A 14-year-old A* student was referred to the government’s anti-extremism programme following concerns he was being “groomed” for environmental activism by anti-frackers.
The boy, known by the pseudonym Aaron, was targeted via social media after signing an online petition, according to a report on preventing extremism in Greater Manchester commissioned in the aftermath of last year’s Manchester Arena attack.
The main activist only stopped when police made them the subject of an abduction notice. This prohibited them from making contact with a named child. A breach of such a notice is a criminal offence.
Aaron was initially encouraged by local activists to participate in protests and hand out leaflets, but the approaches became “progressively more aggressive to the point where Aaron was on the periphery of engaging in criminal behaviour and frequently reported to the police as missing by his parents”, the report said.
Fracking for shale gas has become a hugely divisive issue since the government started to encourage exploration. Protest camps have been set up all over the country by demonstrators intent on disrupting the process, including one at Barton Moss in Salford in Greater Manchester in 2013.
Aaron began to use the ”dark web” to engage with activists to discuss fracking, according to the report by the Greater Manchester Preventing Hateful Extremism and Promoting Social Cohesion Commission. The commission found mental health and learning difficulties were a common feature in the cases they examined.
His parents were so worried that they extensively monitored his online activity and accepted help from Channel, an individualised, multi-agency, support package offered as part of the government’s anti-extremism Prevent programme.
Aaron had a number of underlying vulnerabilities, including potentially undiagnosed autistic spectrum disorder and was socially isolated and prone to self-harm, the report said.
The family was initially offered a “therapeutic long-term intervention”. But despite the best efforts of the therapeutic team, the intervention had minimal impact on his behaviour: school attendance continued to be poor and visits to rallies and engagement with the activists continued.
“Having explored a number of avenues, with limited success, a decision was made to issue an abduction notice to the main protagonist of the social media lobbying. These notices prohibit an individual from making contact with a named child and a breach is a criminal offence,” the report said.
“Within two hours of the notice being issued, Aaron was ‘de-friended’ on social media by all those individuals who had encouraged his activist behaviour. When Aaron tried to access his activist ‘friends’, he received no responses and as such, while the underlying vulnerabilities still remain and continue to be monitored, the threat in terms of his involvement in extremist activity, which had been becoming more intense, was resolved.”
The report notes that police and other partners should learn “from other crime types such as child sexual exploitation” and translate the tactics into other arenas should be translated into other arenas.
“The impact of social media in terms of ‘grooming’ of vulnerable and isolated individuals cannot be [overestimated]. In this case, the parents were extremely adept at monitoring social media activity. This is not the norm,” the report’s authors said, recommending more work should be done locally and nationally to increase the awareness of the impact and influence of social media.
A few months later, Aaron is more settled at school, his attendance has improved and he is engaging with appropriate peers, the report claimed.