As the numbers referred to the Prevent strategy over Far Right concerns soar, Byline Times speaks to a “mentor” helping to deradicalise people through his extraordinary experience inside a murderous neo-Nazi group.
His life reads like the script of a Hollywood movie about redemption. But Nigel Bromage is determined to ensure few youngsters follow in his teenage footsteps.
As I chat to the genial 53-year-old from Birmingham, it’s hard to imagine he was once a member of the brutal and murderous neo-Nazi group Combat 18: the terror organisation which draws its name from Adolph Hitler’s initials.
But Far Right extremism was exactly what Nigel turned to after he was groomed by football hooligans linked to the National Front outside his school gates.
His new ‘friends’ offered him support, solace and an alternative ‘family’ while his mother was ill.
Within a few years, Nigel had become an active member of the group, was on the margins of the violent Far Right music scene dominated by ‘Oi’ bands such as Skrewdriver, and parroted an unthinking, reactionary ideology of racism and violence.
If the person involved is a hardcore neo-Nazi… one of the big initial hurdles we have to get past are the claims that we’re a ‘race traitor’, ‘government stooge’ or police officer.Nigel Bromage, Prevent mentor
Then, senior figures within Combat 18 were involved in one of the group’s most notorious incidents: the 1997 murder of Christopher Castle, sent to help broker peace between two of the group’s warring factions.
Two Combat 18 members – former Skrewdriver member Martin Cross and Charlie Sargeant – were sentenced to life imprisonment for Castle’s murder. The internal fall-out was also violent.
Nigel, who had already begun to question Far Right ideologies, ran.
Fleeing Birmingham, he decided to hide out within one of London’s biggest Muslim communities, safe in the knowledge that his old Combat 18 friends were unlikely to find him there.
Back then, Nigel had to deradicalise himself. There was no government strategy and no services to access outside of the prison and probation systems. Instead, he gradually immersed himself in London’s multi-cultural society – confirming along the way that the Far Right peddled only hate and division.
If somebody says they hate all Muslims because they were attacked by two Muslims, we respond by suggesting that they may hate only those two Muslims.Nigel Bromage, Prevent mentor
Fast forward to 2019 and Nigel is now determined to ensure others do not get drawn into the same ideology and practices. He is now in demand as a Home Office-backed anti-radicalisation ‘mentor’, implementing the Government’s controversial Prevent strategy.
Figures released by the Home Office in December 2018 show that Far Right referrals to Prevent have increased by 36 per cent over the past year. Whitehall officials are bracing for further increases linked to the toxic Brexit-immigration debate.
But, how does a Prevent mentor actually deradicalise somebody vulnerable to a life of extremism or terrorism?
“It’s all about showing [participants] that life is a journey. What we were doing last year is not what we’re going to be doing this year,” Nigel, who has mentored up to 50 people in the past few years, says.
“We all make mistakes in life. So, if we work with somebody with Far Right leanings, we ask how we can go about tackling that in a non-judgemental way. If we leap in and judge somebody, there’s little chance they will engage with us. So, it’s also about developing trust.”
It can be anything from ISIS to grooming gangs, terrorism and even Jeremy Corbyn.Nigel Bromage, Prevent mentor
So, what sort of person does he work with?
“It’s varied. There is no stereotypical participant. You could meet somebody who is young and who has been influenced by right-wing ideology online. But equally, we could encounter somebody older with hardcore neo-Nazi beliefs.
“That surprised me – I thought when I started that there would be a type: working-class people who were angry at the system. But it’s across demographics. There are middle-class people, professionals,” Nigel says.
“The main thing is to listen. Over time, you dissect the information and present rational arguments against it. But not in a confrontational way.”
Mentors, he says, are trained to spot ‘critical points’ in people’s lives – incidents or experiences which make an individual turn to Far Right narratives.
“It can be anything from ISIS to grooming gangs, terrorism and even Jeremy Corbyn. But what we ask the person is: do you have any answers to these issues that are worrying you?”
Mentors are also trained to identify how Far Right protagonists exploit opportunities to groom or recruit. Many methods employed are insidious, ranging from preying on vulnerable young people outside schools, offering free tickets to football matches or gigs and gradually shifting them away from their peer groups towards ideologues.
Over time, you dissect the information and present rational arguments against it. But not in a confrontational way.Nigel Bromage, Prevent mentor
This process has become harder to tackle due to the numbers now being recruited or groomed online. It is not uncommon for Far Right male activists, for example, to pose online as teenage girls – hoping to befriend new recruits.
Mentors and Prevent officials must also become experts in what detectives would call ‘open source intelligence’ techniques – deep-dive research methods that unearth radical or extremist content or behaviours online. The length of time it takes to mentor somebody varies considerably – from weeks to months or even years.
The whole situation has placed Home Office officials under significant pressure as it prepares to reform the system.
Since its introduction in 2003, Prevent has come under intense criticism. Some opponents see it as a mere police-led regime of community-based intelligence gathering, and that has led the Home Office to de-securitise the process – largely by handing increasing control to local authorities and their partners. Many public sector workers, such as GPs and firemen, have a duty to report concerns around potential radicalisation.
That has not stopped those referred to Prevent from being wary of voluntarily taking part.
“If the person involved is a hardcore neo-Nazi… one of the big initial hurdles we have to get past are the claims that we’re a ‘race traitor’, ‘government stooge’ or police officer,” Nigel explains. “But much of the information we discuss is not shared directly. Obviously, if we learn that somebody is planning a violent act, then we have a duty of care to refer it.
If the person’s concern is about immigration, then we talk about how immigration has been positive.Nigel Bromage, Prevent mentor
“Then we tackle the radical narrative. So, if somebody says they hate all Muslims because they were attacked by two Muslims, we respond by suggesting that they may hate only those two Muslims. It’s simple stuff, initially. But I find that simple narratives work best.”
He adds: “We end up talking about more complex issues, like how you can have ‘inclusive patriotism’. If the person’s concern is about immigration, then we talk about how immigration has been positive – like how we would barely have an NHS without immigration. We chip away at some of their ideas, but in a way that real people can understand.”
But not every intervention works. Some participants, Nigel explains, treat the process as a ‘box-ticking’ exercise and disengage. That said, he does not feel that the programme’s failures should define the strategy.
“Prevent isn’t perfect – but what is in the real world? I say to people that I’m pro-Prevent because if somebody had got to me when I was 15-years-old then I’d have been a very different person.”
No NF/BNP. No Combat 18. No experience of the group behind the murder of Christopher Castle and relentless, unswerving racism and division.
Nigel is determined to turn his extremist history into something far more positive.