Sunday Times: Police turn 1,000 Muslims away from terrorism

Deradicalisation programme 'the Channel Project' was set up to prevent young Muslims being groomed by Al-Qaeda

Sir Norman Bettison said the project had a rocky start (Bethany Clarke)

More than 1,000 Muslims, including teenagers and children as young as seven, have been identified as being “at risk” of becoming Islamist terrorists in Britain, police have revealed.

The youngsters include a boy who told classmates he wanted “to go to Iraq and kill Americans” and another child who wrote in an exercise book: “I want to be a suicide bomber.” A 15-year-old white boy who converted to Islam said he was prepared to die for his religion.

The 1,000 cases were all referred for monitoring under a special “deradicalisation programme” called the “channel project”, set up by police, schools and social workers. Their numbers have increased dramatically in recent months, with 500 reported in the past year.

The scale of the problem has been disclosed by the country’s top counterterrorism officers as ministers prepare next month to place the use of the internet by extremists at the heart of changes to government policy.

The programme has been criticised by civil liberties groups and some Muslims for its “Big Brother” approach. It was set up in the wake of the July 7 attacks to prevent young Muslims being groomed by Al-Qaeda.

After the 2005 attacks, police discovered that the youngest of the four suicide bombers, Hasib Hussain, 18, whose bomb killed 13 people on a bus in Russell Square, central London, might have been stopped from becoming a terrorist.

At the age of 15, Hussain had been seen to have written comments in his exercise books saying that he wanted to join Al-Qaeda. Nothing was done to challenge his behaviour. In an effort to tackle such problems, the then Labour government set up a terrorism prevention programme.

But police were accused of trying to recruit schoolteachers to spy on pupils in the classroom. After the election, coalition ministers decided to revamp the strategy. The new policy will centre on the exploitation of the internet by extremists for radicalisation and recruitment.

Officers say Al-Qaeda uses “sexy and attractive” websites, often with rap music and glossy pictures.

Under the programme, youngsters showing warning signs, such as expressing violent views and adopting traditional Muslim dress, are monitored by the police, parents and teachers.

Sir Norman Bettison, chief constable of West Yorkshire, said an “acceleration” in the number of cases referred reflected the growing willingness of Muslims to co-operate.

“I would not pretend that there have not been mistakes. [But] I knew that the picture, generally, was much more positive. For example, over 1,000 people have been identified under the channel scheme and interventions have been targeted on these individuals. The overwhelming majority of these cases have been made by teachers, faith leaders, youth workers or even parents.”

Bettison pointed to a report out tomorrow by Professor Martin Innes of Cardiff University showing that Britain’s 2.8m Muslims had a higher level of trust and confidence in the police than did the general population.

“The programme has had a bit of a rocky beginning. But it is now beginning to bear fruit. In its review the government should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Bettison.

David Leppard

Published: 10 April 2011