The killing of US journalist James Foley and the involvement of a suspected British jihadist has thrown the spotlight yet again on the radicalisation of young Muslims in the UK who have gone to fight with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. This in turn inevitably raises the question of how many of these Britons are students.
Ghaffar Hussain, managing director of the anti-extremism thinktank the Quilliam Foundation, said that it was too early to know the full extent of British students fighting in Syria and Iraq, but it was likely that some were involved. “The demographic of those going to fight overseas is 18 to 25, so it is conceivable that a number of these are at universities in the UK,” he said.
If this is confirmed, it is likely to bring a renewed focus on whether universities and the police should interact more to spot radicalised students – a debate that has caused friction in recent years.
On the issue of tackling extremism, universities face the difficult challenge of protecting two often conflicting freedoms: the freedom of expression and the freedom from harm. The Education Act 1986 requires universities to promote free speech, but it also sets out a duty to protect students from harm. When implemented in the higher education sector, the “Prevent” strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy has proven particularly controversial for these reasons.
In 2012, the Association of Chief Police Officers issued guidance to officers on making the distinction between what is and is not acceptable radicalism in its paper Prevent, Police and Universities. “What may become illegal is when a student takes a step further and considers violence to progress an extreme view: someone with a violent ideology may have the potential to kill, injure or promote others to act in this way,” the document says.
However, it is often difficult to determine “when” a person becomes radicalised in this way, as highlighted by recent high-profile terrorism cases involving former students.
For example, Roshonara Choudhry, who tried to kill the MP Stephen Timms in May 2010 because he had voted in favour of the Iraq war, had been in her final year at King’s College London until shortly before the attack, and there was evidence that during her time as a student she had accessed videos online that helped to radicalise her.
More recently, there was the case of Michael Adebolajo, one of the murderers of soldier Lee Rigby, who was attacked and killed outside his Woolwich barracks last year. Adebolajo studied sociology at the University of Greenwich between 2003 and 2005 but “dropped out” before finishing. From a Christian background, he converted to Islam in 2003 and attended meetings of the outlawed Al-Muhajiroun group from around 2005 to 2011. It is not clear what role his attendance at university played in his radicalisation, if any. Greenwich is due to report on the matter later this year following an investigation.
Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, said that there was a need to tread carefully and not brand universities as centres for radicalisation.
“Not every student is a radical, not every radical is an extremist, and not every extremist is a terrorist. But every terrorist is an extremist, a radical, and some of them, alas, have also been students,” he said.
But implementation of Prevent has still proved controversial despite the police and government maintaining that they have allowed for universities’ place as centres for free speech and expression.
The National Union of Students has made clear its support for counter-terrorism but it openly criticised Prevent in April 2012 when it passed two resolutions at its national conference against the strategy, stating that it would “stand in solidarity with those negatively affected by Prevent”.
One of the claims made in the NUS resolution was that students’ unions had been approached by local Prevent officers asking for details about members of Islamic societies. As a result, ACPO and the Police Association of Higher Education Liaison Officers issued briefing notes to police officers expressing regret for such practices and stating that they “would like to work in partnership with [students’ unions] to ensure incidents of this sort are not repeated”.
One note advises that the “careful use of language is a priority to ensure that students’ unions understand the issues in an effort to avoid any confusion”.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills also said that Prevent did not allow asking for lists of Islamic society members from students’ unions.
“Prevent work is designed to minimise the risks of extremism and radicalisation in further education and higher education, and our work would not cover asking for names of individual students attending any student society,” he said.
Matthew Feldman, co-director of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist Studies at Teesside University, said there was disagreement among academics about whether Prevent was actually needed or whether it was just another layer of bureaucracy.
“There are two debates: do existing safeguarding measures provide enough of a basis to tackle extremism and protect staff and students, or is there a need for more policing of campuses,” he said.
The Prevent strategy itself emphasises universities’ responsibilities for tackling extremism, but also suggests that student groups should be involved. “Universities and colleges – and, to some extent, university societies and student groups – have a clear and unambiguous role in helping to safeguard vulnerable young people from radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations,” it says.
Mr Hussain believes that individuals need to take more responsibility to tackle extremism as there is little the government can do.
“Civil society needs to step up to fight extremism. It is socially encouraged to be seen to tackle racism and homophobia, so why isn’t it acceptable to be seen to tackle Islamic extremism in the same way?” he asks.
Despite the tensions surrounding the wording of the Prevent strategy and its implementation, all parties involved do accept that cooperation is needed. However, the strained relations that have emerged between police, students and academics could mean that further changes to counter-terrorism strategies on campuses may not be far away.