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How to de-radicalise an extremist

Angry young men are the greatest security threat the world faces. Why are we so bad at dealing with them—and how could things change?

When I met Adam in early 2016, he told me that he wanted to join the “Muslim army.” He had been watching videos of jihadists training and said that if he didn’t find a job he might sign up. “If I go fight at least I have a life,” he said. “What am I gonna do here?”

Adam had gained notoriety in 2015, when he went on the BBC2 Victoria Derbyshire programme. A young Polish convert to Islam, he appeared with his former mentor, Hanif Qadir, head of the Active Change Foundation (ACF), one of several organisations the government has used to de-radicalise suspected extremists. Qadir told the show that Adam was “on a path to terror,” until he got involved. He said he had taught Adam that he was following the wrong kind of Islam. “We’ve pulled him back from the edge, let’s say,” claimed Qadir, in what was a broadcast- ready advertisement for the government’s approach.

The ACF was employed by the government as part of its Channel programme. Channel is paired with the controversial Prevent strategy, which requires teachers, doctors and social workers to report anyone showing signs of radicalisation. But while Prevent casts a wide speculative net, Channel is supposed to stop genuinely threatening individuals from wanting to commit violence in the first place. This is crucial: time and again the perpetrators of terrorist attacks are later found to have been on such watch-lists. Channel’s task is to intervene before it’s too late.

The government is confident it’s on the right track. Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, published a report in June that reaffirmed his commitment to providing “theological and ideological advice” to anyone drawn to terrorism—a form of faith-based reprogramming Qadir specialised in at the ACF, designed to challenge what Theresa May calls “non-violent extremism.” No one doubts it’s a serious problem: last year, the UK suffered four terrorist attacks, three jihadist and one far-right, which between them killed dozens. A proper de-radicalisation programme could make a real difference. But as I discovered over a year with Adam and Qadir, the BBC show didn’t tell the full story.

In person, Adam was difficult to dislike. He gelled his hair into spikes, as though he were in a 1990s boy band, and beamed at the slightest praise. He often asserted that he was “smart.” But even after going through the ACF’s programme, he still had the makings of a violent extremist. “You’re not scared of me, are you?” he often asked me. Rather than a textbook success, as Qadir claimed, Adam’s story is of a flawed approach to de-radicalisation, which often does much more harm than good.

Adam had converted to Islam when he first came to the UK from Poland aged 19 to work in construction. For him revelation bordered on hallucination. At a party, he blacked out after his drink was spiked with methadone and dreamt a Muslim man was helping him up. Adam’s Muslim workmates gave him some books. “I was young, I wanna try new things,” Adam recalled. So he tried Islam. He found it helpful to be part of a community—there was usually someone at a mosque who could give him a bed for a few nights.

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In Prospect's July issue: Editor of Prospect Tom Clark tackles the major fault lines developing in the Conservative Party over Brexit, arguing that the issue could be one of those few occasions where the Tories can’t overcome a significant challenge. Alongside his lead essay, Andrew Gamble, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, examines why many European parties on the right are struggling and why the continent should be worried. Conservative MP Lee Rowley charts what some of the policy areas that the Tories will have to deal with beyond Brexit if they are to get it right. Elsewhere in the issue: Nabeelah Jaffer tries to answer one of the most difficult questions of our time: how do you de-radicalise an extremist. Using examples from both the UK and Denmark, she argues that the UK model needs more work to be effective; Philip Collins asks why Britain’s towns have fallen by the wayside while its cities have thrived; and Sam Tanenhaus profiles “the real deal-maker” in Donald Trump’s White House, Mike Pompeo, after the Secretary of State oversaw the US-North Korea summit.