One of the enduring expectations of the counter-extremism ‘movement’ (whether governmental, policing, agency, academic, civil society or activist) is that, with sustained and targeted effort, it is both necessary and feasible to eradicate radicalisation and extremism. Massive efforts to such ends have been applied for years by the UK government’s Prevent programme and the EU DARE programme, for example. While the initial focus of such efforts was on Islamic radicalisation, primarily connected with Al Ghaeda and Islamic State, in recent years the growing threat from radical-right extremism has resulted in an almost equal attention to the radical right. However, combatting radicalisation is never easy and there are many stumbling blocks.
This article examines the feasibility of radical-right counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation, reasons for caution and some potential disappointment, as well as some promising approaches.
The Basis and Scope of Counter- and De-radicalisation
Various definitions of radicalisation have been proposed e.g. McCauley and Moskalenko (2008), Trip et al (2019), which share in common the idea of a process of developing extremist beliefs, emotions and behaviours that are supremacist in nature and with an expectation of and planning for intergroup conflict. The essence of de-radicalisation is to persuade at-risk individuals to (a) change for the better those aspects of their world-view, beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions that predispose them to support radical ideology and ideas harmful to others and to society, and especially a predisposition to engage in violent or other extreme manifestations of such ideology, and to (b) change their behaviour accordingly. Rather than compulsion or coercion, the methodology for change is primarily inductive and seeks to replace an individual’s negative hate-filled cognition, assumptions and violence-orientated attitude with a voluntary sense of self-responsibility, tolerance, and relinquishment of violence and negative ideology (EU DARE; Butt and Tuck, 2014).
In my view, the term ‘at-risk individuals’ encompasses not only extremists who have already shown themselves willing to engage in violence, intimidation or coercion to promote their beliefs and values and achieve their ideological and socio-political ends, but also the much larger group of radical-right sympathisers, supporters and activists. Some of the latter may well support extremist ideas and activities but, thus far, they may not have crossed the line into planning them or enacting them.
There is a classification issue here. Many people, including the ‘official’ CARR position (Henderson, 2020), distinguish between the far right and the radical right, whereby the far right are regarded as actual or potential extremists (defined as prepared to support or engage in violence and other anti-democratic methods) while the radical right are defined as those engaging (implicitly if not explicitly) in democracy and not prepared to engage in violence. However, I think this dichotomy is unhelpful in that it ignores the fact that (psychologically) there exists a radical-right continuum ranging from those likely to have the least pathological personalities (e.g. who might vote for UKIP, the Brexit Party, or Reform UK), through more extreme positions of anti-immigrant and ethno-religious supremacism, antagonism and intimidation (e.g. BNP, Britain First, EDL, For Britain – some supporters of these do engage in public disorder and violence), up to proscribed radical-right terrorist groups that engage in violence as a matter of policy (e.g. National Action, Atomwaffen, Scottish Dawn, NS131, System Resistance Network, Feuerkrieg Division). Moreover, it is well known that individuals who may start off joining or supporting non-violent entities such as UKIP may later migrate rightwards to support more extreme entities or even to join terrorist groups. For example, convicted far-right terrorist Dean Morrice, sentenced in June 2021 to 18 years’ jail plus 5 years on licence, boasted that he was “a bit of a fan of Nigel Farage” and had been a paid-up member of UKIP. Ann Marie Waters was a candidate for the UKIP leadership in 2017 yet openly advocated encouraging membership from far-right groups such as BNP and EDL. She also openly described Islam as evil and then quit UKIP to become, with far-right activist Tommy Robinson, co-founder of PEGIDA UK, the UK emulator of the German anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant PEGIDA organisation. Shortly after, she founded a new far-right party For Britain. Indeed, counter-flows also occur whereby those with more extreme affiliations then join less extreme groups, presumably for purposes of making such groups more extreme and not because they themselves have become less extreme. For example, Robinson started off in the far-right BNP, then EDL, then PEGIDA UK, and finally as adviser to Gerard Batten during his anti-Muslim anti-immigrant leadership of UKIP.
Thus, it can be highly misleading to imagine that radical-right supporters fall neatly into two mutually exclusive groups – the ‘real’ radical right who are assumed to be non-violent and democratic, and a far-right out-group of potential or actual extremists who advocate violence including overthrow of representative democracy. In reality, the radical right present a continuum of illiberal world-views and degrees of authoritarianism, within which operates an allied spectrum of self-styled entities ranging from ultra-conservative but non-violent all the way through to terrorists, each with their own shades of ideological and socio-political objectives within the radical-right ‘brand’. There is a considerable fluidity of individual affiliation across this spectrum, both in direction and over time. Moreover, with a simple radical-right/far-right extremist dichotomy, there is a danger (at least in public perception and expectation) that most de-radicalisation attention will be directed at known extremists who have been convicted of terrorism and/or hate crimes, while potentially ignoring the much larger number of others across the radical-right spectrum who present a potential threat of sympathising with, supporting, or even migrating to engage in extremist acts.
