Roots of violent radicalisation - Home Affairs Committee Contents

3  Where does radicalisation take place?

24. The revised Prevent Strategy lists a number of sectors and institutions where the Government believes there to be particular risks of violent radicalisation or where it believes radicalisation can be identified: education, the internet, faith institutions and organisations, health services, the criminal justice system, the charitable sector and overseas. In our terms of reference, published before the Prevent Review, we identified universities, religious institutions, the internet and prisons for particular inquiry and we consider each of them below.


25. In the Prevent Review, the Government drew a link between university education and terrorist activity, but our evidence suggests that there may be a much less direct link than was thought in the past, and a recent Home Office document suggests that individuals involved in violent extremism are little different to others around them in terms of their education. The Prevent Review says this:

More than 30% of people convicted for Al Qa'ida-associated terrorist offences in the UK between 1999 and 2009 are known to have attended university or a higher education institution. Another 15% studied or achieved a vocational or further education qualification. About 10% of the sample were students at the time when they were charged or the incident for which they were convicted took place. These statistics roughly correspond to classified data about the educational backgrounds of those who have engaged recently in terrorist-related activity in this country: a significant proportion has attended further or higher education.

We believe there is unambiguous evidence to indicate that some extremist organisations, notably Hizb-ut-Tahrir, target specific universities and colleges (notably those with a large number of Muslim students) with the objective of radicalising and recruiting students. [49]

26. The Henry Jackson Society , whose staff carried out some of the analysis on which this was based, highlighted several specific cases:

  • at least four individuals involved in acts of terrorism in the UK were senior members of a university Islamic Society (Kafeel Ahmed, Waseem Mughal, Yassin Nassari and Waheed Zaman);
  • Omar Sharif, a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv in 2003, was radicalised during his first year at King's College London after he attended Hizb-ut-Tahrir meetings on campus;
  • Anthony Garcia, convicted for his role in the 2004 'fertiliser' bomb plot, attended religious talks in the late 1990s at the University of East London Islamic Society; and
  • Mohammed Naveed Bhatti, convicted for his role in Dhiren Barot's 2004 'dirty bomb' plot, was studying at Brunel University and met Barot in the university's prayer room.[50]

27. However, Universities UK expressed concern that:

Simplistic linkages have been made between violent radicalisation and the fact an individual has attended university without acknowledgement that the radicalisation process is far more nuanced and difficult to predict ...

What is not taken into account is that the proportion of young men now participating in higher education stands at 41%, a fact that indicates that attending university may actually reduce the risk of vulnerability to violent radicalisation.[51]

A Home Office Rapid Evidence Assessment of open source empirical studies published more recently found that individuals involved in Islamist violence "tend to be educated to a similar level ... as the broader population in which they live".[52]

28. When asked whether attending university meant an individual was more at risk of extremism, Professor Geoff Petts, representing Universities UK replied that universities "acknowledge the threat, but we do not see evidence to support that". Nabil Ahmed, of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, added:

There are various myths surrounding the issue of campus extremism. There is far too much sensationalism and insufficient evidence or expertise in this wider discussion ... There is a notion that campuses are hotbeds of extremism, which is unfounded in the expertise and experience of the sector and the experience of students. There is a notion that, just because these people who have gone on to become terrorists went to university, in some way those two things are connected—the evidence suggests not. There was an independent inquiry, for example, into the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who went to UCL, which showed that he was not actually radicalised at university.[53]

Professor Petts argued that the evidence that extremist groups were actively targeting universities was "circumstantial" and Nabil Ahmed said that he had not come across any instances of campus preaching that would be in breach of British law.[54] Other students we met through SOAS, including practicing Muslims, were adamant that they had not encountered anyone on campus who supported terrorism.

29. Hannah Stuart of the Henry Jackson Society said that she understood why the Federation of Students Islamic Societies felt the need to defend Muslim students against the media focus on them, but pointed out that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a former president of his University's Islamic Society, who had been convicted in the US in October 2011 for a failed bomb attack on an aircraft. She said:

I think it is not just about the admittedly very small number of Muslim students who have gone on to commit terrorist acts but it is about the atmosphere that is created sometimes on campus by Islamic societies or other organisations who consistently invite a certain type of speaker that does not reflect the plurality of Islam in this country.[55]

30. Charles Farr claimed that the Prevent Review had not stated that terrorists themselves were active recruiters in universities, but rather that the Government was concerned about people "who are speaking regularly against core UK values and whose ideology incidentally is also shared by terrorist organisations" and the fact that this appeared to be going unchallenged.[56] Other witnesses gave examples of such individuals who were allowed to speak on campus, for example Raed Salah, who is banned from entering the UK for his anti-semitic views but was admitted to the country by mistake in June 2011, and Al Qa'ida supporter Anwar Al-Awlaki who, we were told, addressed a UK university by video link.[57]

