Countering the far-right with Small Steps

May 24, 2023

Photo of Nigel Bromage mentoring by Small Steps

Nikol Nikolova interviews Nigel Bromage about his experiences of being radicalised and his journey to combat extremism

Back in 1981, at the tender age of 15, Nigel was groomed by an anti-IRA group.

Twenty years later, leaving the far-right, he embarked on a mission to tackle extemism. He set up Small Steps Consultants, an educational company offering training and counselling support to reduce extremism.

Recalling his turbulent past, Nigel shows us the very real dangers of the far-right movement, radicalisation and the ways we can help combat hate.

Nikol: When you were at school, you were handed a leaflet from ‘Birmingham Against the IRA’. What do you remember about that day?

Nigel: I was at school back in the early 1980s, and you had the IRA planting bombs all over the UK and beyond. A small group of men were at my school gates handing out leaflets.

The leaflets reported an emotional story about a young mom who got trapped in a bomb explosion, and sadly died. What caught my eye was their call to action, “If you think this is wrong, do something about it”. I thought by getting involved I’d be doing something positive and fighting extremism.

Nikol: What tactics did Birmingham Against the IRA use to lure you in?

Nigel: It was a really difficult time for me. Sadly, my mom was dying of cancer when I was just 14. When the far-right got to know about this, they became really supportive. They took me to hospital appointments, helped me pay bills and cook meals.

In my area of Birmingham, recruiting was done face to face. I didn’t think of them as monsters. I didn’t see them as preaching hate or violence. I thought they cared. It’s only when I look back that I realise this was all part of their grooming process.

Nikol: How difficult is it for recruiters to get to know their targets online? 

Nigel: At Small Steps, we talk to a lot of people, not just to those who want to leave the far-right, but also recruiters. We ask them about how they operate. They tell us they create multiple profiles, sometimes posing as someone a young as 16. They’ll ask loads of questions and gradually build a profile to work out the best way to recruit. Unfortunately, they’re really good at what they do and that’s why we need to challenge them.

Nikol: Have you witnessed a lot of violence and how did that impact you?

Nigel: Sadly, there was a lot of violence, something I still harbour today. When I first got involved, joining marches and demonstrations, I’d see violence escalate quickly. As a young man, if I’m honest, it was quite exciting. I was a working-class lad from a council flat, and I got to go to lots of different cities. I started building friendships, and we really looked after each other.

After a while though, it became draining, and I saw some sickening sights. Violence came to my home; windows broken and physical attacks against me because of my views. But each time it made me think about leaving, the group just built my resolve to fight back and become even more militant. Violence doesn’t solve anything. I got to a point where I realised, I was totally in the wrong place.

Nikol: What was that pivotal moment for you?

Nigel: It was really difficult and traumatic. We were in a meeting in Birmingham City Centre. I came out and I saw a black gentleman being racially abused by about 15 members of Combat 18. This is a militant, hardcore organisation which promotes violence that I was part of. What really hit home was that I saw his wife and children close by at the bus stop. I started thinking, do I walk away or do I do the right thing and step in?

My decision at the time, although scary and not something I’d advise anybody to do, was to step in. I said, “To get to this guy, you have to get through me first.” As I had a leading role in the movement, I think that was what stopped me from getting attacked. We managed to get the man and his family away in a cab we paid for.

I continued to be sickened inside by this event and now wanted to leave. But trying to leave these groups can be dangerous. It’s like trying to leave a gang. They know everything about you. So, I had to plan an escape and move cities. I knew if I stayed in Birmingham, there would have been a physical reprisal.

Nikol: What could have prevented you being radicalised?

When I was young, we didn’t have the government scheme, Prevent. I wish we had. All I would have needed was someone to say, “It’s okay to be against IRA extremism, but don’t get involved in this group.” I wouldn’t have wasted 20 years of my life doing things I’m ashamed of. Back then, my friends just walked away in disgust. They didn’t understand what was happening. Many of my teachers were glad to see the back of me.

They didn’t want me, a young lad, causing trouble. I was ignored. The local police and youth workers didn’t know how to deal with me either. This just left the door open to becoming more radicalised and eventually led me to become a neo-Nazi and a supporter of direct action.

Nikol: Who are the people that are most likely to be groomed by extremists? 

Nigel: It can be anybody. There are no stereotypes anymore, and many of those we work with at Small Steps are middle-class, well educated, but lost. We talk to people who have suffered everything: from bullying, domestic violence and sexual abuse. They don’t wake up and become a supporter of Adolf Hitler overnight. Grooming is a slow and well-planned process. They turn to the far-right for support and protection.

Nikol: How do you help people once they leave extremist organisations?

Nigel: It’s a massive task. It’s not just changing someone’s political opinion. If someone’s been online and active for five or more hours a day, they need something positive to replace it. It’s about finding what interests them and building on that.

As a society, we need to offer more time and safe spaces to have these conversations with young people who feel lost, ignored and voiceless; only then will they be less likely to turn to extremist organisations for support. We need to look at rebuilding relationships with family members and ways into education and employment.

Nikol: Can you tell us more about Small Steps and what support you offer?

Nigel: Small Steps is a partnership. Small Steps’ consultants offer training for young people, aged 15 upwards, as well as for teachers, police and adults. We raise awareness of the dangers of extremism and try to stop people from getting involved.

Our charity arm called, Exit Hate UK provides free support. You can reach out to us by completing a Support Request Form on the website or you can
email us.

Then we can provide one-to-one mentoring programs. We make no judgments. We listen and offer alternatives to what the extremists are saying. We then support people with everything, from securing an educational or work interview, to having a tattoo covered up.

I’ve had my tattoos covered up. I was ashamed of what they stood for and wanted to close the door on that part of my life and move on. Amazingly, we now have tattooists who understand this and offer cover-ups for free so others can get on with their lives, away from extremist influence.

Nikol: Are there any particularly shocking recruitment tactics that you have come across?

Nigel: We need to admit that the far-right are really good at what they do. People find it strange when I say this, but far-right recruiters would make amazing social workers. They can spot vulnerability and then create a whole care package. Imagine if they used those skills to keep people out of danger!

A few years ago, we helped a nine-year-old who was groomed by his older brother who believed he was going to prison for his political ideas. He was telling his little brother, “When I go to prison, you have to become a soldier and carry on with the war.” He was showing him extreme and racist video games which involved targeting and then shooting people from different ethnicities, religions and genders.

Supporting the family was such a difficult task. It took a long time. We need to empower people to keep having these difficult conversations. In the last few years, we have seen massive progress in terms of people understanding that the far-right is a big threat. However, we can all do more to challenge the extremist narrative and create a safer society. That’s why we always advocate partnership working.

Nikol: What advice would you give to someone who suspects that their friend or a loved one is being groomed?

Nigel: Firstly, stick by your friends or loved ones, no matter what they say. If you don’t, this could open the door for extremists to take advantage and manipulate them. Listen. Find out why they’re angry. What are their triggers? Offer them that safe space. Reach out and talk to someone else, like a teacher or a family member.

Open that door and start bringing in adult support because this is about protecting the person you care about. This isn’t about getting them
into trouble.

Just support your friends and be there for them. You could be the key to
saving them!

Thank you, Nigel, and to all at Small Steps for taking the time to talk to me.
Check out Nigel’s latest podcast: How to fight the far-right

Check here for useful information from Action Counter Terrorism.
Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation.

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