What leads a young child to stand up in front of his class and tell his school friends that he agrees with the aims and objectives of the so-called Islamic State?
Matthew Price met one of the youngsters identified through the government’s controversial Prevent programme as being at risk from radicalisation.
The boy is now 10 years old. He is small, with a round face and engaged eyes. You can tell he is intelligent because he asks questions – lots of them. It is that curiosity that got him into trouble in the first place.
These days he will not repeat the exact words he used just over a year ago in his primary school classroom in west London.
What we are told, however, is that he stood up in front of his class and declared his support for the so-called Islamic State.
It was a declaration that set in motion a series of interventions from his teachers, children’s services and the government’s Prevent team which has been set up to de-radicalise at-risk individuals.
For obvious reasons we are not revealing the identity of this boy, but let’s call him Haaruun. He lives in London, with his mother and several brothers and sisters, and was nine years old when his journey began.
“I saw on the news the Paris attacks,” he says. “As soon as that happened I was on the computer.
“I searched up ISIS on Google and it came up to BBC News. I saw that. Then I went down and it went to Channel 4 ‘Children of the Caliphate’ and I was shocked. Then I watched other sites.”
It was those other sites that really exposed Haaruun to the brutality of IS and left him – his case worker believes – vulnerable to radicalisation.
“It led me to this one that had brutal executions and them burning people. It just showed them lighting them on fire. The people chained up, lighting them on fire and then they burned them.”
There is no emotion as Haaruun describes another video.
“The men were walking with their hands behind their back,” he recalls. “Then they were hit and told to sit down.”
He doesn’t pause as he delivers the next sentence: “Then they cut their heads off.”
There is no typical case that lands on the desks of Prevent teams across the country.
They work with children – some as young as Haaruun, others are teenagers – and they work with adults.
Since 2012, Prevent has dealt with more than 1,000 cases. Many involve Islamist radicalisation and in the last year, around a quarter of referrals were because of concerns about far-right extremism.
It was a far-right website seeking to denigrate Islam which Haaruun had come across and where he was looking at the brutal IS videos.
“It would be on a weekend, like ‘cos everyone was going outside and playing. So when they were all gone and the house was empty, I would go and sit freely in the living room and search up.”
He was not the only one at school who was interested.
“They’ll be kids fighting – like some kids are saying ‘Ah, Hezbollah are stronger than ISIS’.”
Haaruun says a lot of children in his school know about IS because so many have family backgrounds in the Middle East.
“There was a group of eight children which were always speaking about it. They were searching it up – even in the classroom.
“When we were doing some research, a boy searched up ISIS and he went on the video. I said ‘close the tab’ and the teacher came and he heard something and he said ‘What was that’ – and they all said ‘Nothing’.
“I knew what I was looking at was bad, but then it wasn’t only me that was doing it. It was unfair. Other people got away with it.”
Behind the scenes, unknown to the school, and discovered only by the woman from Prevent who ended up working his case, Haaruun was being bullied.
He does not talk about it much now. Yet some of the children, he says – both Muslim and non-Muslim – labelled him a “terrorist”.
The bullying seems to have played a significant factor in isolating Haaruun and in fuelling his interest in IS. Gradually he became an expert in the group and could name its leadership structure.
It was all information that led to that day when he stood up in class and declared his sympathy for IS. And that led a woman called Mariam to his home.
“My mum just said to me one day, ‘There’s someone coming to the house’. I heard Mariam come in. I was scared and Mariam said the reason she was here and I thought I was going to go to prison.”
Mariam – she prefers we do not use her surname because of her continuing work for Prevent’s Kensington and Chelsea team – says it took time to gain Haaruun’s trust.
“It took quite a few meetings before he was opening up and talking about all the things he watched,” she says.
There followed almost a year of work between the two. Haaruun would take Mariam to the websites he accessed and they would discuss the videos.
She used a social work tool in which Haaruun was asked to list things that made him happy, others that he was interested in and things that were scary.
Under happy he put “peace” and “family” and “Islam” and under interesting went “war”.
“ISIS” went under scary. So too did “school” – and that is what alerted Mariam to the bullying.
Haaruun’s mother had tried to deal with the problem, but he had found a way of seeing the material he wanted to see. “She couldn’t keep up with the questions,” Mariam says.
Today, she does not have to. Prevent have ended their work with Haaruun and if he has learned one thing, he says, it’s “not to go on bad things – bad sites”.
“Mariam told me the repercussions of it and the impact of how it’s not good. Like if you keep on watching it you’ll be brainwashed and then you or someone will join ISIS and they will be in trouble and you’ll go to prison,” he says, still matter-of-fact.
But could that genuinely have happened to Haaruun?
“We’re not suggesting he would become a terrorist,” says Mariam. “What we are saying is he was vulnerable.
“(He could have gone) on to a chatroom and spoken to someone who’s there to radicalise him. Could he have said something out on the street and then someone’s walking by who’s got an interest and attempts to radicalise him?
“He is a vulnerable young man who’s seeing things, forming opinions. How that would have developed without Prevent, we can’t predict that.
“We’re not saying he’s going to take a bomb and blow anyone up. But it’s about minimising those risks.”
Haaruun is still the engaged, interested little boy he always was.
Mariam and the team have given him access to what they call “safe spaces” in which to learn. People from his community, the school and other activities all help him explore the wider world, but now in a safe way.
He says he wants to be a lawyer or an accountant. There is a pause and he adds, with a shy smile, “or a journalist”.
Hear Matthew Price’s report on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday morning or on iPlayer afterwards.
Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38959615