31. Professor Neumann undertook a study in 2007 for the European Commission which came to the conclusion that:

Like prisons or like the internet, universities were places of vulnerability ... because you get people of a certain age, often away from home for the first time, often feeling quite lost and often experiencing a sort of crisis of identify and so on. That makes it easy for extremist groups to pick them up.[58]

Religious institutions

32. Charles Farr told us that violent radicalisation in mosques or other religious institutions comprises "no more than 1% or 2%" of the total cases of radicalisation.[59] Our witnesses tended to agree that there was very little threat from the mosques. Alyas Karmani, for example, argued that "mosques are completely disconnected from young at risk Muslims".[60] The Prevent Strategy states that community resistance has reduced the open operation of radical preachers and driven many to operate out of private homes or the internet. Consequently, while the Strategy cautions ongoing vigilance against potential threats, its focus on mosques is more as a tool to help in countering extremist ideology by presenting competing points of view.[61]

The internet

33. Many of our witnesses cited the internet as the main forum for radicalisation.[62] Sir Norman Bettison, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead for Prevent, told us that "the internet does seem to feature in most, if not all, of the routes of radicalisation".[63] It was regarded as particularly dangerous as it was now one of the few unregulated spaces where radicalisation is able to take place. According to the Home Office, the internet "plays a role in terms of sustaining and reinforcing terrorist ideological messages and enabling individuals to find and communicate with like-minded individuals and groups".[64] This seemed to be contradicted by more recent Home Office-commissioned research, which concluded that the internet "does not appear to play a significant role in Al Qa'ida-influenced radicalisation". [65] Even those witnesses who attributed a significant role to the internet tended to support that report's conclusion that some element of face-to-face contact was generally essential to radicalisation taking place, including with regards to the extreme far right, but by definition this does not deal with the issue of self radicalisation which by its very nature takes place in isolation and concerns have been expressed about the impact of 'Sheikh Google' on individuals who may be vulnerable, but have not been identified as starting on a journey of self radicalisation.[66]


34. The Prevent Strategy states that:

We know that some people who have been convicted and imprisoned for terrorist-related offences have sought to radicalise and recruit other prisoners. We also know that some people who have been convicted for non-terrorism-related offences but who have previously been associated with extremist or terrorist networks have engaged in radicalising and recruitment activity while in prison. The extent to which radicalisation which takes place in prison will endure beyond the confines of the prison environment is not yet clear.[67]

The Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service, Michael Spurr, told us that the Service had "some evidence of individual prisoners who may have attempted to say things or have indicated views that could attract people to a radical cause" but no evidence to suggest it was on the increase.[68] We were given the following example of an individual who had been radicalised in prison:

An individual who went into Belmarsh on remand was three cells away from Abdullah al-Faisal when he was there. Within three days, Abdullah al-Faisal had convinced him to undertake a martyrdom mission. He left prison—he was acquitted of his offence—went straight to Yemen, desperately looking for jihad, desperately seeking a training camp. Fortunately, the handlers there in Yemen channelled him into an appropriate kind of madrassa ... who taught him the correct understanding and sent him back to us.[69]

35. It is clear that a time in prison can lead to a young person being drawn into friendships and networks which increase the likelihood of them being involved in criminal activity. Prison has often been described as an instrument for 'making bad people worse' and short prison sentences, in particular, have been identified as leading to serious unintended consequences in terms of life choices and behaviour. There are plenty of examples of recruitment of vulnerable inmates to gangs and there are specific examples—for instance from Los Angeles—of recruitment through gangs being linked in some way to terrorist purposes. It is difficult to find firm evidence or to quantify the impact, and from our visit to Belmarsh it does appear that being recruited to a self-identified Muslim grouping within prison is more about association and personal safety than about radicalisation, but the authorities would do well to work closely with Muslim organisations to understand what is happening within the prison community and its links with the outside world.Professor Peter Neumann's study of radicalisation and de-radicalisation in the prisons of 15 countries found that:

  • prisons are "places of vulnerability ... highly unsettling environments in which individuals are more likely than elsewhere to explore new beliefs and associations";
  • "radicalisation is driven by behaviours and conditions that are typical of the prison environment, especially religious seeking, defiance and the need for protection"; and
  • "over-crowding and under-staffing amplify the conditions that lend themselves to radicalisation".[70]

