SCHOOLCHILDREN as young as 13 are being “groomed” for terrorism by Islamic extremists in the heartland of the 7/7 suicide bombers, according to Britain’s most senior police officer charged with countering radicalisation.
Sir Norman Bettison, chief constable of West Yorkshire, said some bright children entering secondary school were picking up extremist messages from internet chat rooms and people who wanted to turn them into terrorists.
His force has now identified at least 10 youngsters – including two 13-year-olds – as “vulnerable” and formally referred them to a programme to wean them away from radicalism.
Bettison’s officers, who cover the areas where Mohammad Sidique Khan and his three fellow bombers grew up, approached their parents to offer them help and the chance to put them through the voluntary programme after becoming increasingly worried by the direction they were taking.
Bettison, responsible for developing a national strategy aimed at preventing Islamic radicalisation, said: “We are talking about children who have just entered senior school.
“They are not picking up the message of violent extremism from the mosques but from individuals who are seeking to radicalise them. It’s the bright kids who are the ones that might be most vulnerable.”
The “channel programme” that Bettison has begun involves a team of five full-time community field officers working among West Yorkshire’s 225,000 Muslims to identify those being preyed upon by radicals.
Officers talk to schools, social services and Muslim groups. They are looking for children who show an obsessive interest in violent jihadist material, on the internet or in bookshops.
Since the programme began four months ago they have identified people aged between 13 and 27 to put through the antiradicalisation programme.
The majority of these are believed to be schoolchildren who have shown vulnerability to extremist behaviour. A spokeswoman for the force said the two 13-year-olds were a Muslim boy and a white youngster identified as having extreme right-wing tendencies.
The programmes involved talking to parents and inviting the young people to join in activities such as youth football schemes run by Bradford City football club, table tennis and classes in citizenship and confidence-building.
Police say that future courses could include taking participants to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland to learn about the Holocaust.
Bettison said the radicalisers were among the 2,000 suspected terrorists who were being monitored by police and MI5.
He added: “We need to do more to stop people from taking those first steps into the world of violent extremism.”
There is growing concern among counter-terrorism officials that Islamic extremists are trying to recruit children at an ever younger age.
In November, Jonathan Evans, director-general of MI5, said Islamic extremists had tried to recruit children as young as 15. “They are radicalising, indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism. This year we have seen individuals as young as 15 and 16 implicated in terrorist-related activity,” he said.
Bettison’s remarks indicate that police are now identifying much younger children as vulnerable to the Al-Qaeda message.
The channel scheme originated in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, and has been run as a pilot in Lambeth, south London, and in Lancashire.
The Home Office is watching the programme and it is expected that it may be put into action in other parts of the country later this year.
Detective Chief Superintendent John Parkinson, who runs the police counter-terrorism unit in the northeast alongside MI5’s regional office, said that traditional policing methods alone were insufficient to tackle the threat of terrorism.
“If we can try and get in front of it, upstream of it, instead of just kicking in doors and arresting those who have started to plan violence, then we can do something about it,” he said.
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