A group of teenagers play table tennis at the Active Change Foundation (ACF), a youth charity based in Walthamstow, east London.
Point of view
It was normalised for me, to enter a conversation and sit with people, talking about potentially performing a terrorist act in London. I look back now and think, 'what the hell was I doing?'
ACF focuses on combating the forces of radicalisation that can lead teenagers into a life of gang violence or religious extremism.
For Javed Khan, who came from Afghanistan seven years ago, coming to ACF changed his life.
“They helped me with my education, with my social life, with my college, university, everything. They helped me (keep away) from recruiters (from) you know, extremist groups,” he enthuses.
The foundation was launched by Hanif Qadir in 2003.
Qadir joined a network of Al-Qaeda members after the invasion of Afghanistan, spending most of his time with the network in 2002.
But he left determined to safeguard young men and women from similar experiences,
During Euronews’ visit to ACF, Qadir receives a phone call from the father of a young British jihadist who went to Syria to join the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“It’s a first milestone we’ve achieved with this case. Where we’ve got this individual to consider alternative methods, and looking at the religion differently,” Qadir says.
“If you have patience and you have the right information, and you can get a way of delivering that information to the person, allow them to think for themselves, things can change.”
Adam Deen, a former member of the Islamic extremist group Al-Muhajiroun and now an expert on counter terrorism and deradicalisation techniques, explains what attracts people to jihadism.
“In a world where people are very insecure, in a world where there is uncertainty, the ISIS (ISIL) message is very comforting. And its a simplification of the world – and what it does, it separates the whole world into good and evil,” Deen says.
“I encountered these extremists. They became an authority in my world, in terms of understanding my faith, and they took me on a journey, a journey of extremism.”
Nowadays, Deen cannot believe what he once did or, worse, what he contemplated doing.
“It (extremism) was normalised for me, to enter a conversation and sit with people, talking about potentially performing a terrorist act in London. I look back now and think, ‘what the hell was I doing?’ But then it just felt normal. The West were attacking Muslims, they were our enemy.
“We need to stop people going on this journey to extremism. And that requires a theological reform. The very way we understand Islam, the way we understand the world through the Islamic lens, needs to change.”
In a secret meeting place, Euronews meets Rashad Ali, who also turned his back on extremism and is now focused on trying to deter others from pursuing the same fate.
A strong counter narrative is key, he says.
“Once you are able to see through it and able to realise the ideology is bereft, the politics is very disengaged from reality, and actually the religious narrative is used to justify some very extreme ideological positions – then you can disentangle it from the religious persuasions.
“And you can see the ideology is fundamentally amoral. And those things are what allowed me essentially to break away, and are to a large extent for most people. It’s the same set of ingredients that make people join, which you can utilise to get them to leave,” Ali explains.
The UK counter terrorism strategy, called CONTEST and originally launched in 2003 – is made up of four strands: Pursue, Prepare, Protect – and, of course Prevent.
Prevent includes initiatives facilitating the reporting of people at risk of radicalisation.
Since 2006, more than 4,000 people have been identified as potentially on the path to extremism.
It has sparked controversy, with critics saying the initiative demonises Islam and Muslims.
Perhaps the most controversial scheme is the is the mandatory referral of school pupils considered to be at risk.
Zafar Ali is in charge of radicalisation safeguarding training at several schools in the Slough area, west of London.
“We train staff regularly on what their duties are, what to look out for, and how to react, not to over-react,” Ali says.
“There was a child in a school after a good lesson, who said to the teacher, ‘Al Hamdullilah’, which means, ‘praised be Allah’. The teacher believed it was a terrorist word, she phoned the police. And the child was cross examined, as were the parents.
“The atmosphere now is such that a lot of young people feel that if they truly express their views, with a view to engaging, they’ll be marked, they’ll be noted, and they’ll be called extremists. And that is dangerous because you’re driving people underground.”
At lest 700 people form the UK have joined ISIL and other jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq, according to British authorities.
Around half of those are believed to have returned.
But many remain keen to join the fight. Young people are often recruited via social media.
The organisation Football for Unity works to counter the propaganda of extremists aimed at youngsters.
Co-founder Shamender Talwar says it’s all about building a sense of community in the here and now.
“They are Muslims. Some of them are Jewish, some of them are Christian. Some of different faiths, Hindi or Sikhs. We’ve helped support these children, deradicalise them, through football, which is a fantastic way of bringing all the cultures together.
“We express to them that the rule of law, or British values, are really, really important. It doesn’t matter what background you’re from, your identity always remains British.”
A girl, calling herself Amina, tells Euronews that she had been in contact with ISIL recruiters online, but that joining Football for Unity has changed her perspective on life.
“It’s brought to me sort of a sense of belonging. As young people we always have the sort of sense that we don’t belong or that we have to rebel or something like that.
“But the fact of the matter is that you need someone to put their arm on your shoulder and say ‘It’s okay, we’re on your side, we’re here for you.’ And that’s what this team has bought to us. It’s given us all a place to go, and it’s almost a family, really,” she says with a smile.
British MPs voted in December to launch airstrikes targeting ISIL in Syria.
Hanif Qadir is among those who warn that military action may only fuel the radicalisation problem.
“ISIS (ISIL), Al Qaeda and all the other extremist groups, they know where the battlefield is. And the problem is our leaders don’t. And we do the same thing over and over again. Which since 2002 until now, has created more terrorism than we could ever imagine before.
“The space that we should be fighting is in the hearts and minds. In our communities, in our institutions. These are the battlefields we need to be fighting this war on. Not through military campaigns. That will kill the terrorists. It won’t kill the idea.”