“The main reason I left the far right was because of my mentor’s guidance.” (Jack, former Prevent referral.)
Every year in the UK, Prevent helps hundreds of people leave extremist ideologies behind and walk a safer path. One of the ways in which it does this is through Channel – a voluntary, confidential programme that focuses on providing support to people who are identified as being vulnerable to engaging in terrorism. Nearly 400 individuals received Channel support in 2017/18. What does this support look like in practical terms?
Support provided under Channel is wide-ranging and tailored to the individual. It can include educational help or career advice, dealing with mental or emotional issues, anger management and constructive pursuits. But there is no doubt in my mind that by far the most important and effective element of Channel is mentoring.
We are fortunate to be able to call upon a cadre of mentors, often called ‘intervention providers’. They have undergone a rigorous Home Office application and selection process, and are able to work with Channel referrals on a one-to-one basis and support them however they can. Equipped with experience, knowledge and most crucially, credibility, they are drawn from a range of backgrounds and paired with referrals in order to provide a bespoke mentoring programme.
Our intervention providers include religious scholars, trained Imams, psychologists, counsellors, youth workers and mental health practitioners. Some have worked with gangs, others are former extremists, with direct personal experience of radical right or Islamist-inspired extremism. They know only too well the reality of extremism and can provide a powerful counter-narrative to those on the cusp of political violence.
I recently caught up with a former Channel referral on the radical right, “Jack”, and his intervention provider and they were happy to talk candidly about their experiences of Prevent, and what mentoring looks like in practical terms.
Jack became involved with the radical right in early 2015, primarily through the English Defence League (EDL). He attended demonstrations, joined radical right social media pages, shared propaganda and argued with family and friends. After a couple of years, he had attended a number of EDL and Britain First demos and had created his own radical right Facebook groups that had attracted large numbers of followers. His activities accelerated following the Manchester Arena terror attack in May 2017. He recalls, “being not just in the thick of it, but being on the front line was like a dream come true at the time. ANTIFA were targeting me, news cameras were pointing at me and police were in my face.” He reached a point where he would not leave his house without a face covering of some kind and paranoia seeped in as more people became aware of his activities. Jack’s college referred him to Prevent following offensive comments that he made in class about Muslims and other minority communities.
Although Jack originally saw Channel as an opportunity to spy on behalf of radical right groups, his first meeting with his mentor at a local fast food outlet was a turning point. He said, “From minute one he made it clear that I was in control. He made it clear there was no legal obligation for me to be there. We mainly spoke about common interests to build a trust between us.”
The mentoring process
Extremists often view the world in clear-cut, black and white terms, offering simplistic “them against us” narratives. A common theme of support under Channel therefore revolves around encouraging dialogue, research and critical thinking. As Jack stated, his mentor “really picked apart my far right opinions by getting me to do more research on them. For example, he would ask me to go look up a quote from the Qur’an that I thought was bad and read it in context.”
As the sessions progressed, Jack’s mentor recognised the qualities that he’d put to use within the far right. His natural charisma, organisational abilities, and computer literacy had helped him during his activism but Jack’s mentor encouraged him to use these in a more positive sense. This worked wonders for his confidence and self-esteem. Jack was proud when his mentor assured him “You’re a natural born leader. You’re one of a kind. You have something going for you.”
Jack’s mentor was not a former extremist who had been immersed in a violent world of radical right ideologies. He had previously used sport as a way to engage young people from different backgrounds. In fact, he and Jack bonded over a mutual love of football (although crucially, not the same football teams!)
One of the key reasons why mentoring is so successful is because it is flexible, tailored to an individual referrals’ needs and built on mutual trust. As Jack’s mentor explains, “I was encouraged and at no time has anybody from Prevent tried to interfere with my way of working with people…The most important aspect to my work is that nobody tells me what to say or tries to influence me.”
Extremists often dehumanise “the other” and it is somewhat easier for them to give in to hate when they are part of a gang of like-minded individuals, or sitting behind a keyboard writing anonymous posts. Support under Channel therefore often relies on fostering positive, personal connections with others, whether they are individuals from different faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds, or positive role models like intervention providers. Often, building a rapport and a simple human connection is the key to successful mentoring.
As Jack’s intervention provider said, “Mentoring is listening and trying to help people. It’s not rocket science. It is voluntary and people engage on their terms…I am therefore neutral and am often a broker to other services. I advise the statutory Channel partners what other support could be needed based on the needs of the individual.” Jack said that his mentor “was the only person that ever sat down with me and really spoke about why I thought the way I did, and helped me come to my own conclusion rather than forcing me to come to one.”
Prevent and Channel are aimed at safeguarding people from violent extremism. Jack put it rather more colloquially when he said, “Basically, my mentor helped me remove my head from my a**e.” But the stakes are high. As Jack admitted, “If Prevent didn’t come at the time they did I’d probably be involved with far right leadership or in prison. Whatever the outcome, it wouldn’t have been positive.”
Jack is one of many who have turned their lives around for the better, thanks to Prevent support and Channel mentoring. Relentless criticisms coupled with many myths and misconceptions about Prevent continue to permeate the discourse. But cases like this convince me that Prevent works. For although we seem to be living in an increasingly divided society, facing such challenges as a severe terrorist threat, an emboldened radical right and anti-Muslim hate – speaking to Jack and his mentor proves that extremism can be countered. As an unashamed optimist, this gives me hope for the future.