An insidious “far-right ecosystem” is targeting children in an attempt to radicalize them online, with experts warning that progressively younger school pupils are becoming ensnared in extremist ideologies, a Guardian investigation has found.
Teachers, police officers, academics and community leaders said there was evidence that long periods of unsupervised online access, compounded during Covid lockdowns, were resulting in children and young people across the UK encountering far-right groups in greater numbers than before.
Gaming forums, private chatrooms and slickly produced online leaflets or “study guides” are among the platforms and tactics used to introduce young teenagers to racist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi and involuntary celibate (“incel”) ideas.
“We are detecting cases of very young people ending up on the very far end of the extremist spectrum where they have planned or have even carried out attacks,” warned Julia Ebner, a senior fellow of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).
Det Supt Vicky Washington, who recently retired as national coordinator for the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism programme, said social and physical isolation during the pandemic had created a perfect storm for far-right radicalisation.
“There’s no one path, there’s no one sort of child who’s particularly vulnerable but I would say online, in a variety of ways, it’s something we are seeing more and more of,” Washington said.
Experts are alarmed that while the absolute number is very small, the age profile of those referred and arrested in connection with far-right extremism is getting progressively younger. There have been convictions for children as young as 13 – and in one case concerns about a nine-year-old becoming involved in extremism.
In January, a schoolboy from Darlington became the UK’s youngest person to be convicted of terrorism offences. He was 13 when arrested as part of an investigation into rightwing terrorism and was charged with possessing information useful to a terrorist, namely manuals for making explosives. Before that conviction, the youngest UK terror offender was a 16-year-old from Cornwall who downloaded terrorist manuals, also when aged 13.
According to Home Office figures, terrorism-related arrests for all ideologies have risen, with the largest increase in the under-18 age group, up from 21 to 29, the highest number since records began in 2001. Under-18s now make up 15 % of all terrorism-related arrests.
Last year, Prevent adopted record levels of children and young people into its Channel anti-radicalisation program for rightwing extremism, despite a huge fall in referrals during the pandemic. While the number of referrals dropped by a third, the number of under-15s adopted at Channel – the youngest group – was unchanged at 70.
The concerns come as counter-terrorism officials brace for the publication of a review of the government’s Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy by Sir William Shawcross. A leaked draft of the review, revealed by the Guardian in May, claimed Prevent had become too concerned with far-right extremism at the expense of Islamic extremism.
But Prevent teams working with schools in England say they have seen a significant increase in the number of children and young people referred to them, often by their teachers, over concerns they are being drawn into far-right extremism.
Nick Wilkinson, a former police assistant chief constable who is a senior lead for Prevent in Kent, said: “I can say that we are extremely busy. We saw a large increase in our work over the last year.”
Although the numbers of young people radicalized by the far right remained small, Wilkinson warned: “I was on duty outside the Grand hotel [in Brighton] on 12 October 1984, when the IRA bomb went off. Terrorists only need to be lucky once. What we’re trying to do here is a needle-in-a-haystack job.”
Ken McCallum, the director general of MI5, has warned that teenagers are being swept up in a toxic ideology of “online extremists and echo chambers”. Matt Jukes, Britain’s most senior counterterror officer, said 19 out of 20 children aged under 18 who were arrested last year for terrorism offenses were linked to an extreme rightwing ideology.
Exit Hate, a national charity that supports families affected by far-right extremism, said it was asked to help a nine-year-old boy who was thought to have been recruited by his older brother. Parents were often unaware, or in some cases unconcerned, with many dismissing it as “just online, it’s not real”, said Wilkinson.
In one case, a boy aged 15 from Bootle became radicalized after being befriended by far-right extremists in virtual hangouts connected to the online game Fortnite. He made connections with online personalities, described in court as “professional trolls”, who invited him into private online forums, giving rise to what the judge called “some of the most appalling behavior by a young person I have seen”. He pleaded guilty to racial hatred and possessing terrorist material and was given a 12-month referral order.
Teachers, meanwhile, who are at the forefront of efforts to identify and flag up concerns about children they believe are at risk of being radicalised, are worried they are missing signs as terms and symbols emerge in the fast-changing online space, and feel ill -equipped to challenge pupils over extremist views.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling those who spread views that promote violence and hatred, and that radicalize others. Under the online safety legislation, tech companies will be required to swiftly remove and limit the spread of illegal content or face tough purposes.
“The Prevent program is a vital element of our response. Through partnership with communities, frontline professionals and practitioners, we are working to ensure individuals at risk of radicalization are provided with appropriate interventions.”