Counter-extremism work in Portsmouth continues after five city men died in Syria

Isil in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad Picture: Reuters
Isil in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad Picture: Reuters
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More than two years ago news of Ifthekar Jaman’s travel to Syria became public knowledge.

As the months and years went on after November 2013, the 23-year-old from Somers Town and four young men died fighting with Isis.

It’s well known that the language and behaviour used in grooming is the same as paedophiles

Insp David Knowles

In Portsmouth, a major effort was launched to battle extremism under the government’s Prevent scheme.

Muslim community leaders spoke out and condemned those who left, while far-right extremists protested outside mosques.

The city remains classed as a second-tier Prevent area, meaning there is a higher risk of radicalism.

The Home Office funds a co-ordinator at the city council to give training to frontline workers to spot signs of extremism as part of safeguarding work.

Thousands of workers have been trained and pupils at schools and colleges have been visited.

But still there are extremists, some who want to travel to Syria, and others with far-right views, including the EDL.

So what is being done to stop this?

When concerns are raised, such people are referred to Prevent – and to Channel, the deradicalisation scheme – in a bid to counter their views.

The News asked Hampshire police and Portsmouth City Council how many people had been referred – but this was refused on security grounds.

But The News understands over the past two years in Hampshire around half of these involved far-right extremism.

In the wider Portsmouth area, the majority of referrals involve men, and there have been animal rights, Sikh, Christian and Hindu extremism, along with far-right and Islamist.

The city has a history of far-right extremism with Combat 18 and the BNP both having been active.

Inspector David Knowles, Prevent lead for Hampshire police, says people are ‘groomed’ for extremism.

‘If there’s an ongoing concern it’s then referred on to my team to make some activity around it,’ he says.

‘We’re not a team that arrests, we’re the ones that go in and try to counter someone’s viewpoints so there’s no need to arrest them.

‘Generally speaking if someone is vulnerable to influence they could be radicalised through using drugs, for sex.

‘It’s well known that the language and behaviour used in grooming is the same as paedophiles.’

The challenge of detecting and countering extremist views is great.

Nationally in 2013/14 there were 1,281 Channel referrals, up from 748 in 2012/13 and from five in 2006/07.

Not all people are assessed as being vulnerable to extremism.

But the threat in Portsmouth, and elsewhere, is that one form can spark the other.

Back in 2013 when Ifthekar Jaman made international headlines after appearing on BBC Newsnight claiming ‘I am ISIS’, there was huge focus on Portsmouth.

Insp Knowles adds: ‘You had the potential for the right-wing to move in – and say “we can’t have that in Portsmouth”.

‘And that’s exactly what did happen the EDL were doing marches, there was a rise in hate crime – but there were incidents of white men running into the mosque and urinating on the shoes in the doorway.

‘The sort of thing that would create what I would call a spiral of hate.

‘You had non-radicalised Muslims being the victims of hate crimes, and they were thinking “I’m Muslim, I’m British who are they to do that to me” and that causes an element of radicalisation amongst themselves so they’re more likely to become drawn to extremism.

‘That was the picture in winter 2013/14.’

But Insp Knowles and his team went into schools and colleges to give young people critical thinking skills.

He adds: ‘For that six months after those lessons, Portsmouth went down in the hate crime statistics.

‘Sadly it’s gone back up again, across the whole of south England.

‘Portsmouth is slightly below the national trend.’

Challenging extreme views and spotting the signs

THERE is a fine line between preventing extremism and having to arrest someone.

When a young person shows an interest in extremist views – perhaps by sharing beheading videos – that can be referred as a safeguarding issue by a teacher.

It is dealt with in the same way as any other fears that a child is being neglected or abused. Portsmouth City Council’s Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) will meet and bring in Prevent.

Social workers, the police and others look into what is going on, along with the chair of the Channel panel, who will decide if the person needs work challenging their view.

‘Is this person an offender? In which case the police take it back and give it to our investigations team,’ says Insp David Knowles.

‘Or have we got what we thought we had, a vulnerable person who needs a bit of support and direction?’

Key to this is training to spot signs of extremism.

Since July last year, school and childcare workers are required to be Prevent trained. Charlie Pericleous is Prevent co-ordinator at Portsmouth City Council.

He said: ‘In Portsmouth we’ve done really well in terms of training. Last year alone we’ve trained about 1,500 workers just since April. ‘It’s a challenge as there’s quite a high turnover.

‘Prevent duty requires organisations to have training. It’s not too much of an ask to say frontline workers should have awareness.’

‘Our door is always open’

MONTHS of hard work is put in to turning someone away from violent extremism.

Channel is a consensual process, meaning the person has to agree to take part.

‘Sometimes that can be a stumbling block, because if you’ve been radicalised and want to go to Syria... you’re going to say no,’ Insp David Knowles explains.

But if they do consent then it means they can be deterred from committing crimes.

He adds they will aim the scheme at their interests.

He says: ‘It might be sport, so we might introduce them to a mentor, or with coping skills, or other areas to try and widen their horizons so they realise joining Isis might not be the best thing for their life.

‘In more than half the cases we get there are mental health or learning difficulties cross-over. It might be they’re on the autistic spectrum or have a background of depression.

‘We make sure we get the right resources.

‘In the cases I can think of in the last couple of years there’s been a successful outcome.

‘It can take six months, it can take 12 months – I think the lengthiest case we’ve had was 18 months before we exited them from Channel.

‘Our door is always open. In fact some of the cases we exited some time ago have come back and said they’d really enjoyed the work.’

But he adds that if people do not take part and do commit a crime there is no chance to turn back.

Bullying in the classroom led to the Syrian border

A TEENAGE girl was bullied into leaving for Syria.

Inspector David Knowles told how the girl – who is not from Portsmouth – was bullied at school and ultimately travelled to the war-torn country.

He said: ‘She’s Muslim, her heritage is the north Africa, Morocco, area.

‘She went to a school mainly white, she didn’t wear any head-covering.

‘Because of what’s happening in the world she was being called nasty names, things like “you’re a terrorist, you’re Bin Laden”.

‘She laughed them off, what else could she do? But it actually made her think “who are these people?”.

‘It made her identify even more as a Muslim, she was going home online and on to Facebook and ended up liking a page Isis had created.

‘She didn’t support it but was looking at it – the next day she was wearing a hijab and as a result was being called other nasty names.’

That night she went home and had proposals from men in Syria asking her to come.

Insp Knowles said: ‘Within a fortnight she’d stolen money from her parents and gone to Syria. Thankfully she was saved from going over the border and she’s safe.

‘I asked her what could’ve stopped her – she blamed her school. She said the teachers should have seen the change in her behaviour, they should’ve taught her the dangers of the internet and thirdly, they should have dealt with her bullying.’