potential to make a valid and useful contribution and to influence in their respective communities and wider society.

Over our many years of working with young people from a variety of backgrounds including those impacted by conflict-we have refined our programmes and our content finding time and again that ingredients such as the investment of time and attention to addressing those issues that belie our attitudes and behaviour are critical to building this resilience.

Our residential programmes bring young people from opposing backgrounds together and allow the space and time for learning about one another to take place inside and outside of workshops. I have witnessed as much learning take place during that ‘free time’ as has during workshop time.

This is because the humanisation of the other isn’t something that we are simply taught about – its something that we also need to experience. What also happens during that free time is that those who have been fierce opponents in the workshops during the daytime, learn that it is possible to live alongside others and ‘get along’ even where a difference of opinion and position exists. Their games of pool and table tennis or a shared love of cake and custard become the spaces and events where a connection or reconnection can occur when relations may have been fractured briefly during the workshops of the daytime. It is through investing time into activities and events like this, that people start to find their humanity and that in those where they may have least expected it.

I labour these points for a reason… if we are to prevent our young people from being attracted to these groups who promise to provide solutions where others cannot; who claim to provide status where it elsewhere ‘cannot be found’; who claim to offer identity and belonging-suggesting it cannot be found at home and who claim to be on the ‘right’ side, though their simplistic narratives very often advocate violence and pain for others: we need to invest time and attention into educating our young people and building that resilience. This means investment of time and resources. This is not something that the government can do alone. In fact, the government can often be seen as part of the problem rather than the solution as ‘PREVENT’ is often perceived as a brand that has been used to punish communities – its also difficult for the government to facilitate conversations where theres a fundamental disagreement with them over policy.

View the UK Government CONTEST Counter Terrorism Policy PREVENT strand by clicking here

 The government does however need to consider how it funds and prioritises this work. It also needs to consider how it partners with and supports Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) who can provide specialist support and intervention – particularly where the situations are challenging and beyond the expertise, resources and remit of our other service providers (eg. educationalists).

During our 15 plus years of working with schools and communities, we have learnt that sustained investment and engagement in provision is the key to building that resilience. That is working with young people, and also with teachers, to build their confidence and capacity to be able to tackle these issues themselves, in the knowledge that there are others out there to provide that specialist support where they can’t. The UK government spends millions each year funding security based activity to keep our citizens safe. In the words of one senior police officer to me late last year – ‘if we spent less dressing up and masquerading as pantomime horses in order to chase suspected terrorists and more of that on preventing people getting there -we night happily do ourselves out of a job!’

Still, the emphasis seems to be on being reactive rather than proactive. And this is not just a problem for the UK, it is present across Europe. I chair a European Commission working group of EU practitioners all tasked with the role of working to prevent violent extremism. The tendency towards the security solution dominates in other member states too and whilst the suggestion is not that we stop ‘protecting’ ourselves through these security based measures – it is that we wage ‘peace’ with the same vigour with which we in the same way as we wage war by making investment in our practitioners and NGOs, like the Foundation for Peace, who are tasked with some of the most difficult work of all. They are some of our most important ‘weapons’ in this battle to prevent – and we need to invest in them and their work to prevent ourselves from arriving at this place to begin with.

Kelly Simcock – Director of Commissions – Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace 

Kelly is the Director of Commissions and has worked with the Foundation for over 10 years. Her role places sees her directing the Foundation’s Peace Programme and strategy with the Prevention, Resolution and Response Programmes falling under her remit. As a practitioner with some 10 years plus experience, she has designed, delivered and managed tailored programmes and interventions in communities across the UK and has led the Foundation’s international programme work.

Kelly Co-Chairs the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network-Prevent working group.

Kelly pictured on ITV Good Morning Britain

Kelly pictured on ITV Good Morning Britain