‘I was radicalised by the far right aged 15’

Posted: 3rd March 2023

Source: BBC News

A former right-wing extremist has described how he was radicalised as a 15-year-old boy in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing.

John said he wanted to speak out as a way of warning other young people, particularly about the dangers posed online.

“It was unbelievably easy as a young teenager to access propaganda and now it’s just as easy – maybe easier,” John told BBC North West Tonight.

Night after night, he said he would sit in his bedroom, scrolling through far-right forums, watching videos and scouring social media until the early hours.

“I was just a very sort of angry, lost teenager,” said John, who comes from a small town in the North West of England.

“For me, it took just one click of joining a forum online before I’d been essentially manipulated to hate Islam.

“It started when I saw a post that said ‘If you think British soldiers shouldn’t be on the streets, share this’.

“I connected to that because someone in my family was a soldier and was struggling.

“I joined a group online and then people started saying it was because we’re sending off billions in foreign aid and helping refugees and there’s nothing left for the soldiers.

“And a naive 15-year-old me believed that and didn’t think to fact-check it.”

John said the Manchester Arena bombing “changed everything” in his mind.

“To see Manchester attacked – a city where I spent a lot of time – really fuelled my anger,” he said.

“I stopped caring who knew about my involvement and moved from mainly speaking online to actively trying to recruit people and sharing propaganda.

“It’s also the point where I started attending demos and meeting people face to face.

“The demos – it was like being behind enemy lines, there was a massive amount of adrenaline.

“You go into a town or city where you know 95% of the people don’t like you – police officers, the far left and the Muslim community.

“I had a couple of close shaves where things could have gone really wrong. Some of the things I said and did cause massive levels of shame.

“And what I put my mum, my friends and family through…”

John’s mum Sarah thought her son was safe because he was at home in his bedroom.

“I live in a little town,” she said. “I never thought we’d be impacted by extremism.

“I thought it only went on in big cities. But I was completely wrong.

“I didn’t know the signs enough to recognise them.

“He’d stay in his room more often but I thought he was being a teenager.

“As far as I knew he was online with his friends, playing games. But it just got progressively worse and I didn’t know what to think.

“I didn’t know if he was being bullied at school, if he had girl trouble…”

Sarah added: “He started quoting passages from the Quran to me and what he was saying about them didn’t make sense.

“Then he came home and told me he’d been to a demo.

“He said the only reason he was telling me was because he’d been detained by the police.”

Sarah said she wanted to find out what – and who – her son was getting involved with for herself.

She said she sat in a bus shelter opposite her son as he took part in one demonstration.

“Within 10 minutes, my world just fell apart,” she said.

“I watched him start marching and singing racial slurs. It hit me like a brick. My whole world came crashing down.”

John’s experiences are far from unique.

In the North West of England alone, there has been a 27% rise in the number of referrals to the government’s counter-terrorism programme, Prevent.

In the year ending March 2022, 145 referrals were adopted as “Channel” cases – meaning the risk of radicalisation was considered serious enough for the individual to require a multi-agency programme of intervention.

John, who now works for the charity Exit Hate which helps people leave far-right groups, says referrals to his organisation had increased hugely.

He said the pandemic lockdowns – with people spending more time at home alone, often online – may provide at least some explanation.

Most referrals for far-right extremism were of males aged 15-20 – people like John.

‘Marginalised and disenfranchised’
Extremism comes in many forms, though, inspired by wildly differing ideologies.

Ismael Lea South has helped people, on the verge of travelling to Syria to join the militant group that called itself the Islamic State, escape the clutches of the hate preachers who radicalised them.

The Manchester-based former rapper delivers workshops in mosques, schools and community centres to help young people stand up to gang crime, extremism and radicalisation.

He believes that while things have improved since the arena bombing – when a small pocket of neighbourhoods in south Manchester produced more than 20 extremists, including bomber Salman Abedi and his brother Hashem – the rise in cases taken on by Prevent is of real concern.

“Between 2015 and 2018, Moss Side and Hulme [in south Manchester] were a big hunting ground for extremists and groomers, especially for people trying to recruit for IS and other related groups,” he said.

“There was a lot of social deprivation and people felt marginalised and disenfranchised.

“The recruiters would approach mosques and offer to volunteer for free – but behind closed doors they were trying to target young people.

“Many of the community leaders had their heads in the sand. But after the arena bombing, those leaders started being proactive.”

Mr Lea South said all the mosques around the Moss Side area were now carrying out youth work and engaging communities.

But “the latest figures for the North West are a big concern – it shows there’s more work to be done.”

He also warned of the growing threat posed by a relatively new form of radicalisation – the ‘incel’ movement.

Short for “involuntary celibate”, Mr Lea South said incels were a “women-hating group that has intersections with the far right, teaching women are lesser than men, are stupid and have no rights and it’s ok to commit violent acts against them.

“This I see as the biggest and fastest growing issue online amongst young people.”

John said the communications technology used by extremist groups had advanced – even within the last five years.

He explained: “When I was involved, a lot of the activity was on mainstream social media.

“It was relatively easy for the police to get access, but now there are more obscure sites where far-right members can operate very easily.

“And with all the virus protection software, it’s so hard to crack into these forums.

“In terms of the possibility of a big-scale terrorist attack in a different setting, the possibility is still very real.

“The far right and faith-based extremists share bomb-making manuals which are, very scarily, easily available.

“It’s just almost a cat-and-mouse game between the authorities and the extremists.”

John said he was eventually reported to Prevent by someone at college, and that the programme had really helped him to reject far-right extremism.

He said he was really worried about others though, and this was the reason for him speaking out.

“I just hope I can play my part in preventing people getting radicalised,” John said.

“I know that people can learn from my story. I can help them not make the daft mistakes that I did and stop them getting arrested and potentially ruining their lives.”

John and Sarah’s real names have been changed.

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