THE founder of a Bradford consultancy which aims to tackle radicalisation has called for "early intervention" amid claims that online grooming is increasing as a result of lockdown.

Sofia Mahmood, of Empowering Minds, says that online exploitation has grown "since the start of the pandemic", with people spending more time on the internet.

Sofia also cited national figures which suggest that, even just before Covid-19 hit, referrals to the Prevent programme rose - with a 10 per cent increase from April 2019 to March 2020.

24 per cent of the 6,287 referrals that were made over this period were related to Islamist radicalisation, while 22 per cent were related to right-wing radicalisation.

51 per cent were for individuals with a 'mixed, unstable or unclear ideology' and three per cent were related to 'other' types of radicalisation.

"I would tell people to look at Prevent's ACT Early scheme if they are worried about a child being radicalised", said Sofia, who has almost 20 years' experience in promoting cohesion and safeguarding in local communities.

"There are different angles to exploitation. Whether it's Islamist extremism, far-right extremism or grooming by criminal gangs. We live in a digital world, people can access damaging content in seconds. If a family isn't tech-savvy, they may not know their child is being brainwashed.

"Early intervention is vital. That's why Empowering Minds works with mothers, from different communities across Bradford, to help them learn how to identify extremist behaviour.

"People can find local services through the Act Awareness scheme, as well as by joining our Empowering Mothers Against Radicalisation programme. They can also speak to safeguarding leads within schools and communities."

Last Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that Shamima Begum - who left the UK to join ISIS at the age of 15 - would not be allowed to return to the country.

This led to further debate on radicalisation, with Sofia arguing that the case is a "contentious issue".

"Some believe she should come back for a fair trial, as she was a child when she left, and she was radicalised. Others feel the decision was right, as she made the choice to join a terrorist group", Sofia says.

"She committed a crime and what she did was wrong, but there are underlying factors. Under the British legal system she was a child, and by human rights law, everyone should have a fair trial.

"Some say she didn't seem remorseful in interviews, while others argue she doesn't have the mental capacity to be able to take criminal responsibility, and that she was groomed, traumatised and has lost three children.

"There are many factors, so it's a hard one. But from a human rights perspective, I feel she should have been able to come back and have a fair trial."