Top south Asian cop warns of growth of online radicalisation during Covid
By Barnie Choudhury
Britain’s top south Asian police officer has warned that the pandemic could be creating more home-grown terrorists.
Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu was speaking at the Ramniklal Solanki Pioneers event, organised by the Asian Media Group and the University of Southampton’s India Centre.
“I call it a perfect storm,” said Basu, the national police lead for counter terrorism.
“You’ve effectively got the potential for mass unemployment, austerity and financial hardship for the foreseeable future, potentially. So, there is that potential creating that poverty, and that’s one of the causal factors.”
He also made clear his concern about the growth of right wing and Islamist propaganda online.
“[We have] lots of extremist material, lots of radical material, lots of content that we’re trying to remove that’s illegal,” he revealed.
“There’s more of that online than ever before, particularly in the right-wing space, where they’ve become very adept at using social media. They’ve learned from Islamic State and were the first people to really industrialise it.
“That combination when people have been locked in their houses, with nothing to do but stare at their screens, that’s the perfect storm, and I don’t think we will see the consequences of that for years to come. But we will see it.”
Foiled terror attacks
Since March 2017, the police and security services have foiled 28 terror plots, eight of which were attempted by right-wing extremists.
“The growth of extremism, the growth of nationalism, the potential is still a high threat, because there’s still a high tempo of investigations in the Islamist sphere with al-Qaeda and Islamic State (Daesh) potentially reforming and becoming more powerful in other parts of the world, and therefore more able to project their threat,” said Basu.
“In the old days [my job] would have been countering cells of people who were well financed, well directed, well trained overseas, and projecting back in towards western Europe and other countries.
“Now we’re dealing with people who live here, born here, raised here, who have been radicalised online. The biggest conversation we’re having is how do we stop that happening?”
While the police have been dealing with terror threats, forces have told Eastern Eye that they have been tackling other criminal offences.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Jane Connors, the Met’s lead for tackling violence said, “Londoners can be assured that our focus remains firmly on reducing violent crime in all its forms, protecting the public and safeguarding all of our communities.
“I am proud of the achievements of our officers and staff in bearing down on violent crime despite the challenges of the pandemic.
“Even when faced with the risk of catching the virus themselves, our officers continued to be out there on the streets.”
In February, the Met demonstrated their determination to police violent crime.
Eastern Eye was given access to officers from the violent crime taskforce who used vehicle number plate recognition technology to disrupt the gangs.
The Met say since lockdown so called county line gangs are not using public transport as much to traffick drugs or modern-day slaves.
Over five days they arrested 154 suspects with links to county line gangs and violent crime in an initiative called Operation Pandilla.
But the pandemic may have affected policing other criminal activities.
In Leicestershire figures, obtained under freedom of information, show that police arrested fewer white, Asian and black suspects for drug related offences in 2020 compared to the previous 12 months.
Our analysis shows that during 2018-19, arrests of white, Asian and black people went up by 48 per cent, while they dropped by almost three per cent during 2020.
For south Asians, arrests went down by 13 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019.
“There have been changes during Covid, but I can assure you that our business as usual has continued,” said Kerry Smith, the assistant chief constable leading Leicestershire Police’s response to the pandemic.
“It is a credit to officers and staff that they have continued to perform throughout this whole period.
“It has at times been relentless, officers dealing with normal crime but also putting in extra hours to support the Covid policing effort.”
All forces have operated the “four Es” strategy – engage, explain, encourage and enforce – to tackle Covid breaches.
“This means that it has been our first priority to engage with the public and to explain to them what the rules are,” said Smith.
“We then would actively encourage the public to comply or disperse, and only as a last resort would we enforce, which would mean giving out Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs).
“During this last lockdown we have given out more FPNs than before. It is our priority to help keep people safe and in doing so support the NHS.”
The maximum fine is £10,000, and police issued 320 of these for offences including “unlicensed music events, protests and private parties”.
The chair of the police chiefs, Martin Hewitt said, “The number of fines processed have gone down again in the past four weeks, which is to be expected as restrictions are lifted.
“As the weather has improved and restrictions have eased, we have seen several large gatherings in outdoor spaces, most commonly in parks.
“I understand that people are excited to see their friends and family again after such a long time, but it really is vital people continue to follow the rules at each stage of the government’s roadmap or we risk undermining our efforts up to now.”
