Professor Paul Thomas leads an initiative into barriers present when people are faced with reporting someone close they suspect of violent extremism

FAMILY and friends of potential terrorists can often provide advance warnings that prevent acts of violence.  But a research project led by a University of Huddersfield professor has shown that greater levels of sensitivity and understanding must be shown towards people who are contemplating whether or not to alert the authorities.

For example, when people do decide to share information about a friend or family member involved in planning violent extremism, they prefer to do so face-to-face with a local police officer, rather than via a counter-terrorism hotline.  This suggests training all police personnel to respond appropriately would be beneficial to effective reporting.

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Islamic State recruits at a training camp Training centre for Islamic State recruits

Paul Thomas, who is Professor of Youth and Policy at the University of Huddersfield, has researched a wide range of community issues, including the Prevent programme that is designed to halt extremism.  Now, he has headed a project titled Community Reporting Thresholds.  Funded by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), its report has been launched today at an event at the University of Huddersfield, and is available to download.

By addressing what is termed “intimates’ reporting”, the research fills a critical blind spot in international attempts to counter violent extremism.

The first people to suspect or know about someone becoming involved in planning acts of terrorism, including involvement in overseas conflicts, will often be those closest to them.

While these friends, family and community insiders offer a first line of defence, very little is known about what it means to them to report the potential involvement of an “intimate” in violent extremism.

Now, Professor Thomas and his University colleagues Dr Shamim Miah and Kris Christmann – in collaboration with Professor Michele Grossman of Australia’s Deakin University – have carried out a series of in-depth interviews where interviewees were taken through a series of scenarios based on real-life cases.  They were asked what their feelings would be, what dilemmas they would face and what course of action they would take if they had information about relative or friend involved in terrorism.

The researchers also interviewed professional practitioners, including counter-terrorism police officers, Prevent co-ordinators based in local authorities and key workers from Muslim community organisations.

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Researchers (l-r) Professor Paul Thomas, Professor Michele Grossman, Dr Kris Christmann and Dr Shamim Miah Researchers (l-r) Professor Paul Thomas, Professor Michele Grossman, Kris Christmann and Dr Shamim Miah

One key conclusion arising from the research is that reporting to the police is such a grave step that most community respondents would only do so after a staged process.  First, they would attempt to dissuade the intimate, and also take counsel and guidance from family members, friends and trusted community leaders.  Some younger respondents would also share concerns with lecturers or teachers.

If those concerns needed escalating, the research showed that people want to report to local police, not counter-terrorism specialists.  They also wish to do so in person, so that they could assess how seriously their report was being taken and to enable discussion.  Telephone hotlines were not seen as appropriate for a non-emergency concerns.

The project report makes a sequence of recommendations, such as the localisation and personalising of the reporting process and the development of support mechanisms for people who make reports.

“It's almost like safeguarding, so that people can share concerns and that there will be a response that helps the people they are concerned about, rather than an immediate criminal investigation, particularly if it is further down the line that a terrorist act is going to happen,” said Professor Thomas.

It is important there is a response that’s more about welfare, safeguarding and counselling for both the person and the people doing the reporting.

Professor Thomas

The international dimension of the work expands when Professors Thomas and Grossman visit Ottawa to hold talks with government officials and academics to discuss carrying out a similar research project in Canada.  Colleagues in the USA are also taking an interest in the findings, which were unveiled at a special launch event and seminar at the University of Huddersfield’s Heritage Quay. 

Full Report

The full report, available from the CREST website at includes five strategic considerations for future policy and practice:

  • Consider rethinking the tone, content and targeting of social messaging initiatives around community reporting – ‘safeguarding’ and ‘health promotion’ messages are more likely to be effective than focusing on criminality and threat.
  • Understand that sharing concerns with authorities is a staged process, and that communities play a vital role in the ‘supply chain’ of reporting pathways.
  • Localise and personalise the reporting process – a large majority of community respondents preferred to report to local police.
  • Develop support mechanisms for reporters – reporters feel concern for themselves, the intimate and others and need support, guidance and where possible to be kept informed.
  • Clarify reporting mechanisms – there is confusion and uncertainty for many community respondents, and for some professional practitioners, around how reporting processes actually work.