20 Aug 2015

Radicalisation at universities

radicalisationThe continuing debate about the impact of extremism and radicalisation at universities and higher education institutions has recently been renewed in the United Kingdom. The passing of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in February 2015, and in particular its section on Preventing People from Being Drawn into Terrorism, provides a statutory duty for ‘specified authorities’ – such as schools, local authorities and prisons – to prevent radicalisation within their establishments. While the original ‘guidance’ included universities, this has been delayed and revised.


The legislation’s introduction has highlighted the inherent tensions facing those involved in higher education internationally, who on the one hand are dedicated to promoting academic freedom, free speech, intellectual curiosity, healthy discussion and critical thinking, while at the same time preventing, restricting – and possibly reporting – extremist, radical and intolerant ideas or behaviour. This difficult balance is further complicated by the fact that not all radical ideas, or indeed radicalisation of an individual, necessarily lead to violence. Healthy academic debate and argument can often prove a powerful counter to extremist ideas.

At an organisational level, while there is a demonstrated concern that extremists can exploit and abuse the freedoms, access, and facilities at universities for their own purposes – promoting intolerance, violence, often having a disproportionate impact on other students – there is also the potential for individual students, particularly those from minority communities, to be incorrectly identified and adversely affected. Additionally, imposing restrictions on radical thoughts, ideas and debate may merely exacerbate the problem, increasing a sense of grievance and discrimination amongst those supporting such ideas – thus increasing their radicalisation. While Islamist extremism is perhaps the most common concern, radicalisation through right-wing extremist ideology, or indeed any other form of extremism is equally a cause for concern.

The examples of Umar Abdulmutallab, the attempted ‘Underpants Bomber’ of 2009, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a Boston Marathon Bomber in April 2013, and Michael Adebolajo, who murdered Army Fusilier Lee Rigby in May 2013 – respectively students from University College London (UCL), the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Greenwich – have evidenced that radicalisation of students can occur off campus by outside groups, individuals or, indeed, online. Consequently, extremist groups may well look to the university campus as a potential recruitment pool.

The original Prevent Duty Guidance mentioned earlier states that “we would expect appropriate members of staff to have an understanding of the factors that make people support terrorist ideologies or engage in terrorist related activity” and that university staff “should have sufficient training to be able to recognise vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism, and be aware of what action to take”. So how can such potentially violent radicalisation be identified? And how do we respond to it in a higher education environment?

Seeing the signs

Perhaps the most effective way for university and higher education staff to identify students vulnerable to extremism and radicalisation is through indicators and signs from the individual students themselves. These can be manifested both in their beliefs, and perhaps more clearly in the outward behaviours that stem from them. In particular, it is important to observe how they react and interact with fellow students. Such indicators may be most easily identified when an individual’s attitude, actions, outlook, and behaviour change significantly and suddenly. These behaviours may include:

• Expressed anger, frustration and outrage at society
• Distancing, disengagement, isolation and segregation from others
• A distrust of society and blame for their circumstances

Many of these attitudes and behaviours are, however, common to students who are becoming politically and socially active, challenging societal norms, and adopting critical thinking. Of more concern are attitudes and behaviours which demonstrate:

• A belief and acceptance of extremist narratives
• Identification and support of such narratives
• A lack of tolerance for the ideas or actions of others
• Attempts to impose these beliefs upon others
A possible ‘bar’ is crossed from radical ideas to actual violent radicalisation when individual students:
• Develop a belief that violence is acceptable and justified
• Attempt to recruit and radicalise others
• Become actively involved with extremist individuals and groups espousing violence

Evidence has shown that some of the individuals who get to this most extreme stage in their beliefs and behaviours either become a threat to domestic security in their own countries, or seek to travel to conflict areas such as Syria and Iraq.

For those working at universities and higher education institutions, much of this identification of extremist beliefs and behaviours is predicated on a good knowledge of individual students and their personalities. The previous examples of Abdulmutallab and Adebolajo demonstrated an element of them ‘slipping through the net’ in relation to a lack of engagement by the university staff and authorities. Consequently, at an individual level, rather than perceiving this role in terms of ‘monitoring’ or ‘control’, it might be more appropriate to consider it in terms of providing effective pastoral care and tutoring to students who are potentially vulnerable to exploitation.

Addressing the issue

At an organisational level, this requires universities to have appropriate mechanisms for counselling, guidance and pastoral care, suitable staff training, welfare programmes and IT policies – both to identify these signs and to respond appropriately.

Ultimately, at its most extreme level, perhaps where an individual has crossed from having radical ideas to espousing and expressing violence, the university will have to contact and work with outside partners, such as social services, local authorities, and the police, through multi-agency forums. Where possible, such efforts should include the family and representatives from the local community of the student. Perhaps most importantly in this process, universities need to provide strong pastoral care for those students vulnerable to such ideological exploitation.

For more information on this issue, visit the Safe campus communities Safe Campus Communities.

Richard Warnes is a member of Boundaries Edge and was recently awarded his doctorate (‘The Significance of Human Factors in Effective Counter-Terrorism’).