Eastern Eye can reveal that some people have threatened and assaulted the police using Covid as their weapon of choice.
“There have been 97 occasions where somebody has mentioned or threatened COVID then coughed, and 48 where they’ve spat at an officer,” said DAC Jane Connors.
While Leicestershire Police said they were not aware of any officer “testing positive for covid from an assault at work”, ACC Smith said, “We have certainly seen the number of assaults on officers rising this year which is unacceptable.”
Black and Asian communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, according to data, creating concern among some officers.
The National Black Police Association said police chiefs moved quickly to address his members’ fears, but the approach had been mixed.
“We did have some members say that they had line managers complete the risk assessment for them,” said Andy George, president of the NBPA.
“It moved away from what we were trying to achieve, by having an officer centred approach, and it was concerning.
“We raised these issues in January, and thankfully there was another memo sent out, but again it’s quite sporadic. Some are not understanding the issue or impact on our members during the pandemic.”
Expect “explosion” of domestic abuse
Police have also had to tackle a growth in domestic violence during lockdown.
Refuge, a national charity which helps survivors of domestic violence, said that during April 2020 and February 2021, almost 13,200 people called its helpline, an average rise of 61 per cent month-on-month.
It is the same for south Asian charities.
The Freedom Charity, which fights against child abuse, said the pandemic has “tough”. It is only surviving because of the goodwill of its volunteers and trustees, who have taken no money for the past year, Aneeta Prem told Eastern Eye.
She warned of “an explosion of cases” once restrictions were completely lifted and children could return to school unhindered.
“The pandemic has shown that young people are far more vulnerable,” she said. “Girls being held at home, having no release from their families.
“When the restrictions are lifted, they will be taken abroad and forced to marry. These are real fears.
“There isn’t a specialist refuse these girls can go, there needs to be specialist help, and there’s nothing like that in this country right now. There are going to be an explosion of cases when people can go out and find help.”
Prem warned that girls are “internet poor” because they are not allowed to use computers. She said that children as young as 12 were contacting the charity using its app.
“I’ve had a 14-year-old who was restricted by the amount of food she could have because she was a girl. Why are we having to give her food, her brother said? She’s a girl. Let’s get her married, let’s get her out of here, she’s a burden.
“This is what’s happening, in the UK, today, and we can’t ignore it.”
Karma Nirvana, which supports those forced into marriage and honour-based violence, has shared its figures for calls to its national helpline exclusively with Eastern Eye.
They show the number of calls has gone up dramatically during lockdown, up 76 per cent.
“There’s huge desperation out there, and that’s shown in the emotional support we’re providing has increased massively,” said Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana’s chief executive.
“People are requiting that support just to get through lockdown, just to feel they have that network because it doesn’t exist in places it did pre-lockdown.
“We’ve got to remember that schools and services have been closed, and so they’re been relying on helplines like ours.”
But worryingly, when we analysed the number of cases the charity could handle compared to the calls made to the helpline, we found a steep fall during lockdown.
Between April 2019 and March 2020, Karma Nirvana was able to deal with 82 per cent of calls. Despite increasing its case load, the charity could only take on 30 per cent of calls to its helpline.
“We’re going to dealing with the consequences of lockdown for the next decade,” said Rattu.
“We know there’s this wall of silence and difficulty to get help. It taken victims of honour-based violence to seek help, so I imagine we won’t hear about what’s been happening this year potentially for years to come.”
But post-pandemic, could there be a solution?
Parliament has just passed (29 April) a new act to help protect those suffering domestic abuse.
The Home Office said the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 would give police new powers to protect victims.
“Supporting victims of this cruel crime and bringing offenders to justice remains a priority for the police and we have improved our response to domestic abuse across the country,” said the national police lead, Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe.
“Police attend more than one million incidents of domestic abuse each year, yet we know many victims will still not come forward.”
Farah Nazeer, chief executive of the grass roots federation Women’s Aid, said she thought the new law “could not be more needed, following the impact of the pandemic on survivors and our national network of domestic abuse services”.
She continued, “We urge the law to address the significant gaps it leaves and protect every survivor, ensuring that all women and children are able to access support regardless of immigration status, and for us to see guaranteed long-term funding for specialist women’s domestic abuse services, including refuge services around the country that are saving lives every day.”