Preventing terror: The impact of community engagement on reporting extremism

(First published in Policing Insight, March 2019)

The terror attack in New Zealand has exposed fault lines in the prevention of extreme right-wing related terrorism. Ahead of the forthcoming review of the UK’s Prevent strategy, researcher Neda Richards talks to Policing Insight about the findings of her unique research analysing preventative counter-terrorism policing and the impact of community engagement on public cooperation.

What were the key objectives of your research?

The aim of the research was to explore if community engagement had an impact on people reporting concerns about radicalisation and extremism – especially from family and close relatives. I wanted to see if the style of engagement delivered in Aarhus, Denmark was different to that of West Yorkshire, and how both strategies could inform a community engagement style that could positively impact reporting behaviour. I also wanted to explore the reasons reporters came forward and based on their needs, improve and encourage reporting of radicalisation and extremism.

What have been the key findings of your research?

The research highlighted that community engagement can positively impact reporting of radicalisation and extremism; especially from families and relatives once engagement took place. Therefore, working closely with families is believed to influence prevention.

“The results indicated that in order for community engagement to be effective, it is important to connect with the individual’s identity – therefore, taking a psychological approach to community engagement”

Dialogue was also found to be a vital tool in building trusting relationships, addressing concerns, sharing information, and identifying problems. The results indicated that in order for community engagement to be effective, it is important to connect with the individual’s identity – therefore, taking a psychological approach to community engagement. More importantly, the study showed the reasoning behind reporting behaviour and fear was a key factor that influenced reporting behaviour. Therefore, by addressing these underlying factors such as fear through community engagement, reporting of radicalisation and extremism can be encouraged.

What areas has your research identified that could support the development and delivery of Prevent programmes in the UK?

It is advised for Prevent programmes in the UK to work closely with parents and relatives of the vulnerable individual – including the returnee fighters – in order to ensure safeguarding and prevention. Aarhus has illustrated that through the inclusion of families and engaging with them, reports from this cohort had an average annual increase of 63%.

Also based on the research findings, I have proposed a community engagement model (Counterterrorism Community Engagement (CTCE) Logic Mode) that focuses on prevention. One key component of this strategy is to connect with the individual’s identity in order to explore common grounds and concerns. This in return can provide insight on how to tailor engagement that meets the need of the individual or groups. Another important element of this model is dialogue, which is vital for building trusting relationships. True dialogue does not put the individual on defence mode but breaks down barriers.

Additionally, it is advised that the reporting process needs to be made easy and with access to informal reporting where the individual can openly discuss their concern without fearing repercussions such as criminalisation. For example, in Aarhus, the Info-House is open to the general public, practitioners, and vulnerable individuals who can informally discuss their concerns with specialists.

“We should recognise that the families of those radicalised or involved in extremism are also a victim of terrorism and need support. It is through this inclusion that we are able to build a solid force in tackling terrorism”.

Finally, investment in youth services is vital to the prevention of radicalisation and extremism. Again, Aarhus youth services not only work closely with the young person and their families but also the police to ensure prevention and safeguarding.

How can police officers encourage the reporting of radicalisation and extremism?

To encourage reporting we first need to understand why people report – the psychological underpinnings that shape the decision-making process, which my research has identified. By designing the community engagement in a way that addresses these psychological factors (e.g. fear, sense of responsibility, personal agency, skill, knowledge etc), we can encourage reporting behaviour.

Additionally, the work in Aarhus has strongly illustrated that working closely with families and their inclusion in problem-solving can have a positive impact on prevention. Other countries such as Iceland have also worked closely with families in response to youth criminality and have, too, seen positive results. In fact, we should recognise that the families of those radicalised or involved in extremism are also a victim of terrorism and need support. It is through this inclusion that we are able to build a solid force in tackling terrorism.

It is also important to ensure that the reporting is made easy for those with concerns. Radicalisation and extremism are very complex issues, which require expert insight. My research showed that reporters wanted to have access to a professional prior to making a formal report in order to share their concerns without fearing repercussion. It is important that people know who and where they can get this support from. The policing agencies can use advertisements to promote this information.

More investment in community engagement is also needed, as a lack of resources has resulted in reactive rather than proactive engagement, which has had a negative impact on relationships and intelligence.

How can police officers improve the reporting of radicalisation and extremism?

“It is important to provide feedback to reporters and keep them informed of the reports they have made, even if they do not meet the project Channel threshold”.

My study found that reporters were in need of feedback – especially those from a professional background, e.g. teachers. Due to lack of resources and volume of reports, feedback was not available to all. It is important to provide feedback to reporters and keep them informed of the reports they have made, even if they do not meet the project Channel threshold.  Feedback provides insight into why their concerns were valid or invalid. It provides an opportunity to share knowledge about radicalisation and extremism. Some reporters believed that lack of feedback also insinuated that their concern was not valuable and left them feeling if they should bother reporting next time. Therefore, the lack of feedback can also be costly for police-public relationships.

