Encouraging community members to share information about someone they’re close to becoming involved in terrorism remains a key challenge of counter-terrorism. But how much harder is this challenge in light of Coronavirus?

Health policy responses to Coronavirus are relying significantly on information-sharing by the public.

The early stages of the lockdown saw a rise in the willingness of citizens to report those they observed not following the rules, but these were often ‘bystander’ reports of neighbours or people out in public, rather than reporting from family members or close friends, who we term ‘intimates’.

In contrast, ‘test and trace’ relies critically on citizens being willing to share details of the ‘intimates’ they’ve had close contact with, as well as share their movements through government-sponsored phone apps.

Terrorism research identifies that the ‘intimates’ of terrorist plotters – their families, partners, children or close friends – are often aware that something may be wrong through ‘broadcasting intent’ or ‘leakage’ by the plotter. Yet, many fail to report their concerns to the authorities.

This failure can stem from:

  • a lack of confidence in their interpretation of what they are seeing
  • fear of the implications for themselves and the intimate
  • a lack of understanding of how to report.

All this can be compounded by individual or community misgivings about whether to place trust in the state and its fairness.

Our 2017 study built on groundbreaking Australian research to identify the barriers to community reporting of terrorist involvement, and how this sharing can be encouraged through the ‘staged process’ of information and help-seeking that community members will engage in before taking the momentous step of formally reporting to authorities.

Our study showed that whilst most people in the UK would consider sharing this type of information, improvements to the channels and models used for community reporting could be made.

These findings have subsequently helped the UK’s National Counter-Terrorism Policing (CTP) to plan new initiatives to educate, support, guide and encourage community members to share such concerns – to be launched in September 2020.

Coronavirus has impacted on the broader sharing of concerns about people involved in extremism in the UK

It’s clear that Coronavirus has impacted on the broader sharing of concerns about people involved in extremism in the UK. A month after the UK’s lockdown started, media articles highlighted a significant 50% decline in referrals to Prevent Strategy’s ‘Channel’ process of anti-extremism assessment and mentoring.

CTP’s lead on Prevent, Chief Superintendent Nik Adams, identified the closure of schools, colleges and youth centres as central to this sharp decline, due to the disruption of referrals by education and welfare professionals, as their contact with members of the public contracted.

This decline highlights the unbalanced reality of referrals via the UK’s Prevent Strategy at the moment. From the 2015 introduction of the Prevent duty onwards, education and welfare professionals have provided the majority of Prevent referrals, with research showing educational professional support for Prevent’s role within broader safeguarding strategies.

By contrast, very few Prevent referrals currently come directly from family and friends, or from figures in the community. This indicates a less effective policy focus to date on how to support and encourage such direct community-sharing of concerns, despite local authority Prevent community-engagement strategies.

The recent suspension of education and welfare services highlights the need for an urgent rebalancing of Prevent’s referral efforts

The recent suspension of education and welfare services highlights the need for an urgent rebalancing of Prevent’s referral efforts at a time when many people are being exposed to extremist messages via social media.

Public health policy messaging around Coronavirus has been made more difficult by the large-scale spread of conspiracy theories, which range from claims that the virus is a hoax to the allegation that it has been engineered by sinister forces.

Extreme right-wing groups, including those committed to violence, are playing a strong role in fermenting these conspiracy theories, alleging that any vaccine is an attempt by internationally powerful elites, such as George Soros or Bill Gates, to control the population and that any vaccine should not be trusted.

The extreme right has also been a key player in anti-lockdown protests in the USA, Australia, Germany and other countries, reinforcing attitudes that are likely to further spread infections.

This deadly combination of vaccine conspiracy theories and refusal to obey social distancing measures is underpinned by a profound lack of trust in the state, propagated by the extreme right and with worrying implications for the prevention of terrorist acts.

Our UK study included a small sub-sample of White young adults who had been exposed to extreme-right activity and who showed a more significant lack of trust in the authorities in comparison to the larger Muslim young adult sample, but this sample was too small to provide clear conclusions.

Nevertheless, this provisional research finding arguably reflects broader feelings in sections of economically disadvantaged White communities that the state favours ethnic minorities and thereby disadvantages ‘left-behind’ White communities.

We are now exploring this possible distrust of the state and police amongst White-majority localities and social networks exposed to extreme-right messages and activity through expanded Community Reporting replication and development research studies in both the USA (funded by the National Institute of Justice, with UCLA and University of Illinois, Chicago) and in Canada (funded by Public Safety Canada, with Ryerson University).

Both projects will report later in 2021 and will give us a much clearer picture of how extreme right-influenced attitudes to and trust (or mistrust) in the state may influence willingness to share actual concerns about terrorist involvement by an intimate.