While Michael Spurr disagreed about the effects of overcrowding, he did agree that there is a potential in prisons for "people to be manipulated because they are vulnerable" and that the risk was exacerbated if people's negative perceptions of society were reinforced while in prison.[71]

36. However, it is difficult to judge the extent to which radicalisation in prisons a) is genuine and b) endures beyond release. Staff at Belmarsh believed that extremist views were widely disseminated but found it hard to know how far they were adopted.[72] The Home Office noted that "the formation of temporary and opportunistic alliances between offenders is a commonly observed behaviour in prisons, and not necessarily indicative of radicalisation"[73] and this was repeated to us in conversations with prison staff. There are frequently-cited examples of prisoners who became terrorists, such as the shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who spent time in Feltham Young Offenders Institution, in which it is in fact unclear whether radicalisation actually took place in custody.[74]

Other fora

37. In most of the fora we examined, the evidence as to whether there was a real problem with radicalisation seemed ambiguous at best. Charles Farr told us that:

Most radicalisation does not take place in fora at all; it takes place in private premises, simply because the people who are doing the radicalising are now much more aware of the activities that we are conducting, which you are investigating, than was the case two or three years ago when, as they saw it, it was much more possible to conduct radicalisation in the margins of religious institutions: mosques, madrassas, and others.[75]

There was one further forum which came to our attention where radicalisation appeared to be a particular risk, although we were not able to explore it fully. According to Alyas Karmani, in cities, gang members are another critically vulnerable group because of the significant numbers of converts in gangs and the kind of ideology prevalent within these groups. [76]

38. As with the scale and drivers of radicalisation, it proved difficult for us to gain a clear understanding of where violent radicalisation takes place. In terms of the four sectors we explored—universities, prisons, religious institutions and the internet—we conclude that religious institutions are not a major cause for concern but that the internet does play a role in violent radicalisation, although a level of face-to-face interaction is also usually required. The role of prisons and universities was less obvious. Much of the uncertainty relates to the fact that a number of convicted terrorists have attended prisons and universities, but there is seldom concrete evidence to confirm that this is where they were radicalised. The Home Office told us that violent radicalisation is increasingly taking place in private homes, particularly as the authorities clamp down on radicalisation in more public arenas. Given this, we are concerned that too much focus in the Prevent Strategy is placed on public institutions such as universities, and that it may be more accurate, and less inflammatory, to describe them as places where radicalisation "may best be identified". We consider that the emphasis on the role of universities by government departments is now disproportionate.

39. One further issue that came to our attention was that there may be a particular risk of radicalisation linked to membership of some criminal gangs, of which there is no mention in the Prevent Strategy. Given the fact that elsewhere some terrorist organisations appear to have identified recruitment to gangs within prison as providing an opportunity for radicalisation, we suggest that the authorities should be alert to the potential for a future threat in this area. We recommend that the Government commission a piece of research to explore these issues in more detail.

49   HM Government, Prevent Strategy, June 2011, paras 10.61, 10.66 Back

50   Ev 106 Back

51   Ev 109, Ev 112 Back

52   Home Office Occasional Paper 98, Understanding vulnerability and resilience in individuals to the influence of AQ violent extremism, November 2011 Back

53   Q 238  Back

54   Qq 239, 245 Back

55   Q 369 Back

56   Q 334 Back

57   Ev 119 Back

58   Q 369 Back

59   Q 302 Back

60   Q 171 Back

61   HM Government, Prevent Strategy, June 2011, paras 10.116-7 Back

62   See, for example, Q 171 [Mr Karmani]; Q 174 [Mr Hassan Shaikh] Back

63   Q 232 Back

64   Ev 91, para 2.19 Back

65   Home Office Occasional Paper 97, Al Qaida-influenced radicalisation: A rapid evidence assessment guided by Situational Action Theory, November 2011 Back

66   Q 193 [Dr Goodwin] Back

67   HM Government, Prevent Strategy, June 2011, para 10.155 Back

68   Qq 266, 269 Back

69   Q 142 [Mr Karmani] Back

70   Peter Neumann, Prison and Terrorism: Radicalisation and De-radicalisation in 15 countries, ICSR, 2010, pp 1-2, 7, 25 Back

71   Q 277 Back

72   Annex B Back

73   Ev 90, para 2.4 Back

74   Peter Neumann, Prison and Terrorism: Radicalisation and De-radicalisation in 15 countries, ICSR, 2010, p 27 Back

75   Q 301 Back

76   Q 181 [Mr Karmani] Back

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Prepared 6 February 2012