January 7, 2022 - 1:55pm

Counter-terrorism policy in the UK has taken a rather strange turn. Earlier this week, the Twitter account of Counter Terrorism Policing UK put out a tweet containing an 18-second animated-video titled “John’s Story”: 

John, we are told at the beginning of the video, “felt like an outsider and so when a friend invited him to an extreme right wing event he went along”. At this event, he encountered a man who “talked about immigrants, injustice and race”. Cue angry looking man frothing at the mouth before the next scene shows a creepy white woman inviting John to join her with a beckoning finger. The viewer then sees John at a rally with his right arm raised in the air with a caption saying: “And you listened without questioning.” “I wish you hadn’t,” reads the final caption.  

The video is part of the Counter Terrorism Police’s “Act Early” campaign, which was launched in November 2020 and has its own website. Supposedly, its purpose is to encourage and help people to report those they care about if they suspect they are becoming radicalised. But its unclear what kind of audience this kind of cringe-worthy output is made for (at the time of writing, it has generated just over 4000 views, 22 likes and 17 retweets — not exactly rousing metrics of engagement).

In addition to John’s story, there are also those of Micheal, Mustafa, Jan, Mika’il, Ali, Liz, and Owen, which can be found here on the Act Early website. The underlying theme that connects all these stories is that all the radicalised protagonists are essentially decent kids who were vulnerable and in search of nothing more than love, respect and belonging.  

Their pathway toward extremism wasn’t shaped by their commitment to an extremist ideology or set of deplorable sentiments and beliefs, but was decided for them by others who exploited their vulnerability. Radicalisation isn’t something they chose or actively embraced, but rather something that happened to them, like contracting an unwanted virus.  

From this perspective, radicalisation isn’t about revenge and righteous violence; on the contrary, it’s a sort of hole that sucks in those whose only crime is that they are lonely and unloved. “The quicker you share your concerns,” the terrorism police advise in one tweet, “the sooner the person can get the help they need to move away from exploitation.”  

It is profoundly unsettling to see this sort of rank naiveté in the public relations efforts of people at the hard end of terrorism policing. Indeed, it is by some perverse alchemy that the police have come to regard potentially violent extremists not as terrorists-in-the-making but as exploited victims in need of help. The implication behind this messaging is that terrorism is something that people somehow just fall into, with zero agency on their part. There’s no sense that terrorism is an extreme and violent form of political resistance, rather than a bad thing that can befall someone due to the wicked machinations of others. 

Perhaps the UK Counter Terrorism police should stop making misguided fictions about terrorism, and instead focus on the reality of stopping actual terrorists. 

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.