As the cases above indicate, there is good reason to be concerned about individuals who currently may be disgruntled ultra-conservative thinkers but who gradually allow their sense of grievance and frustrations at lack of progress towards their radical-right objectives to induce them to adopt a more extreme outlook and preparedness to act on it. In addition, in the last five years, there has been a growing number of far-right terrorism convictions in the UK against teenagers under the age of 18. Some of these began their extremism as early as 13 years of age and, as minors, they cannot be named under UK law. For example, a 16-year-old in Cornwall convicted in February 2021 of twelve terrorism offences began his far-right activities aged 13, first joining the online forum Fascist Forge and later taking a lead role in the far-right Feuerkrieg Division (designated a proscribed terrorist organisation in July 2020) . Rugby teenager Paul Dunleavy aged 17 was convicted of nine counts of terrorism in November 2020 and jailed for 5½ years. He too had been a member of the neo-Nazi Feuerkrieg Division. In June 2021, a 14-year-old from Derbyshire, who had threatened violent attacks on migrants, was convicted of far-right terrorism offences. Also in June 2021, Andrew Dymock aged 24, who had begun his far-right activities when aged 18 or even earlier, was convicted of fifteen terrorism offences and hate crimes. A former National Action member, within six months of the latter being proscribed in 2016, he had formed System Resistance Network, another far-right extremist group proscribed in February 2020 as an alias of National Action. Dymock had also set up Sonnenkrieg Division, also proscribed as a terrorist organisation in February 2020.
Thus, within the scope of counter- and de-radicalisation, attention must not only be focussed on hardened adults who have demonstrated their extremist credentials by way of criminal convictions for terrorism and hate crimes, but also on children who are in danger of falling to the lure of far-right extremism. Without doubt, these two categories demand society’s best efforts to ‘cure’ them, as far as this may be feasible.
Nevertheless, as outlined above, de-radicalisation also needs to be focussed on the large number of potential extremists currently lurking within the ranks of the rest of the radical-right spectrum. It is surely here that prevention would offer a preferable intervention than merely waiting to react and treat actual extremists who have already done bad things. Prevent and other counter- and de-radicalisation programmes make sterling efforts towards prevention as much as towards cure, but what impediments do such programmes face?
There is clear evidence that counter- and de-radicalisation of individuals is feasible, for example contain-and-convert approaches applied by such programmes as those run by Small Steps, Exit UK, Channel, Prevent, and EU DARE. Such programmes are most likely to succeed with individuals who are psychologically amenable. Not only do they require that the individual wants to change their harmful beliefs and predispositions or to resist seductive attractiveness of far-right salvationist ideology and propaganda, but they also require a psychological profile that is amenable to such change or resistance.
Not all potential candidates for such programmes are psychologically amenable. Among those unlikely to be amenable are individuals exhibiting signs of pathological personality disorders (e.g. narcissism, psychopathy) or other mental health conditions (e.g. paranoid delusions) relevant to their extremist views and conduct. Those having deep-seated or bigoted far-right beliefs are unlikely to want to change them. There may be better prospects among those suffering from anti-social personality disorders, if their condition is deemed to be acquired/learned rather than partly genetic in origin (unlike psychopaths) and therefore in theory harmful outlooks and behaviours may be replaced by better ones.
Small Steps report that autism is an increasingly prevalent factor among its referrals, with a 30% increase from April 2020 to end of March 2021. It is important to note that not all radicalised candidates nor those at the threshold suffer from mental disorders or illness, but a majority do have conditions and personality issues that render them susceptible to far-right propaganda and subversion. However, psychologists involved in de-radicalisation programmes among extremist offenders have confirmed the difficulties all such programmes face and that there is no certainty that convicted terrorists can be cured (Casciani, 2020 et al; Brader, 2020; Dean et al, 2018). It is difficult to imagine some of the more notorious far-right extremists convicted of murderous terrorism offences (e.g. Jack Renshaw, Thomas Mair, Darren Osborne, Anders Behring Breivik, and Brenton Tarrant) ever being judged psychologically suitable for de-radicalisation.
Another issue is authoritarian reductionism (Waring, 2021a, 61-64). The overall radical-right spectrum as defined here is characterised by reductionist thinking and by its products e.g. policies, propaganda, and strategies based on falsification of data and deliberate over-simplification of cause-effect relationships, with the aim of scapegoating rivals, ethno-religious minorities, and other vulnerable groups for all manner of alleged societal ills. A major reason why radical-right ideology is so dangerous is its over-arching reductionism, mendacity and authoritarianism, which together create a seductive illusion of guaranteed salvation.
