Radicalisation and extremism need us working on the frontline

As someone who worked for nearly 20 years in the field of countering extremism, I know first-hand how various ideologies are impacting on vulnerable young minds. I also know that many of the criminal cases that have led to counter-extremism prosecutions have included perpetrators who have shown mental health vulnerabilities early in their lives, which have made them targets for recruiters and radicalisers. These radicalisers, much like sexual groomers, can pick up on the vulnerabilities of such people and they acquire this instinctual ability over time.


One of the core issues that comes out through extremism cases is the search for identity by young people.

This desire for belonging and meaning is manipulated by online radicalisers who project poisonous viewpoints into their victims that restrict what identity is. Their aim is to control the young person’s mind. The identity reductionism involved in radicalisation also means that it creates the perfect mood music for the development of ‘black and white’ thinking in the victim, as opposed to taking positions of nuance around social issues, which is a natural antidote to polarised ‘black and white’ thinking.

Radicalisers, therefore, make sure that they reduce identity in individuals from one that is open, multi-faceted and blended into the experiences of that individual, into a singular and over-arching one that is then perversely fused with the notion that violence is needed in defending this ‘in-group’ of people.

Religious, far right, 'incel' and other forms of extremism require therapeutic approaches that can engage with young people and which can untangle narratives and facilitate them to a point where they can see the cognitive distortions in their thinking. However, this can only happen if there is a strong therapeutic connection between the therapist and client, and even then, clients need to be in a place where they are willing to admit that they are having difficulties in their lives because of their thoughts and beliefs.

This, therefore, means that they need to admit that they have a problem and many will not. So, for many young people who have absorbed such thinking and narratives, it is wider society that is wrong, misguided, ‘weak’ and unable to grasp the importance of the toxic ideology that has permeated into their mindsets.

The role of therapy in deradicalisation

The first step in the deradicalisation process is to ensure that we have as wide a range of counsellors whose backgrounds resonate with such clients and who have the ability to develop strong connections with them.

Secondly, we need therapists who can use their curious inquiry skills into getting clients to reflect on their personal experiences and their needs and wants and, by doing so, get clients to reflect on the ideology that they have accepted. No doubt, therapists will have to be able to use gentle challenge, nuance and CBT skills in this process, whilst re-igniting the desire for clients to explore wider aspects of who they are.

No doubt, there are ethical challenges in this work. If a client chooses to come forward and work with a therapist, there are ethical considerations, which may include letting Prevent (the Government’s community-based counter-extremism programme) know of the engagement. This is not an automatic position to take, nor should it be, but I feel that supervisors who are not grounded in this work may take the immediate view that the authorities must be told.

However, what if the client is not a risk to themselves or the public and simply espouses extremist views that are divisive and problematic, but not violent? When should the counsellor transgress the confidential duty that binds them in the therapeutic process?

On a personal level, I believe that if the client does not espouse views that demonstrate a direct threat to themselves or to members of the public, then the confidential boundary between therapist and client cannot be transgressed. The work must remain protected and away from third parties, including ensuring distance from any engagement with Prevent in such a specific case. Each case will be different and context is important.

Additionally, I have known of families that have sought mental health support for their children who espoused radicalised and extremist beliefs. Some of these approached me in my previous professional career to get mental health support for their children. They wanted someone who could empathise, work with young people from a faith perspective and be able to connect with issues of identity, social isolation and anger. Suffice it to say, I found it very difficult to engage with experienced counselling professionals who had developed a specialism in this area of work.

Sadly, we are still in this space where there are too few therapists to work on issues of extremism and radicalisation. This is why I am passionate about highlighting this issue; we need to develop an area of specialism around therapy that specifically works with and addresses issues of extremism in young men and women.

We owe it to the young minds that have become so polarised by radicalisers and, as therapists, we can be and should be the front line of support to families and to the young people affected. This is why I am proposing that interested therapists contact me so that we may develop a working group on this area of work.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, SW7
Written by Fiyaz Mughal, OBE FCMI MBACP
London, SW7

Fiyaz Mughal OBE FCMI MBACP has worked for over 25 years in communities and is a qualified therapist. He specialises in conditions such as generalised anxiety, social phobias, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorders), panic disorder and also works with clients to explore impacts of geographical dislocation, faith, identity and intersectionality.

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