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  • Elliot Grainger

Preventing radicalisation in a time of pandemic

Economic uncertainty and a sense of injustice are two frequent underlying causes of radicalisation, let alone panic and fear. How the government responds, and the narrative it builds now will have repercussions on national security in the long run - if they don’t get it right - and much of that comes down to how people feel about themselves and the world around them.

We are all now living an "unprecedented" health crisis. However, the emerging "unprecedented" economic crisis is highlighting that what started as a health crisis, does not stay that way, growing to touch all areas of society. Looking at the panic and fear that manifest itself in the supermarkets at the start, and the struggle as we are asked to “social distance” the social crisis is still yet to be understood - however well behaved we may continue to be.

Having worked in counter-extremism for the best part of the last decade, the area the government continually struggles to keep up with is prevention – although with valiant efforts constantly being attempted. Tobias Ellwood MP was right at the outset of the crisis to raise the spectre of terrorists exploiting the situation, and whilst ISIS may have advised against all travel to Europe, we know that many of those seeking to do us harm are actually home grown. As we grapple with the health and economic crisis, we need to keep an eye on the effects of all this in the long term; what could happen next? What issues are the required policy, essential to tackling the crisis, going to cause?  

Modelling of future trends is the epidemiological science of the day. However, unlike epidemiology, tracking radicalisation trends is a little more of an art than a science. Two people with similar backgrounds, beliefs and behaviours, can see one becomes a local entrepreneur the other a local extremist group leader or travelling to foreign wars – there is no ‘profile'. But there are drivers and indicators of concern.

The emotions someone feels about the world and their place within it, how they make sense of the challenges around them, makes them more or less resilient to the appeal of the extremist narrative. Two particular emotions will inevitably come to the fore in the coming months, the senses of economic and social injustice – that sense of being left behind at the expense of others.   There is an imperative to be aware of this now, not just when it becomes apparent later on. We know that all extremist groups, political and religious, are finding ways to propose powerful narratives that twist the way some people frame this crisis. They are now moving on to mould the government response (or perceived failings in response), and how people feel about it to feed-off it, to promote the narratives they need to survive and thrive. This is made even easier by such feelings being felt at large within society, not just in smaller community niches.

We can be sure in the next twelve months there will be many perceived injustices – even if the government were to get everything right. People will want someone to blame.  If we do not recognise that need to justify the shattered lives, lost jobs and financial strife, it will not be seen as a result of an unprecedented crisis, a natural virus, but the fault of our society, our government or varying lists of “others” to fulfil the narratives the extremists want to build. This is something we were already seeing in these early days of the virus, with spikes in hate crime towards people of far-eastern heritage in narratives and reality

Our current crisis is all consuming. Whilst the country is in lock down, it is hard to focus on national security or anything beyond saving the immediate lives and livelihoods and keeping society together. But, as with all elements of prevention, government cannot take their eyes off the ball and wait for it to be a problem. More than ever, the government needs to ensure that the support it offers, and equally importantly the narrative it builds, thinks not just about the solution it solves now - but also to ensure it prevents problems down the line. To do that, the government needs to pay more attention to how its response is making people see the world around them and shape that perception. If they don't, others will.

The article was originally posted on Linkedin.

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