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Expert says mothers at heart of terrorism prevention

British counter-terrorism expert Robert Milton addresses MWCC students during his lecture.

(Article by Paula J. Owen Courtesy the Telegram & Gazette) There is a simple model to help fight terrorism, according to British international and counter-terrorism expert Robert Milton, and it includes empowering women, particularly mothers, to look for early signs of radicalization to start interventions before violent attacks occur.

“Family is at the heart of this,” Mr. Milton told criminal justice and psychology students during his guest lecture, “The Path to Violent Radicalization,” Thursday morning at Mount Wachusett Community College. “We need to reach out to families, mothers, and empower women to help them identify when changing behavior might lead to radicalization.”

Although there is a real threat of terrorism from overseas that needs to be taken seriously, the college professor said there is also a need to manage that threat from within our own communities, and turn to those working in schools, colleges, workplaces, prisons and in health services who may pick up on signs someone is changing their behavior and encourage them to start thinking about identifying people close to them.

A retired commander of the London Metropolitan Police Service, New Scotland Yard, Mr. Milton is considered a leading figure in national and international security. During his career he played a leading role in the development and delivery of national counter-terrorism strategies.

Mr. Milton spoke on the definition of violent radicalization and extremism, the process of violent radicalization and what can be done to prevent it.

He first showed the students a short film on recent terrorist attacks around the globe and talked about the March 22 attack in London, the deadliest to hit the United Kingdom in 12 years. It left five people dead, including a police officer.

Extremism is at the edges of society, he said, and there is nothing wrong with taking radical views because often radical views lead to change. The problem is when those views lead people not to care about democracy and the rule of law, and lead to violence and murder.

“It can be anything – extreme right or left wing, homophobia, right-to-lifers,” he said. “They believe there is only one way of changing the world, that is through violence, the only way the government will listen.

“The trouble is, the history of the world says they are right,” he added.

Mr. Milton said he has picked his way through more bomb scenes than he cares to remember and interviewed many extremists and terrorists who were a threat not just from the outside, but from inside their own communities.

There are signs of radicalization, he said, and its roots are part of human behavior. People are empathetic and motivated by causes, he said. Sometimes they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for a cause, even one that doesn’t affect them directly, and are even willing to die for strangers.

But why is a person prepared to commit mass murder for a cause? he asked.

“It is easy to resort to violence when fighting for a cause,” he told the group. “Passion overtakes them and the group suddenly becomes violent.”

One group sees another as a threat and it becomes “us against them,” he said. “It is a human condition.”

The media also magnifies the violence, he said, in what former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called a symbiotic relationship between media and extremists who can’t survive without the media.

Through radicalization, people grab on to the notion that ideas can be delivered and they can change the world through violence. He talked about indicators that may fit a profile for terrorists.

Though there is no specific profile, people who become radicalized are mainly men, though more and more women are at risk, and the age is dropping, he said.

“There is a reason for that,” Mr. Milton said. “They may be second-generation immigrants. Immigration is a great thing, but what happens, particularly in the West, is second-generations think they’ll have a good life and fare better and when there is not those opportunities, they get frustrated and angry when they see others doing well.”

Frustration can lead to real or perceived grievances and an annoyance with the country, he said, and with groups like ISIS that are “brilliant” with social media, those who feel disenfranchised are targeted for radicalization, he said.

Those at risk are also looking for excitement and adventure, he said, and are of mixed educational background. They may suffer from some form of mental illness, have an increased likelihood of criminal backgrounds for males, are underachievers, isolated, unpopular, loners, and are looking for direction and a way to elevate their status. They do research and network with people who share their feelings of injustice and offer a solution for it, he said.

“But the truth is, there is no profile,” he said. “I only say it is likely to be the case. It can be anybody.”

Once radicalized, they become secretive and their appearance changes, he said, and they take part in protests that are sometimes violent, in fundraising, and they disappear for periods of time without notice or explanation while they are further indoctrinated.

They actively recruit others to their cause, encourage and glorify acts of terrorism, and show a desire for martyrdom, Mr. Milton said.

“Their appearance changes dramatically and suddenly they are in control and driving the car along Westminster Bridge,” he said. “It’s about power to change things. They exhibit hate and anger towards people and they want to get revenge. Their change in appearance will be obvious and they believe the only way of changing the world is through violence.”

Each of the warning signs, taken separately, is not a concern, he said, but taken together, they are a red flag of radicalization.

“Don’t ignore small changes. Go and get help,” he said, though he acknowledged it may be difficult to identify to authorities a loved one or neighbor who could be radicalized. But it is the only way to deflect the person from spiraling downward on a path that may lead to violent acts of terrorism, he said.

The UK has introduced legislation to counter violent extremism that would require training for people in the community to identify signs of radicalization so interventions can take place, he said.

Mr. Milton is the managing director of Milton Tezelin, established in 2005 to deliver training and support to countries facing the threat of terrorism. He has worked closely with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the European Commission and law enforcement, intelligence, security and military organizations across Asia to provide high-level training programs that manage the risk of terrorism.

He also serves on the Department of Homeland Security Academic Advisory subcommittee for countering violent extremism and is developing policies to help identify radical behaviors on college campuses.