Moss Side story: The UK volunteers trying to stem the extremist threat

Four-year EU-funded study working with vulnerable children in 13 countries seeks to answer the question of why some youngsters turn to extremism

Nigel Travis at the Moss Side Fire Station boxing club in Manchester. Paul Peachey / The National
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In the deprived Moss Side area of Manchester, the programme to de-radicalise vulnerable children practised by Nigel Travis involves lacing up their gloves and headguards and shoving them into the boxing ring.

Mr Travis set up the Moss Side Fire Station boxing club a decade ago to give youngsters something positive to strive for in the once-notorious district where drug dealing and bloody turf wars had contributed to the city’s unwanted nickname of Gunchester during the 1990s.

The firefighter told The National that parents come daily to him with concerns about their children and ask him to employ his brand of "respect, discipline and courage" to keep them from the clutches of gang crime and extremism.

“It’s tough love,” said Mr Travis, breaking off to bark orders at two ten-year-olds trading blows behind him. “Everything I do is about tough love and respect.”

Gun crime has markedly reduced after the police jailed key gang leaders and politicians threw money at the problem. But the multi-ethnic, multi-faith Moss Side is still one of England’s poorest districts and its younger inhabitants remain vulnerable to the messages of extremists.

The area was known as a bolthole for Libyans who sought and failed to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi and replace his regime with a hard-line Islamist state.

Exiled leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – formed in the 1990s to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - established themselves in the city after a failed plot to kill Qaddafi. The US declared the al-Qaeda-affiliated group a foreign terrorist organisation in 2004.

But they were tolerated by the UK authorities because of their anti-Qaddafi agenda. The leadership included the father of Salman Abedi, the British-born extremist who detonated a rucksack bomb in the crowded foyer of the Manchester Arena after a pop concert last year killing 22 people. They both attended a Muslim Brotherhood-run mosque in the city, according to an anti-extremism thinktank.

The attack on the city in May has raised questions about the corrosive effect of the community and its influence on young second and third-generation Muslims who were born in this country.

Some 16 convicted or dead terrorists lived within 2.5 miles of the Moss Side home of a suicide bomber who killed himself in Iraq, according to analysis by the Guardian newspaper in February last year. Stephen Gray, a white convert and former Iraq War veteran, was from Moss Side and twice tried to join extremists in Syria before he was jailed.

Members of a Manchester cell who managed to make it to Syria included Raymond Matimba who became an ISIL sniper and was covertly recorded in 2014 relaxing in a café in Raqqa with other British-born militants. Matimba – who was reportedly killed before the video came to light last year - said that “he hated his city [Manchester], that he wanted it to be bombed,” according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper citing a source in the city.

“It’s not surprising we have seen people head on that special one-way holiday” to Syria, a trainer who works with young people in the area told this newspaper. The trainer cited the poor employment prospects of an area recorded among the two percent most deprived areas of England, according to a national index.

“Back in 2013, you had disenfranchised youth, gang warfare through the roof and allegiances to families saying ‘this is what’s happening back home’,” said the official who declined to be named. “Some of them will go because they have no reason to stay.”


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The list of 16 identified by the Guardian did not include Abedi, who lived in the neighbouring Fallowfield district. Mr Travis said children who attend his sessions lived in the same street. “Kids in the gym knew the bomber,” he said. “It’s something you have to talk about because its relevant.”

The Manchester Arena bombing and a string of other attacks by Islamist and far-right extremists in 2017 have focused minds about how best to confront the threat of radicalisation.

The government is due to lay out its new counter-terrorism plan within weeks. Officials have indicated that it will include plans for tougher sentencing, while keeping a controversial programme designed to identify and deal with potential extremists, Prevent, at the heart of its plans.

The programme first came to prominence after the attacks on the UK transport network in 2005 and its supporters say that the programme has identified and prevented some 150 radicalised British youngsters from travelling to Syria.

Since 2015, schools, nurseries and other institutions have been legally obliged to look for warning signs sparking concerns within Muslim communities that it has been used as a state spying tool. The mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, called for Prevent to be scrapped but has since softened his tone since the Manchester Arena attack and set up a commission to examine the strategy in the city.

In Manchester, community worker Ismael Lea South said the process of grooming young people to join extremist groups has become “more covert and less blatant”.

Although the flow of extremists to Syria has ended, others are heading instead to join Al Shabab in East Africa and a few to Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, he claimed.

He says that cuts to youth services in Manchester – where budgets have been slashed by a third since 2010 - have meant there are few places that vulnerable youngsters can openly discuss politics and conflict.

“Mosques always have a banner: no politics allowed in here. The extremists come to pray, and they wait outside,” said Mr Lea South. “They see people who are new and just learning, and they say come to my house for dinner. And that’s where it starts.”

Mr Lea South, director of the Salam community project, last received Prevent funding in 2011 and works with mosques in Manchester who do not want to be involved with the state’s programme.

One unidentified mosque has recognised the problem of radicalisation beyond its gates and is running an outreach programme to engage with young people on the streets, said Dr Ajmal Hussain of Manchester University. He is working on a €5 million study funded by the European Union on youth radicalisation.

Researchers on the four-year project are spending days with vulnerable young people in 13 countries, working out how their everyday experiences push some towards violence.

The method will allow researchers to come up with new ideas to tackle extremism in Britain. “That’s the million-dollar question: can we map the trajectory and profile,” said Dr Hussain. “But that’s impossible, as it’s a shifting profile.”

At the gym, Mr Travis makes no distinction between the people and the backgrounds who come to his gym.

He points to a painted sign on the wall that demands respect for the gym, its users and the wider community. “When kids come into our gym they have a five second interview,” he said. “Can you do those things on the wall? If they can’t they’re asked to leave.

“We’re giving them an alternative to what is endemic in this area and replacing that with another gang affiliation - to the gym. But you won’t see our gang driving flash cars and doing things out the back of the car aren’t quite legal.”