A vital element of counter-terrorism strategy is encouraging people to report suspected terrorists. But it isn’t easy to do this if it’s someone you know, a family member or friend. In a new report, CREST Researchers Paul Thomas and Michele Grossman look at the barriers to reporting, and make suggestions as to how these might be overcome.
The first people to suspect or know about someone becoming involved in planning acts of violent extremism, including planned or actual involvement in overseas conflicts, will often be those closest to them: their friends, family and community insiders. However, whilst these ‘intimates’ have a vital role to play against potential terrorist threats and offer a first line of defence, very little is known about what reporting of the potential violent extremist involvement of an ‘intimate’ means for community members. ‘Intimates’ reporting is a critical blind spot in current Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) / Prevent thinking and strategy internationally.
These new findings from our CREST-funded research replicate and develop on a previous Australian study and address this evidential gap in the UK. They also offer directions for policy and practice that can more effectively support and encourage community reporting. The study used qualitative, in-depth interviews based around realistic, hypothetical scenarios with community members (particularly young adults, because of their prominence in terror plots and in travel to Syria) and interviews with front-line professional practitioners (Counter-Terrorism Police personnel, Prevent practitioners and community organisation staff) to investigate barriers and blocks for community members sharing concerns about the involvement on an ‘intimate’ in violent extremism.
Care and concern
A key finding is that community members are primarily motivated by care and concern for their intimate when considering reporting. The gravity of reporting to the police means that most community respondents would only report after a staged process, whereby they first attempt to dissuade the intimate, and also take counsel and guidance from family members, friends and trusted ‘community leaders’. Whilst this ‘community leader’ role was questioned by some female respondents, many community respondents would first share concerns with such a trusted figure.
Some younger respondents would also share concerns with lecturers or teachers, but most were dubious about confiding in a GP or health worker. Community respondents want to report to local police, not CT (counter-terrorism) specialists, and do so by face to face means, so that they could assess how seriously their report was being taken and enable discussion. Telephone hotlines were not seen as appropriate for a non-emergency concern, whilst social media was not trusted on security grounds.
Community reporters also want support and updates after reporting through a feedback loop. Some respondents are unsure how to report, a perspective echoed by professional practitioners, who see national reporting mechanisms as confused and made more difficult by the controversial public image of Prevent.
Rethinking community reporting
First, policy should consider rethinking the tone, content and targeting of social messaging initiatives around community reporting. Counter-terrorism/ Prevent policy and practice can benefit from shifting toward greater recognition that the primary drivers for those considering reporting concerns about an ‘intimate’ will be care and concern for their welfare and the prevention of further harms to both the intimate and others in the wider community and society. Therefore, public messaging and policy practice that emphasises ‘safeguarding’ and ‘health promotion’ messaging in tone and content, rather than a focus on criminality and threat, is likely to be more effective in encouraging community reporting concerning intimates who may be radicalising to violence.
Second, it needs to recognise that sharing concerns with authorities is a staged process. Policy and practice would benefit from applying in greater depth the understanding that a staged process of sharing concerns will be very common for community members. Community intermediaries and conduits thus play an absolutely vital role in the ‘supply chain’ of reporting processes and pathways.
Third, there is a need to localise and personalise the reporting process. A large majority of community respondents expressed a strong preference to report concerns to local police staff through face-to-face interaction. This means foregrounding the role of mainstream neighbourhood policing teams as well as dialogue with and training for mainstream front-line policing personnel to ensure that they are ready and feel equipped to positively engage with reports of concerns when they present.
Fourth, there is a need to develop support mechanisms for reporters. Community respondents want support and guidance, protection, and to be kept informed as far as possible about what is and will be happening through a ‘feedback loop’ that acknowledges them as partners in keeping people and communities safe.
Fifth, there is a need to clarify reporting mechanisms. Strong consideration can be given to developing both an information protocol around reporting processes for communities, and to standardising the information management of reports to enable effective and efficient cross-sharing of information and also follow-up with those who come forward.
The UK ‘Community Reporting Thresholds’ project involved the originator of the Australian study, Professor Michele Grossman at Deakin University, Australia, working with Professor Paul Thomas and his colleagues Dr Shamim Miah and Kris Christmann at the University of Huddersfield.
Read more from the project here.