Another area that can help to improve the reporting of radicalisation and extremism is training. Although Local Authorities are now taking the lead to provide training and raising radicalisation and extremism awareness, it is important for the police to be involved in this process. This is because the police are better informed about what constitutes a crime, and after all, the Counter Terrorism Unit’s are involved in assessing reports of radicalisation and extremism. Therefore, their insight is valuable in educating the people.

How can police officers develop their approach to preventing the radicalisation of those vulnerable in our society?

As explained previously, working with parents is found to be a successful tool in prevention. This is something we, unfortunately, lack in the UK and need to focus on more.

Apply the recommended Counterterrorism Community Engagement (CTCE) Logic Model when engaging with communities to ensure prevention. The model applies a holistic approach to prevention by recognising engagement needs to be more holistic and inclusive, but more importantly it needs to take a psychological approach. This is because both ‘community’ and ‘engagement’ induce a psychological state – i.e. to ‘belong’ and ‘willingness to be involved’. It is by understanding these behaviours that we are able to take a more effective approach.

Also, a multi-agency approach to prevention is a must. All different partners bring a different set of skills and resources. When dealing with a complex and interconnected issues such as radicalisation and extremism, a holistic approach is needed and one agency is not the complete answer. Multi-agency work can be challenging but this is what the UK is improving on and has taken Aarhus to master over three decades, however, the benefits are endless. The lessons from Aarhus on multi-agency partnerships are to know what other partners do, when they can offer, and when they can offer it, but most importantly to provide them with the same goal.

What were the primary differences between the approach to preventing extremism in the UK and Denmark?

“This inclusion approach did not remove the sense of responsibility from the parents, but in fact, enforced it and supported them through empowerment by giving them access to resources and a helping hand”.

Although there were similarities in approach, the key difference in engagement was working with and the inclusion of families. The Info-House practitioners in Aarhus worked closely with relatives and provided them with the support that they needed to ensure the safeguarding of the vulnerable individual. For example, the Parent Network organised by the Info-House provided the relatives of vulnerable individuals with counselling and coaching. They work with families of returnees and built very close relationships with them, in order to ensure that these individuals knew how to manage the risk of the vulnerable individual and to reach out to Info-House for help when needed. This inclusion approach did not remove the sense of responsibility from the parents, but in fact, enforced it and supported them through empowerment by giving them access to resources and a helping hand. For example, in one case they were working with a high profile female ex-Jihadi who had two sons. Her sons were planning to go to Syria, however, she personally reported her own sons to the Info-House practitioners to prevent them from leaving. This was the result of active engagement and a trusting relationship.

Were you able to work with police officers to progress your research? And what value did they add?

Both the West Yorkshire and East Jutland Police worked very hard in accommodating my request in accessing practitioners who were involved in the delivery of community engagement, and those who reported radicalisation and extremism. My contacts in both police forces did all the leg work for the recruitment. Without their support, this research would not have been possible. By gaining access to reporters I was able to understand the reporting of radicalisation and extremism better, and more importantly from the reporter’s perspective. In return, this insight informs strategies that encourage and improve reporting of radicalisation. Such collaborations are vital and needed to advance insight.

Did you have any experience or knowledge of policing or Prevent before you started your research?

My first undergrad degree was in Forensic Science and Crime Investigation. My knowledge of policing before my research mainly stemmed from that, and it helped me understand the importance of public cooperation in prevention. My knowledge of Prevent was primarily based on academic research, media, and working as a research assistant for the European Commission funded PRIME (PRedicting, Interdicting and Mitigating Extremism) project.

How do you intend to communicate the results of your research? And what impact do you believe it could have on the policy, practice and procedure of Prevent programmes in the UK?

Other than the dissemination of research findings through publications, my intention is to transform some of the findings into Policy Briefs – one of which has been released earlier this month and focuses on encouraging and improving reporting of radicalisation, extremism, and terrorism.

“The research illustrates that if we want people to report radicalisation and extremism we need to make it easy and pave the way for them”.

I have shared this Policy Brief with practitioners and policymakers in the UK, as well as other police forces in Europe, for example, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway and France.

Behavioural insight is increasingly being used by governments as a valuable tool to inform policy and practice. This is because behavioural insight provides a door to ‘what works’ by simply understanding the behaviour and how individual responsibility is a condition for behaviour. The research illustrates that if we want people to report radicalisation and extremism we need to make it easy and pave the way for them. I am hoping that the Policy Briefs will present the bottlenecks in the service and how we can improve them in order to satisfy the need of end user and national security.

Click to read Neda Richards’ Policy Brief – Better Reporting To Prevent Radicalisation, Extremism, and Terrorism. 

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