Other people and their families have gone through similar experiences. Together with other organisations we’ve supported many of them to choose a different pathway. These are real examples of people we have helped.
John was often in trouble at school for low level disruption and felt he was being left behind. When a friend told him he was going to a right wing group meeting, John went along to support him. He was soon invited to join closed Facebook groups and started sharing extreme right wing posts on social media and attending rallies. After inviting a teacher along to an extremist rally he was referred to the Prevent programme by his college. He was appointed a specialist mentor (also known as an Intervention Provider) who helped increase John’s self-confidence and he realised he wanted to make some changes in his life. With this help and support he was able to move away from extremism.
This is what he would have liked to say to his younger self.
It’s hard for me to write this letter, as there are many things I want to say, to the me that I was back then.
I get that you just wanted to belong, I really do. I know how tough it was to feel like an outsider, not to feel like you fitted in anywhere. You felt like life was going nowhere, no one wanted to know a kid with bad grades and a record of bad behaviour. It seems no one really believed in you or saw your potential. Then someone made you feel heard. A friend who felt just the same as you, who really ‘got’ you. He talked about the reasons things were going wrong, for you, for him, other friends, family. It seemed to make sense. He talked about immigrants, injustice and race. And you listened without questioning. I wish you hadn’t.
Instead, you started to speak just like him and I wish you hadn’t.
You met more new friends online who shared the same views as you. And worse. They lied to you John. They made you feel welcome. You didn’t realise they were just using you. The dangers of extremism wasn’t something you understood, you only began to realise a while later. You felt part of something for the first time in a long time and it felt good. It felt good to be with them, to take part in extremist rallies, to share a voice. It made you feel powerful and gave you a sense of purpose, when before you had nothing and felt you were going nowhere.
Your old friends and family didn’t understand, they didn’t ‘get’ you. I wish you had pressed pause and looked around to see the hurt and upset you were causing then. Now it’s clear how angry you were, and scared. Too scared to choose another path, despite some of the opinions and content not sitting well with you. I wish you had seen how you were beginning not to belong, with those who really did care about you. Who wanted you to lead your best life, not your worst.
Back then, you didn’t know that you could choose your own path, that you didn’t need to follow people you thought had your best interests at heart, but who really were using you for their own agenda. I wish you had realised then, that they didn’t speak for you. They don’t speak for anyone who wants a better world.
You got so far in, you didn’t know how to get back out.
It was scary I know, to turn your back on those preaching hate, those who are just looking to others to blame for things that go wrong in life. But you did it John. I’m proud of you. I’m proud of you for taking up the offer of support and the chance to turn your life around.
And it was hard.
So hard to have your views challenged, to hear some of the facts you had been told by your new ‘friends’ weren’t even true. So hard to no longer belong to a group of people you felt had welcomed you in, online and off.
It took time, but you did it and look how far you’ve come.
Now you are supporting other people who want to escape extremism. And you get them, you know the struggle they are going through.
You never thought you could change people’s lives for the better, but with support you did it and I am proud of the you, that I have now become.
Micheal’s brother Thomas was a normal teenager who enjoyed going to the pub and worked as an electrician. He became interested in Islam at the age of 19 and gradually started to change. He insisted on using his own pans to cook and becoming angry at his mother or brother for watching TV and listening to music. He changed his name and his appearance and lost his apprenticeship after repeatedly expressing extremist views at work. He travelled abroad telling his mother he was going to study Arabic, but the following year called to say he had joined a terrorist group. Shortly after, he was killed which devastated his mother and brother. Read the heart breaking letter Micheal would have liked to write to Thomas.
There are days when I wish I could see your face again, or hear your voice just one more time. But deep down I feel relief that you aren’t here anymore, that you aren’t able to hurt anyone else. I feel bad about thinking this, but then who wouldn’t? I always ask myself if I could have done more to stop you leaving and doing what you did, if I had spoken up sooner could you still be here today?
You were my big brother, growing up I looked up to and admired you, you always had my back and looked after me. Looking back, it seems so strange that by the end I saw you as a stranger when growing up you were my best friend.
Do you remember how inseparable we were growing up? We did everything together, be it playing with toy cars or watching cartoons as children, or spending every night out on BMXs with friends after school when we got older. Life was so carefree.
And then we grew up and it all seemed to be going so wrong. You stepped up to be man of the house when dad left us, you supported me when mum was in hospital, and things didn’t work out with your girlfriend. You were so angry all the time, and mum and I could see you starting to fall in with the wrong crowd.
I could see you were unhappy and, worse, out of control, being brought home in a police car. Drinking too much. I wish I could have fixed things for you, I struggle now because I feel like I’ve let you down, why didn’t I manage to see how much pain and anger you were really feeling inside?
So yeah, since you ask, I felt happy when you seemed to find your faith and a new path, it was like you had found a renewed purpose. I felt like I was getting my brother back again, and you seemed good, happy too. But then things started to change for the worse, you met people who saw you were lost and used it to drag you in so deep that you couldn’t get out, every night at home turned into an argument, it was exhausting.
What were you looking for that we – me, mum, your friends, couldn’t give you?
When did you start listening to these people over us as a family?
What did they say to turn you into someone we no longer recognised? These people weren’t your friends or family. I wish I could have stopped you from thinking they were.
Did you ever stop to think how hard the choices you made would be on me, mum and your friends?
How do you tell people your brother was a terrorist? How do you answer them when they ask you, why you couldn’t be stopped earlier?
I’ve learned to hate hindsight, because looking back I can see all the small changes in you that we knew weren’t right, but by the time we noticed, it was too late. Maybe if I had said something sooner, before these people took hold and dragged you in too deep, you might have listened?
