The foot soldiers of deradicalisation

BBC News/November 3, 2014

By Emily Buchanan

How do communities tackle radicalisation that targets their young people? A youth centre in Walthamstow, London is reaching out to disillusioned Muslim teenagers with simple yet effective ideas.

At dusk two local community workers trudge the streets of Waltham Forest looking for young people. But this is no ordinary youth outreach.

They are searching for those most at risk of becoming radicalised. This part of north-east London has one of the biggest Muslim communities in the country and some radical preachers are based here.

On this particular night, Maxwell, a Christian, and Ali, a Muslim who was once involved in an extremist group, joined forces on the streets.

They soon found a group of teenagers in the park and drafted them into a game of basketball.

Maxwell and Ali are in their twenties. They can empathise with the teenagers and even give advice on upcoming exams. It is this relationship, they think, that gets the young men and women into the youth centre where they can then help them turn away from extremism.

The youth centre, which targets a very specific problem, is called the Active Change Foundation (ACF) and is available to everyone.

Maxwell explains that the youngsters "won't immediately own up" if they have sympathy for groups like Islamic State.

But he says: "When we get them to the youth centre we find out more about them."

The ACF is small, just a few rooms on a corner next to a mosque. In 2006, just three years after its formation, it was almost forced to close - before the Home Office stepped in to help.
Orbit of radicals

Ali - not his real name - described how he had once been attracted to an extremist group when he had been new to London, without friends or family.

"The group was like a brotherhood," he said. "We would go to the restaurant and eat. I thought 'they are nice people'."

Then the founder of ACF, Hanif Qadir, approached him and started to explain a different interpretation of Islam.

Now Ali is desperate to save others from falling into the orbit of the radicals.

"They don't tell the truth...and they say 'you do jihad' or whatever, why don't they go themselves?"

Back at the ACF there is a large communal room with pool tables and computer games. The centre offers members entertainment and companionship - in exchange they must attend classes to learn more about Islam.

Hanif Qadir, a former extremist, believes that radicalisation of young people is a bigger problem than ever before. He says many young Muslims are understandably distressed at the humanitarian crisis in Syria and believe passionately in the battle to set up Islamic State's caliphate.

But in his classes, Hanif teaches that in the history of Islam, extremist groups are nothing new and are condemned by Mohammed, the founder of the faith.

"We've been warned by our prophet many times that wherever you find them, cut them off. If he was around he would seek to destroy them because they are a cancer within the religion," he says.

Hanif uses social media to rally Muslims to condemn IS. He is convinced that the vast majority of Muslims are against the radicals.

He also believes that those jihadis returning from Syria who are disillusioned with the violence should not be criminalised.

He thinks they could become the most powerful and effective advocates to protect vulnerable young people.

It is impossible to know exactly how many have avoided the lure of extremist ideology due to the work of Active Change. But the workers there believe they are on the frontline of a battle for hearts and minds, and they believe they have the best tactics to win.

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