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Spotting the Signs of Radicalisation

Last updated on 20th December 2023

Global levels of radicalisation are rising. This is particularly prevalent in younger individuals who are vulnerable and susceptible to indoctrination. The purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to radicalisation. In this guide, we’ll discuss who is prone to this type of persuasion, what signs to look out for if you think somebody is being radicalised, and the links between radicalisation and online activity.

We’ll also look at ways to prevent radicalisation. Including information about what you can do, and who to speak to if you fear somebody is being radicalised.

Police as a terrorist deterrent

What is radicalisation?

Radicalisation is a process in which individuals, often the vulnerable or young, are persuaded to adopt extreme ideological views as opposed to mainstream opinions and values. Sometimes called ‘brainwashing’, ‘training’, or ‘indoctrination’, now that the internet is widely accessible across the globe, it’s become much easier for people to become exposed to extreme ideological propaganda.

The radicalisation process often begins with online communications. However, there is also a multitude of offline extremist networks that prey on youths and adolescents by vocalising their extreme views of social, religious, or political ideals. Extremist aspirations often undermine or reject the status quo, encouraging the vulnerable to support and engage in acts of terrorism or extremism.

Why does radicalisation matter?

By understanding the process of radicalisation, we can better understand and prevent many acts of modern terrorism. Radicalisation is a form of exploitation that sometimes involves psychological manipulation, sexual abuse, exposure to violent materials, and access to misleading information.

When an individual becomes radicalised, their risk of physical harm, criminal activity, and death increases. If we can spot the signs of radicalisation early enough, we can implement preventative measures to prevent the spread of terror throughout the UK and the rest of the modern world.

Who is responsible for tackling extremism?

Ultimately, the responsibility for tackling extremism should be a group effort; overseen by governments, enforced by police, and flagged by online service providers. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram should discourage and report any suspicious online activity related to radicalisation.

Additionally, safeguarding boards should be implemented servicing ‘at risk’ areas, with dedicated individuals employed to prevent, discourage, and dissuade those who are at the start of their journey towards radicalisation.

“Radicalisation is a process. It has no single route or pathway.” (NHS Resilience Scotland)

Right wing protestors

Who is susceptible to radicalisation?

Although each individual is unique, several factors could make a person more susceptible to exploitation. While none of these factors is individually conclusive, they can be considered in line with a person’s circumstances, and if they are showing any other signs of radicalisation.

Identity Crisis

Adolescents experiencing issues coming to terms with their identity often feel distant from their families and religious heritage. This can leave them confused regarding their place in society.

Radicalisers exploit these crises by providing a sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging to such individuals. This can help to influence and change a person’s outlook on the world, their circle of friends, behaviour, and the way they spend their time.

Personal Crisis

If an individual is dealing with a period of tension within their family, educational, or personal relationships, they can harbour feelings of injustice. Radicalised influencers prey on this vulnerability and alienation by offering an alternative to the traditional certainties of everyday life.

Mental Illness

In a 2018 literature review, Campelo et al. revealed that although radicalisation cannot be linked directly to mental illness, various personality traits can be associated.

For instance, anti-social behaviour, intense depressive emotions, and obsessive traits are frequently reported among radicalised youth. Indeed, suicidal ideation is seen as a positive trait for extremists looking to persuade acts of martyrdom.

Additionally, those with a history of addictive behaviour, sensation, and risky behaviour have also been identified amongst radicalised individuals. Bhui et al. (2014) revealed that depression is more specific to individuals that sympathise with terrorism and acts of violence.

Extremists tend to capitalise on these personality traits when grooming and influencing people. In a 2016 article, published the following information about radicalised individuals.

The information was published as part of a report published by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. This information relates to 71 suspects in U.S-based terror cases.

  • The average age of suspects arrested for terror-related activities is 26 years.
  • 86% of these suspects are male.
  • 27% of these suspects planned to carry out violent acts on U.S soil.
  • 58 of the 71 suspects were American citizens.
  • All suspects came from diverse races, social classes, levels of education and family history.
  • 40% of suspects had converted to Islam.

These figures show that radicalisation is more prominent in males, specifically younger males. Bear in mind that a person that is willing to commit acts of extremism at age 26 is likely to have been radicalised over several years. Thus, it’s pertinent that we look for signs of radicalisation, especially in those that are most vulnerable to persuasion.

Group of young muslims

Signs of radicalisation

It’s important to remember that radicalisation is a process, often taking place over many months or years. However, when triggered by a specific incident, radicalisation can occur much quicker, as online extremists use news propaganda and hate speech to entice and influence as part of their recruitment drive.

Sometimes, it’s evident that somebody is becoming radicalised. However, in many cases, the signs as less prominent. Teenagers often want to be on their own as they adapt to hormonal and environmental changes, making it hard for parents, friends, and teachers to differentiate between healthy behaviours and attitudes that veer towards radicalisation in adolescents.

That said, the following behaviours can work as a guideline to help you identify possible radicalisation:

  • A sudden interest in becoming more religious or political.
  • Changes in appearance and dress style in a specific way.
  • Losing interest in hobbies or education.
  • Changes in a person’s circle of friends and disinterest in old acquaintances.
  • Increased social isolation.
  • Approval of the use of violence to support an idea or cause.
  • Racial intolerance or discriminatory behaviour towards people of different ethnicities.
  • Sympathising with extremist groups.
  • Visits to extremist websites.
  • Increased internet/social media usage.
  • Arguing with friends and family more frequently.
  • Developing a belief that people with different values, religions, or principles are less than.
  • Glorifying violence or advocating extreme messages.