A recent study by Zmigrod et al (2021) suggests that ideological attitudes such as authoritarian, reductionist and dogmatic thinking have a cognitive biological basis whereby exponents have an innate inability to tackle complex cognitive tasks. For them, reductionism is a necessity for reducing uncertainty and feeling in control, correlating with dogmatic and authoritarian attitudes and statements. For those at risk of radicalisation, the attractiveness of radical-right ideology, however extreme, is its offer of easy salvation (personal as well as societal) involving the thorough cleansing of an allegedly rotten society, and all based on its dogmatic over-simplified explanation of the causes of the alleged rot and its sure-fire proposed solution. If the findings of this study are found to hold true for the whole radical-right spectrum, it could have negative implications for counter- and de-radicalisation programmes, as subjects may prefer the comfort of simplified cause-effect models built into radical-right ideology and actions. Their wanting to change may be innately attenuated.
A further complicating factor is that of duplicity by individuals referred to de-radicalisation programmes. There is evidence that some individuals assert that they want to change and have been very adept at acting convincingly over long periods as if they have indeed changed while, in fact, still retaining their extremist views and intentions. The case of convicted terrorist Usman Khan is illustrative. Khan had a long history of engagement with Al Qaeda-linked proselytising groups in the UK during his late teens, before being convicted in 2012 for preparing terrorist acts and sentenced to an indeterminate term of a minimum of 8 years imprisonment. While in prison, he participated in two compulsory de-radicalisation programmes – the Healthy Identification Programme (HII) and the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP) (Brader, 2020; Dean, 2013) – and a Learning Together rehabilitation programme run by academics at Cambridge University. He was released from prison on licence in 2018. He was deemed to have de-radicalised so successfully that he became a key role model for such interventions and took part in a Learning Together project video. In 2019, he was invited to participate in a Learning Together reunion at Fishmonger’s Hall in London. While initially behaving cordially towards his hosts at this reunion, he suddenly produced a knife and fatally stabbed two of his erstwhile Learning Together colleagues and wounding three others before being challenged and chased by other attendees. Finally cornered and overpowered by them on London Bridge, when police swiftly arrived they discovered that Khan was wearing an apparent suicide vest of explosives (actually fake) and he was immediately shot and fatally wounded by police.
Although the Usman Khan case related to Islamic extremism, there is no reason to suppose that the issue of duplicity would not similarly apply to de-radicalisation of radical-right extremists.
Efficacy of Intervention Strategies
Brader (2020) reported on the difficulties in adequately evaluating such programmes as HII and DPP and noted that, thus far, such evaluations were incomplete. A Home Office evaluative study in 2018 reported that 95% of such programmes were ineffective, and Jonathon Hall QC’s report (2021) casts further doubt on the efficacy of contain-and-convert programmes. The report edited by Bellis & Hardcastle stated that of 7,318 referrals to Prevent in 2017 slightly less than 400, or around 5%, were deemed suitable for intervention support. Despite such gloomy reports, the Small Steps programme (actually run by former far-right activists) has reported a success rate of 86% for the financial year 2020-2021, which suggests that their non-judgemental non-political approach may offer a model for wider application.
The specific case of Usman Khan highlighted three major weaknesses: (1) unrealistically high expectations of success for de-radicalisation programmes, including wishful thinking among programme providers, government and politicians, (2) naivety that hardened, committed extremists would not seek to dupe programme providers into believing that they had permanently rejected their extremist beliefs and violent proclivities, and (3) laxity over threats posed by high-risk violent extremists and poor collaboration and communication between multiple parties responsible for de-radicalisation and rehabilitation. Although cases such as Usman Khan have highlighted considerable weaknesses in the counter- and de-radicalisation system, they are not a valid reason for dismissing it out of hand. All three weaknesses are capable of being tackled, perhaps not eliminated but substantially reduced.
Far- and Extreme-Right Propaganda Channels
The advent of the Internet and social media has transformed the ability of radicals and extremists of all ideological and political persuasions, not only to communicate with and encourage each other but also to subvert and brainwash others en masse into becoming willing recruits to their cause. Online and social media have become their channels of choice for propaganda, proselytising, fake news, false conspiracy theories, and for attacking their enemies and targets of hatred.
For counter- and de-radicalisation programmes, the ‘weaponised’ use of the online world by the far- and extreme right has proven a major headache. Children, teenagers and the younger generation as a whole tend to be enthralled by Facebook, Twitter and other online facilities and so become easy prey to seductive salvationist propaganda of extremists. Vulnerable teenagers with fragile, troubled personalities and a lack of positive alternative goals and programmes are especially susceptible. Counter- and de-radicalisation programmes cannot compete with the relentless volume of extremist material and messaging from online sources.
