Hanif Qadir has produced an exceptional book that combines his experience as a former extremist with his subsequent extensive, dedicated and painstaking work in the Active Change Foundation where he tries to interrupt others moving into violent extremism.

It has no footnotes, no bibliography, just his experience, but it is essential reading for anyone working with young people and trying to make sense of radicalisation and the various initiatives to prevent it. It focuses on Islamist extremism, but would have resonance across the field.

The insights make gripping reading

The book has three main parts, preceded by an introduction that tells of Qadir’s journey into (and out of) al Qaeda in the early 2000s. Part A details the current landscape – government policy and the underlying issues and challenges. Part B, “Tackling Extremism”, forms the bulk of the book, ranging around the ideology of extremists, how they recruit, how vulnerable people change and how to intervene.

This also contains seven case studies of people that Qadir has worked with and who he (mostly) successfully managed to turn round. The insights make gripping reading. “The Islamic Standpoint”, tackled in part C, details the historical roots of extremists and Kharijite terrorists and their techniques of radicalisation. This section shows how they falsify the Quran and the Sunnah, and reveals their ignorance and lack of scholarship.

A number of stark but complex messages pervade the book. First, it is foreign policy that is the key motivator for becoming involved, that is, the perception that Muslims are globally under attack and that the US, UK and Europe are the enemies.

Recruiters then use religion to justify duties and actions. Yet this does not mean that interventions should not tackle religion; Qadir thinks that the role and significance of faith in people’s lives is simply not appreciated in countries that separate politics and religion. He shows the importance of lengthy, seemingly endless discussions of faith in eventually turning people away from violence.

He points out a dilemma in joining the growing critique of Prevent

The second complexity is the UK’s Prevent strategy. Qadir confirms that this has been seen to stigmatise Muslims, and that mistakes have been made around the Prevent “duty” – and in promoting a “British Islam”.

Yet he points out a dilemma in joining the growing critique of Prevent: recruiters can capitalise on this apparent extensive opposition to justify an anti-government stance and action. Qadir gives useful information about the work of Prevent and Channel, with real examples, although he outlines the need for a more “robust” approach. This means that institutions must attain common knowledge (about people falling into extremism), industry knowledge (what the central departments issue as guidelines) and expert knowledge (what specialists say about changing trends).

A third complex change relates to the speed of radicalisation. It had been thought that people were gradually groomed, yet Qadir reveals how young people can be radicalised in weeks. Social media is key (plus ease of travel). With trust in authority declining, the established media networks are seen as, at best, selective, biased and untrustworthy. Alternative media sources are often accepted as factual, and extremist networks dump multiple strands of information in a way that becomes credible and acceptable to their intended audience.

For schools, critical thinking skills and safe spaces for discussion are paramount. Grassroots, frontline radicalisation is shaped by engagement and relationship building, and deradicalisation is the same. You should not shut down conversations. Qadir gives a compelling example of a teacher who blamed ISIS for Israeli airstrikes on Palestine and would not answer a student’s questions, forcing the boy to search for information on (extremist) sites. Ironically, the same teacher then raised the alarm to his superiors.

Finally, he points out that only an effective network of community-led initiatives can have long-term impact. Large-scale youth movements, adventurous training activities, leadership programmes, female and family engagement, social media campaigns: all these will soak up a sense of mission and starve ISIS of human resources.

There is inspiration as well as deeply grounded insight in this book.