If you are in contact with a teenager or adolescent that exhibits one or more of these behaviours, they are not necessarily being radicalised. They may be early indicators of depression, which is another issue that requires intervention and attention in many cases.

It can be a daunting task trying to discover what is going on in somebody else’s life, especially if they appear to be closing themselves off to communications. However, if extremists are grooming your child or someone close to you, you must identify these warning signs and flag behaviours so that you can start to intervene.

Remember, radical groups are cunning, training their latest recruits on how to deceive those closest to them. Many extremist recruiters will teach vulnerable individuals to act normal, helping them to sow seeds of secrecy and strengthen their control over an individual.

The link between radicalisation and online activity

There is no doubt that extremist groups rely on the internet to target groups and individuals that can be influenced by terrorist ideologies. Extremist recruiters search for vulnerable individuals using social media, forums, and blog posts, looking for signs of weakness or indicators of emotional instability.

Additionally, these recruiters disseminate propaganda designed to spark interest and to reinforce other means of communication. Furthermore, social media and internet communications provide a level of anonymity that satisfies extremist influencers that want to recruit without revealing their identity.

For hate messages and extremist indoctrination, the internet enables reach well beyond geographical constraints, reaching considerable numbers of people, and requiring less effort that offline recruitment drives.

Social media is one of the main channels used to groom and radicalise vulnerable and naive individuals. Twitter, Facebook, chatrooms, forums, instant messenger providers, and texts are all used by extremists to spread hate, as is the dark web.

Signs that someone may display when being radicalised online include:

  • Internet history revealing access to extremist literature.
  • Increased secrecy surrounding internet activity.
  • Spending unusually long hours using the internet.
  • Social media posts that seem scripted.
  • Social media posts that insight racial prejudice or strong political opinions.
  • Social media connections with extremist influencers.
  • Participation in extremist-influenced forums.
  • Unwillingness to discuss views.
  • Increased levels of anger.
  • A sudden disrespectful attitude towards others online.

If you notice any of the changes that we’ve mentioned, either online or offline, there are several things that you can do.

Online radicalisation

What to do if you fear someone is being radicalised

While it’s essential to act fast to mitigate damage and loosen the grips of influence upon your child or family member, this action should be well thought out.

There are several options available to explore if you have concerns about a loved one. These range from starting an informal conversation to requesting intervention from the appropriate professionals and authorities.

Initially, we recommend opening up a dialogue and trying to decipher what is causing their behavioural changes without being judgemental. It’s quite reasonable for young people to be curious about religion and politics. Therefore, initiating this discourse with a young person can allow open conversation and help you to identify any potential signs of radicalisation further.

The aim of these conversations is to listen and talk openly, tackling any tricky questions and helping to bolster resilience towards harmful ideology. It’s also recommended that you speak to youth workers, teachers, other parents, and community organisations to access support and advice from a range of different sources.

If you have a relative in prison that may be at risk of radicalisation, try to keep lines of communication open, letting the individual know that they have somebody there for them. You may also be able to contact the pastoral team within the prison. These professionals can reach out to your relative and discuss religious conversion, which is common within the prison system.

Who to speak to when you fear someone is being radicalised

If you fear that your child is being radicalised, we recommend exploring the following options:

  • Raise the issue with your child’s school teachers, close family members, and close friends. Let them know your concerns and ask if they have noticed any unusual behaviour. Finding out other people’s perspectives can help to decide if there is a real problem that needs to be resolved.
  • If there is a safeguarding lead at your child’s school, schedule a meeting with them. They are in an excellent position to offer you advice on the best approaches to tackle potential radicalisation.
  • Local police and authorities are available to provide support and guidance. As long as your child or family member has not committed a criminal offence, you can speak to these professionals without getting them into any trouble. Your child’s protection is in their best interest, so you can discuss your concerns openly without judgement or prejudice.

When it comes to professionals working closely with children, there are different approaches to reporting signs of potential radicalisation.


Teachers should discuss the individual and the circumstances that have raised suspicion with their head of department, head of year, or the school headmaster. They will advise on the appropriate action to take.


Nursery teachers should discuss any suspicions with managerial staff first and then parents before taking any further action.

Children’s Homes

Staff at children’s homes should discuss any suspicions with social services or appropriate professional organisations to decide the most appropriate course of action.

The Care Industry

Professionals working in the care industry should contact the appropriate police or governing bodies to discuss what actions need to be taken regarding potential cases of radicalisation.

Note that the UK government provides a programme called ‘PREVENT’ as part of its anti-terror scheme. In 2017/18 alone, over 1,600 children under the age of 15 were referred to this programme.

We hope that this guide has helped you to understand the signs of radicalisation and the actions that you can take to intervene if you suspect this activity. Radicalisation can happen to any individual experiencing a difficult time in their life. There are hundreds of extremists actively targeting people to recruit. You can use the information included in this article to identify and eliminate potential efforts of radicalisation.

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About the author

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Marcel Deer

Marcel qualified as a journalist from Liverpool John Moore's University in 2009. After working in PR and digital marketing for five years, he spent two years working as a social media consultant. Since then, he's worked from 15 countries as a remote content writing/marketing expert.

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