‘The enemy in our minds was Islam’: Why boy, 14, joined the far-right – and how he escaped
Written by on 17 November 2020
What you’re about to read will be difficult to stomach.
It involves a boy called John who at just 14 was lied to and manipulated into holding abhorrent and racist views.
I first met John at the end of October in a draughty room in a former warehouse to interview him. He’s a polite, confident young man – I’d even goes as far to say he’s sweet.
We chat about his recent holiday with his mum Sarah. He’s worried about the room we’re in being too cold for her; the chairs we’re sitting on being too hard.
It’s almost impossible to reconcile this John with the angry, racist teenager who became deeply immersed within the far-right.
“I had a friend from school who was already in a far-right group and he would show me stuff from social media sites on his phone,” John says.
What turns young people to the far-right?
“Initially the main attraction was how patriotic they were. A lot of the people in the far-right said they were standing up for the soldiers in the UK, which is something that I’ve always felt very passionate about.
“I guess you could say I had started being radicalised at that point. I thought I was standing up for my country, standing up for Britain.
“The enemy in our minds was Islam, [it] was the Muslim people, [it] was almost the police as well as the government, and journalists as well.
“We sort of stood up against authority.”
In the very early stages, John’s participation was restricted to comments he made on far-right online forums and groups chats.
It’s on these platforms that young, vulnerable children are encouraged to learn about and commit to a far-right ideology.
“We never came out and said our age [on these sites],” John says.
“We never said that we were 14, 15, 16, going through school.”
“But from the way we were talking, and how sort of inexperienced in life we were, it wouldn’t have been too hard to figure out.
“I just think we were sort of the next generation of people coming in.
“We were going to be the people that took over from them so I think they sort of made that extra effort to make you feel welcome, and make you feel sort of accepted into the group really.”
The British far-right is no longer the domain of white, middle-aged men from working-class backgrounds.
The internet has opened up a global network of right-wing groups to an audience of any age, from any location, from any background.
As one counter-extremism campaigner said: “In the digital space, it doesn’t matter if you’re 13 or your 30, from a working-class background or a middle-class background, on far-right forums your voice carries the same weight.”
John’s new extreme ideology didn’t remain online for long. It soon spilled over into his school life.
“I think we thought when we saw anyone with darker skin that we were somehow better than them,” he says.
“There was one particular assistant teacher at the school who we did almost target. One of her parents had Pakistani heritage and she had darker skin than me and my friend in school.
“And we would say things like; ‘You’re not really British. You shouldn’t be allowed a British passport. And when we get power we’re not going to allow people like you to have a job. We’re going to give the jobs to the white British people’.”
John says he is now “massively ashamed” of what he said and believed but admits at the time he found this sickening ideology “thrilling”.
“I definitely remember the sense of excitement,” he says.
“I remember sort of thinking that I was part of this elite organisation that not many people liked.
“I was sort of the bad guy that people portrayed me as but I always thought; ‘It’s only going to be a matter of time that people realise we’re actually the good people and have people start joining in’.
“I would just be the first one out of my friendship group to do it. And then everyone else will come to me and ask me to get them involved.”
But in reality John was becoming increasingly isolated.
Old school friends dropped away and his mum could see her son was somehow different – but she couldn’t understand why.
“We had a really close relationship,” Sarah says. “John was always very honest and open with me, he talked to me about anything.
“We used to laugh. Our home was filled with laughter a lot of the time because we’ve both got really silly senses of humour.
“And then he started spending more time in his bedroom, which isn’t unusual at that age, and it was a very gradual process but his attitude started to change.
“He started to be really disrespectful with me and he could be verbally abusive as well if I didn’t agree with him.”
Sarah put the mood swings down to exams and “the normal pressures of being a teenager”.
John’s school never reported his racist outburst to her, and the far-right ideologies, along with the signs of far-right grooming, were alien to her.
Sarah said: “If I had not experienced it myself, I would have said; ‘Don’t tell me that you didn’t know’.
“While you think that they’re safe, they’re at home, they’re online talking to their friends or playing video games…to find out that that’s been going on under your roof while you’ve been sat in the next room, is absolutely soul destroying.
“Because you think as a parent you’d know, but you just don’t.”
By the time John was 17, and now in college, he had started attending demonstrations organised by far-right groups.
Some of these protests turned violent and at one event the police took John’s name.
This led to John telling his mum that he had been going to demonstrations.
But he claimed they were marches that were “anti-paedophilia and anti-grooming gangs”.
Sarah decided to go to one with him, not to take part, but to see what exactly he had become involved with.
“I went and my partner and I sat in a bus shelter opposite where the march was taking place,” she says.
“I’d seen John walk over to this chap. And this chap looked very presentable. He was in a suit. He was much older.
“And I thought: ‘Maybe this isn’t going to be too bad after all, and he’ll look out for John. John’s in safe hands. He looks like he’s going to look after him’.
“Then the march started and I had to watch John singing racist words, marching down the street. And he looked so proud of himself. It was horrifying.”
Sarah tried to speak with her son about his views but felt him becoming even more radical and estranged. She didn’t know where to turn.
“I talked to my partner… should we speak to the police about it? Should we speak to college about it?,” she said.
“But John was in that much trouble, he was hanging on at college by the skin of his teeth.
“We didn’t want to get him into more trouble speaking to the police. Obviously they had his name on record because of the incident at the demo.”
But after a public outburst at college – which John described as a “rant against immigration” – teachers referred him to Prevent, the government’s counter-extremism programme.
His ideology slowly changed and he says he now understands how he was manipulated and lied to.
“He’d be in prison now, without that intervention because he was just getting deeper and deeper and more brazen and trying to impress,” Sarah says.
“I could see the path that he was taking – it was taking him to some really, really dangerous places.”
John agrees. “I was very much against extreme violence at the time,” he says.
“However, if I had been involved with the far-right for all those extra years, there’s a chance that that sort of mindset would have come to me in the end.
“So as much as I want to say no, it could have got to that stage.”
But even now, John recognises the lure of the far-right for young people.
“It’s because it’s anti-authority,” he says.
“I think so many young people now for various reasons; stemming from schools and colleges, to sort-of stricter rules that parents are putting on children; I do think there is this big anti-authoritarian mentality in young people at the moment. I think that’s why so many people are drawn to the far-right.
“And it offers a sense of belonging really. A lot of young people want to feel like they’re a part of something.”
John and Sarah’s real names have been changed to protect their identities.