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Jonathan Cole is a Professor in the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology Health and Society
“As the dust settles over the wreckage of the Westgate Centre in Nairobi the search begins for the identity of the perpetrators.
“So far there has been much speculation about the nationality of the attackers with most commentators stating that they are likely to be western passport holders. There is even some discussion that they were led by a British Woman known as the ‘white widow’. It is odd that this should come as a surprise.
Online activity of terrorist organisations
“For the past few years my research team has been monitoring the online activity of various terrorist organisations and al-Shabab is one of them.
“We have observed first-hand how the organisation has extended its base of operations from southern Somalia into the homes of Western citizens.
“In addition to social media we also came across fund raising websites and links between apparently respectable organisations and banned terrorist groups.
“Again simple and straightforward analyses allowed us to identify the networks involved and in one case this led to the removal of eight Taleban fund raising sites. There was no real attempt to hide the purpose of these sites and to a certain extent there is no need to do so. We will no doubt find them hosted somewhere else.
“The complex challenge is what to do with this information.
“It is odd that so many people are comfortable with declaring their links to violent extremism in the public domain. Whilst opinions will no doubt vary on whether these individuals are really involved in violent extremism, there is clear evidence of criminality.
“If nothing else these individuals need to be challenged about their beliefs and behaviour. The UK is one of the few countries in the world that recognises the need to do this in order to prevent acts of terror.
“Our research has found that participation in overseas conflicts is a risk factor for engagement in violent extremism and the commission of acts of terror in Western Europe and North America. The seeds of future terror attacks are currently being sown in the fields of those conflict zones.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel however.
Prevention is possible
“We know that prevention is possible and there is good evidence from public health and elsewhere that prevention interventions can be effective. What is needed is a good understanding of the factors that are pushing and pulling young people into the embrace of violent extremists.
“Many of these factors will be beyond our control, but others are not.
“Universities have their part to play like many other public sector organisations but there is clearly a need to balance academic freedom and free speech against the principles of safeguarding those in our care.
“There are no easy answers and definitely no panacea that will resolve these complex issues.”
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