As noted in many reports (e.g. Waring, 2021a, 455-460), online and social media platform providers as commercial opportunists remain very reluctant to self-regulate by removing harmful content put up by criminals, paedophiles and extremists. Facebook and Google together earn over US$200 billion per annum, which includes revenues from allowing such content. Perhaps only severe penalties amounting to at least 10% of revenues and/or jail sentences for offending executives will force them to self-regulate.
Despite government funding of such major programmes as Prevent, HII and DDP, and DARE, funding adequacy of all programmes, whether state-funded or not, is likely to be a continuing issue. Even where programmes are an integral part of government policy, this fact alone does not guarantee that funding will meet the ‘needs analysis’ of professional delivery functions. In addition, if and when a particular programme experiences a setback or a high-profile failure, this will add to the arguments of those who feel that the programme is neither fit-for-purpose nor delivering value for taxpayers’ money and therefore should be modified, curtailed or even stopped.
For those programmes that rely partly or completely on funds from such sources as charitable funds, donations, voluntary work, and self-generated revenue, lack of human resources are likely to be a limiting factor on the scale of their programmes and how many referrals they can handle. For example, as the following table shows, the privately-run Small Steps programme which began in 2015 has grown rapidly since 2018. For the last two financial years, 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, the number of cases (i.e. those needing more than 2 months’ support) rose from 30 to 81 (270%), of which their partners’ input increased 217% for Exit UK and 443% for Exit Family Support. The number of Small Steps engagements (i.e. those needing less than 2 months’ support) rose from 60 to 276 (460%). Staff of these programmes are on-call 24hrs per day, 7 days per week.
Table: Numbers of Referrals to Small Steps and Exit 2018-2021
|Programme||Financial Year 2018-2019||Financial Year 2019-2020||Financial Year 2020-2021|
|Small Steps Cases||11||30||81|
|Small Steps Engagements||–||60||276|
|Exit UK Cases||–||23||50|
|Exit Family Support Cases||–||7||31|
The reported high success rate for Small Steps (86%), with a very small staff, suggests that for society’s benefit a scaling up is warranted so that hundreds of referrals per year can become thousands. Other programmes spread across the country and following the Small Steps model also seem warranted. This would enable prevention and deterrence activity to be far more feasible and effective among susceptible young people heading into radicalisation, as well as those already radicalised who wish to disengage from far-right and extremist ideology.
Corporate funding has a major potential role in the support and scaling up of such programmes. This would most likely come from those organisations having strong corporate social responsibility policies and anti-extremism policies. As discussed in my CARR Insight article of June 2, 2021, a growing number are adopting the ‘new model’, which anticipates their avoidance and rejection of support for any anti-social, discriminatory, racist, predatory, or extremist ideology in all aspects of the corporation – employment, local economies, environmental impact, climate change, community relations, employment rights, human rights etc.
Instead of unrealistic expectations – especially high targets – for programme success, it would be far better to recognize the enormous challenges of counter- and de-radicalisation programmes, e.g. Köhler (2020). Poor psychological suitability of many subjects automatically limits potential success in terms of numbers, and duplicity is an ever-present risk among those who are selected for intervention. Yet, despite such obvious limitations, politicians, government circles and the media may hold such programmes to an unrealistically high ‘success bar’. Political and media censure over failure to meet unachievable ‘action’ and ‘cure’ targets, may unwittingly encourage populist reactive demands for draconian ‘contain-and-punish’ treatment of all such offenders, and even the abandonment of such programmes.
While contain-and-convert approaches are clearly the most appropriate route for prevention and counter-radicalisation among the broad spectrum of the radical right, as I have noted elsewhere (Waring, 2021, 498), “such….efforts are unlikely to persuade the majority of hard-core far-right activists to recant, de-radicalize, and convert to moderate attitudes and behaviour. For these, perhaps realistically only a combination of containment and punishment is possible”. However, these hard-core fanatics and extremists are at one end of the radical-right spectrum, are relatively small in number, and only a proportion of them will be amenable to de-radicalisation. The rest of the spectrum requires a different strategy, based on deterrence, prevention, containment and conversion. Financial investment is required to substantially increase the scale and resources for proven models and programmes.
Dr Alan Waring is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and is a retired risk analyst and former Visiting Professor, now Adjunct Professor, at CERIDES (Centre for Risk and Decision Sciences) at the European University Cyprus. He is author of several books on risk, including editing and contributing to the three-volume anthology The New Authoritarianism (2018; 2019; 2021 Ibidem Verlag). See full profile here.
© Alan Waring. 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).