Taking our Children – Why Radical Right Extremists Prey on Our Deepest Human Fears

“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”

pafe / Getty Images

These fourteen words have been seared into white supremacist folklore. Coined by David Laine, a member of the white supremacist group The Order, they summarise his 88 Manifesto, itself a redaction of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and present an inevitable extinction of the ‘white race’ unless immediate action is taken. It is a rallying cry to the masses to come together and prevent an existential threat, a call to action for like-minded acolytes.

The 14 Words prey on our darkest fears, implying that our way of life is under threat, and that everything we know will be irrevocably changed and, most insidiously of all, that our children will be the greatest casualties. Exploiting our natural parental instincts in this way serves a dual purpose, it triggers our basest, most primal, protective response and it entraps us with a moral obligation to act.

It is little wonder then, that spreading unfounded fears about our children continues to be a strategy deployed by extremists to this day. Radical right activism has begun to claim that a policy of state-sponsored indoctrination of Islam in non-Muslim children (via the UK’s ‘Prevent’ counter terrorism strategy) is taking place and to imply that it’s engaged in a plot to facilitate, through ignorance or design, the so-called ‘Islamification’ of Britain. Ironically, and in direct contrast, Islamist extremist groups have claimed the polar opposite, that Prevent is in fact trying to remove Islam from children’s lives and suppress its influence in the UK. The absurdity of this dichotomy would be risible if the intentions of these groups weren’t so alarming.

Their attacks on Prevent don’t stop there. It has become commonplace for spurious safeguarding ‘referrals’ to dominate the conversation. Much controversy surrounded the apparent involvement of the Police when a child looked at a UKIP website. In reality, a teacher observed the 14 year old accessing EDL websites during an ICT lesson, and in particular information about how to travel to a planned EDL protest. This was raised with the school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead who rang the local police for advice in the belief that participation in an EDL rally (with its propensity for violence, racism and intimidation) could prove harmful to the pupil. The fact that he also viewed a UKIP page was entirely incidental.

Similarly, Islamist extremist groups have produced a stream of fabricated or embellished referrals, the most (in)famous of which is the case of a child who misspelt terraced house as ‘terrorist house’. This particular fable relies on its audience believing that counter terrorism police would interview a child for poor grammar. In fact, in the same essay the wrote “I hate it when my uncle beats me”, and it was this additional disclosure that led to local (not counter terrorism, not Prevent) police officers to visit him and assure his safety.

To be frank, stories of children being ‘interrogated’ by the Police for making innocent comments only serve to undermine their proponents. It is preposterous to claim that a child’s human rights are breached, or that untold psychological damage is being done to them, when asked by a school’s safeguarding officer to explain why they celebrated the brutal murder of a Muslim worshipper by a right-wing terrorist in Finsbury Park. It would be more shocking if a teacher ignored such disclosures.

If we were to judge the radical right on their ability to undermine Prevent, they have thus far failed spectacularly. But I believe the attacks on Prevent are just a means to an end and that the aim of far-right supporters, and their Islamist extremist counterparts, is to instil fear in their communities and drive a wedge between Government – whose responsibility it is to ensure our children are safe from harm – and the communities themselves. If they can undermine trust between society and the state, they can present their brand of politics as the viable alternative to the current status quo. Of course, such campaigns need cash, so it won’t surprise you to know that these juvenile scare stories are often appended by requests for money.

Looking ahead, my concern is one of escalation. I can envisage that these repeated failures to undermine Prevent will cause them to ramp up their fear-inducing tactics, with the more malignant and mendacious groups claiming that not only are children being ‘indoctrinated’, but that the state is actively taking children away from families for no other reason than for parents holding extreme views.

Recent comments from the former National Lead for Counter Terrorism Policing, Mark Rowley, may fan these particular flames by asking if we should consider treating the children of extremists on a par with the children of paedophiles. It was a rhetorical question from someone who has been immersed in investigations of the country’s most pernicious terrorists, but the media headlines that followed (“Extremists Should Lose Access To Their Children”) were devoid of any nuance and will understandably raise concerns. He is correct insofar as exploitation, coercion and manipulation are tactics in both paedophilia and radicalisation, especially with regard to online grooming, but to equate the two so explicitly would be wrong.

Reassuringly, the courts agree. Despite such hyperbolic language in the media, the bar is set high for any intervention by the state, not least that cases involving radicalisation should be heard in the High Court, the third highest court in the country (with only the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court sitting above it).

Sir James Munby, former President of the Family Division of the High Court of England & Wales, issued comprehensive guidance on ‘Radicalisation Cases in the Family Courts’ in 2015 which reinforces that only exceptional circumstances should invoke a family intervention by the courts. Whatever our concerns about parents who hold extremist views, he makes clear that “….it is the interest of the child that is paramount. This cannot be eclipsed by wider considerations of counter terrorism policy or operations.

The first tool to be applied in such circumstances is a threshold test, and a legal precedent is set here which determines that, “many parents are hypochondriacs, many parents are criminals or benefit cheats, many parents discriminate against ethnic or sexual minorities, many parents support vile political parties or belong to unusual or militant religions. All of these follies are visited upon their children, who may well adopt or “model” them in their own lives but those children could not be removed for those reasons”.

This became particularly relevant in a case involving the child of an EDL supporter in which Sir James Munby stressed, “that membership of an extremist group such as the EDL is not, without more, any basis for care proceedings”.

That is not to say that there haven’t been examples of children being safeguarded by a supervision order, made wards of court or in exceptional cases taken into foster care; but it would be churlish and irresponsible not to recognise that local authorities have been cautious and discerning about the cases they bring before the courts and that judges are adopting a rigorous human rights based analysis of the applications that reach them, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This provides the necessary safeguards, balanced with fundamental human rights, to ensure only the most serious and provably harmful situations can result in the courts taking action.

However, this cautious approach will be lost in the hyperbole and hysteria of the fear-mongers who exploit our limited knowledge of legal complexities. Think back to the arrest of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon for jeopardising a child abuse trial in Sheffield. Despite a comprehensive unpacking of the facts behind the arrest, radical right activists were duped into believing that the state was manipulating the legal system and engaged in stifling free speech and dissent. To put it bluntly, a nuanced blog on intricate legal processes was never going to travel as far as a gratuitous headline such as, “Tommy Robinson Disappears – Free Speech in England is Dead”.

As my CARR colleague, Dr Tamir Bar-On, has already highlighted, it has become increasingly difficult to see a clear line between the radical right and Islamist extremists and the same is true of their tactics; certainly their willful manipulation of human emotions and misrepresentation of facts are near-identical. Call it post-truth, alt-truth or just call it dishonest, those who exploit our most fragile human emotions are modern day snake-oil salesmen. Keeping the UK riddled with the cancer of extremism, they claim the country is stricken with disease and corruption and only their tinctures – political placebos masquerading as cures – can provide the remedy. Hope, optimism and cohesion are their enemy; fear and division are their currency and business is good.

Extremists of all stripes are evolving. They now have their own media platforms, guerilla journalists and cult-like personalities around which they construct a celebrity status. But no matter which form of extremism I consider, I am repeatedly brought back to the doomsday framing of the 88 Manifesto and the 14 Words: the ‘elites’ in charge have failed us, our existence is under threat, we are morally obligated to act and the futures of our children are at stake.

If we cannot reclaim the truth from this polarising fanaticism, then the schism between the state and communities could become irreparable and the underlying ambition of those 14 Words – the call to action – will edge ever closer.

Mr William Baldet is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR, and a Countering Violent Extremism practitioner. For more information, see his profile here:

©William Baldet. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).