As difficult as it is to say, I am glad you’re gone, but you know I’ll always miss you, and by you I mean the big brother I grew up with, not this person you became.
Jane’s son Cameron is a bright teenager with autism. He doesn’t have any friends, either in school or online and likes to spend time researching topics that interest him. It was during his research that he developed a concerning interest in extreme right wing.
This is her story.
“I felt alone and that I couldn’t ask anyone for advice, it’s not like you would be asking about Minecraft or something.
I knew something was wrong and I felt frightened, nervous like the sand was shifting under my feet. I feel I was naive as I thought it was a passing phase, but you don’t see terrorism or think about terrorism where we live. We live in the countryside and terrorism doesn’t seem real. It felt overwhelming to think about involving the police, I didn’t know what to say. I felt relieved when the school referred my son to Prevent.
The Prevent officer, Sally, has been great. She organised for my son to visit a car manufacturer, as he’s interested in engineering. He’s very bright. He can be obsessive and needs a shift in focus. A new direction, maybe an apprenticeship. I thought she was amazing to do this for him, to redirect him. I am not close to my son, he’s become out of reach. I just want to peel back the layers like an onion. It’s still him inside. It feels like this should be happening far away, but it’s not it’s happening in my home.” Cameron is continuing to work with Prevent officers and he is getting the support he needs to move away from extremism.
Mika’il was struggling with his identity as a Muslim teenager in Britain. He found some radical Islamist teachings online, which made him feel part of a bigger cause.
Mika’il thought those views gave him the direction he had been missing. When Mika’il’s teachers heard him make worrying comments about terrorism in class, they referred him to Prevent. He says “I almost took a wrong turn towards a radical, extremist ideology. These views I was exposed to had the potential to bring harm to others and myself.”
We worked with our partners to find out what kind of support would help Mika’il best and he was offered a specialist mentor. They met weekly, so that Mika’il could talk about his worries and explore the future. Mika’il’s mentor had been in a similar situation, which helped Mika’il feel less judged and more open to discuss his views. He explains “a significant reason why I felt the process I went through worked, was that I was provided with a mentor coupled with excellent support from my school teacher. It meant I had positive influences that overcame the negative ones.” Working with teachers at his school, Mika’il went on to study interfaith reconciliation at university – and is now thinking about a career in counter-extremism. “Having completed the Prevent programme I can truly say that it has benefitted and helped me have a clearer idea about my future.”
Thirteen-year-old Ali was witnessing domestic abuse at home and was feeling bullied and rejected by his peers. Angry and isolated he started to watch extreme violent videos online. A school social worker noticed he had started to draw violent images and asked him more about it. Ali was referred to Prevent and working together with his local authority a comprehensive support package was put in place for Ali and his family. Over time Ali‘s confidence and self-esteem grew and his vulnerability to radicalisation diminished.
Liz faced a period of homelessness after her marriage had broken down due to domestic abuse. Isolated and alone she turned online to find new people to connect with and became involved with an extremist group and made plans to travel abroad to meet them. She failed to raise funds to do this however. Liz was arrested and police found extremist material on her computer. She was offered support through the Prevent programme and was assigned a mentor who worked with Liz and helped her to get her life back on track. This support meant that Liz was diverted away from a pathway towards extremism. She felt confident to learn new skills that could help her get back into work and now has a part time job.
Sixteen-year-old Owen was referred to Prevent by his school for his extreme right wing views. He was assessed and considered at risk of radicalisation. A support package was put in place over the next two years including being assigned a mentor who was able to unpick and challenge the false narratives the extreme right wing groups were using to lure Owen down the wrong path. Owen was also provided with help and support around work placements and is now in a job. He has improved his confidence and personal relationships and is no longer considered vulnerable to radicalisation.
Mustafa's letter to himself
Mustafa was a follower of multiple radical clerics and expressed and promoted extreme views. He is now a spoken word artist working within the non-governmental organisation sector as a trainer, facilitator and creator of counter-extremism expertise.
Mustafa's letter to himself
Letter to my Younger Self
If there was a way
I could have understood
The price of my decisions
When taking them…
These are the things
I’d tell my younger self
You will find
Plenty of reasons
And only a few to have hope in
But those plenty of reasons are
What life finds for you
When others have sinister games
Lined up in their minds
Along with a script
Written for someone like you
You will find true reason
Only when you
Can stand by the mirror
And recognise the face
Staring back at you
You will find the world
Is indeed a lonely place…
You will find plenty of narratives
About a so-called master race
Some of these will turn your blood
Others will give you blood lust
Dressed as righteousness
But these tales are just about
Emotional and social fears
You will find lots of roads
But only one straight path
Everyone will weave a journey
But not one they can travel with you
You will find fake news has been here
From the beginning
You will find trust is hard to build
But easy to break
You will find people don’t mean what they say
But are only too happy to feed you so called truths
Then when you’re facing tough choices
These same scripts and their writers lose their voices
You will find
Compassion does indeed conquer hate
But that hate barks loudest
And sometimes comes dressed as
Brotherhood and duty
You will find nothing is
What it seems
Until you take control
Of your own choices
You will find that
Go on to define you
Others go around and around
Until they bind you
So, make sure you are the one
Checking facts for fiction
And able to tell the
Difference between freedoms
You will find life
Is already extreme enough
You will find peer pressure ain’t nothing
Compared to the pressure
Of learning to be yourself
You will find everything
Has a price
Apart from the conscience
You will find a lot of people championing peace
Through stories of violence
You will find these bars confusing
And then amusing
And then truthful
This is the reality of the days
You will spend
Cos I already have …
I hope you get to see
The power in being
Bigger than the stories
And better than the lies
For if you do, then
This letter can just be fiction
Cos you have found a better calling