Terror prevent strategy is muddled - and potentially dangerous

Despite the radical spin, the strategy is mostly evolutionary rather than revolutionary – and all th

Mehdi Hasan in today's Guardian questions the extent to which the revised Prevent counter-terrorist strategy relies on the so-called "conveyor belt" theory of radicalisation -- developed by neocons in the US and embraced by Michael Gove, who is thought to have had a big influence on David Cameron's Munich speech. Hasan notes that a memo leaked last summer concluded that it was wrong "to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear 'conveyor belt' moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence ... This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors".

In fact, it is the ministerial rhetoric that relies on this theory far more than the strategy itself. Ministers have also indulged in a degree of political point-scoring which the strategy entirely fails to back up -- as well as being an unfortunate departure from the long-standing and generally respected tradition of keeping party politics out of counter-terrorism. There is a jarring contrast between Home Secretary Theresa May's foreword -- "we inherited a flawed approach" -- and that of her independent reviewer Lord Carlile, who observes that "generally Prevent has been productive". The strategy itself makes clear that it aims to build, in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way, on most aspects of the work inherited from the last government. It also flatly contradicts briefing, in opposition and in government, about the extent of extremism in universities, prisons and elsewhere.

There is one big policy shift in the revised strategy: the intention, first set out in Cameron's Munich speech, to tackle not just terrorists and violent extremists, but also non-violent extremists -- defined as people and organisations who disagree with our "core values" including democracy, equality before the law, and universal human rights.

The strategy observes that "there have been cases where groups whom we would now consider to support an extremist ideology have received funding", and states that in future "we will not work with extremist organisations that oppose our values. If organisations do not accept these fundamental values, we will not work with them and we will not fund them."

The Conservatives are right to say that public funding should never have gone to extremist groups -- though they had to apologise for careless accusations in opposition, and the new strategy confirms that their concerns were exaggerated. It notes that there is "no evidence to indicate widespread, systematic or deliberate funding of extremist groups, either by the Home Office or by local authorities or police forces." There is also a danger that the Government will now make the opposite mistake -- rather than taking the middle course, of refusing to fund these groups but still engaging with them, it will ignore them or try to marginalise them. Ministers should read the article last weekend on the ConservativeHome website, by a local activist and backer of the Big Society, which clearly sets out the flaws in this approach.

The more fundamental problem is that the strategy does not make clear whether the Government believes in tackling non-violent extremism as a matter of principle, or because it thinks this will reduce the risk of terrorism. Either or both are legitimate -- if arguable -- policy positions, but the Government needs to be much clearer which is driving policy in which areas, as they can have quite different implications.

A second and related problem is that this policy shift -- which we know has caused a stand-off at the top of government -- has, perhaps unsurprisingly, not been properly and coherently worked through the strategy. It is one thing to say that central government will stop funding extremist groups -- and even start trying to marginalise them. It is quite another to demand that universities and internet providers intervene actively against groups or individuals who "do not share our core values".

In the section on universities, the wording slides between asking universities to monitor and take action against people or groups involved with terrorism -- which academics may tolerate --  and asking them to monitor and take action against groups who disagree with our "core values" -- which they surely cannot. There are similar concerns about the wording in the section on the internet, which slides between talking about blocking online content which is "unlawful" -- which is a matter of fact, and relatively uncontroversial -- and blocking online content which is "harmful" - which is a matter of judgment, and highly controversial.

Unless this strategy is rapidly clarified, it could have unhappy consequences for freedom of speech and thought, whether on campus or online.

Matt Cavanagh is Associate Director at IPPR www.ippr.org

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Who will take responsibility for the rise in far-right terrorism?

Muslims are asked to condemn Islamist terrorism – should the mainstream right do the same when the attackers are white?

Following the attack on a Finsbury Park mosque, both Theresa May and Amber Rudd have issued statements and delivered speeches adopting hard lines against Islamophobia and right-wing extremism. May has gone so far as stating that Islamophobia itself is a form of extremism.

These pronouncements have drawn positive responses from prominent members of the Muslim community such as Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain. But it is important to question whether or not this change in rhetoric signifies a genuine change in government policy.

On the face of it, there are reasons for tentative optimism. The seriousness with which politicians took the Finsbury Park attack is a significant change. On this, the government is ahead of the media. While other terrorism attacks have been condemned as unjustifiable violence, some newspapers framed the Finsbury Park attack as a "revenge".

In fact, radicalisation is not a one-off event, but takes place in a web of institutional, social and ideological conditions. Furthermore this ignores a much longer story about the drip, drip, drip of Islamophobic or anti-Muslim discourse which permeates British society. 

The government has played a part in legitimising this anti-Muslim sentiment. Let’s not forget that Prevent has, since its inception, disproportionately targeted Muslims. The impression of an "us and them" mentality is only underlined by its secrecy. Moreover, the Prevent agenda has conflated a variety of other social policy concerns relating to gender equality, sexual violence, and unemployment as "extremism" issues. For example, Amber Rudd herself suggested that Islamophobia would decline if grooming stopped, which can not only be seen as victim-blaming, but further contributes to stereotyping Muslims as the enemy within.

So are promises to get serious about Islamophobia more empty words from the Prime Minister?

Think about timing. Far-right extremism has been deadly. Mohammad Saleem was brutally murdered in 2013 in Birmingham by a far right extremist. Mushin Ahmed was killed in 2015 (and was notably called a "groomer" by his attacker as his head was stamped on).

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist this time last year. This is not even mentioning individuals such as Ryan McGee, who made a nail bomb and was intent on murdering immigrants.

Just twelve days ago, the Prime Minister claimed that Britain was too tolerant of extremism, and she was right. Just not in the way she meant it.

Britain has indeed been too tolerant of extremism of the far right kind. This is a rising problem, not just in the UK, but also in Europe.

According to the defence and security think-tank RUSI, far right extremists make up 33 per cent of the threat, with Islamic extremism slightly more at 38 per cent. Furthermore, one in four referrals to Channel, the UK deradicalisation programme, are from the far right.

We cannot forget the government itself peddles the tropes of far right hate. Think of David Cameron referring to migrants as "swarms", May’s hostile environment policy, complete with "go home vans" driving around in multicultural areas, and the uncritical embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency by the Prime Minister. 

The Muslim community has been told many times to fight terrorism from within, but will there be a similar response to far right extremism? The ongoing rhetorical attacks on multiculturalism, and the longstanding association of Islamist radicalisation with a lack of integration, rather than religiously inspired political violence, make it difficult to see how real change will happen.

This would require deep soul-searching, followed by serious changes in public debates about policies relating to both immigration and extremism. Until that happens, May’s words on Islamophobia will be nothing more than political PR.

But this PR also has a more sinister element. Although no specific new counter-terrorism legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech, there was a promise that the government would review existing counter-terrorism laws, with a spokesman stressing that new legislation would be brought forward if needed.

May continues to lobby for increased executive powers to fight terrorism, which she has done since her time as home secretary. The policy on right-wing extremism is likely to follow that of Islamic extremism: it will focus only on ideology and it will ignore the wider context of structural racism and white privilege.

Ask yourselves, will white men ever be stopped and searched to the same extent as brown men? Will white women be seen as easy targets for violent attacks as Muslim women disproportionately are? Will far right extremists fear for their citizenship status?

And does the solution to extremism, in any form, truly lie in further oppressive legislation and more government power? We also need to be aware that powers extended to address extremism are likely to continue to have a disproportionate effect on minorities.

As long as there is no change in government policy, the status quo will continue to reinforce the same divisive narrative which is the bread and butter of every extremist group. After the Queen’s Speech, we continue to see no evidence of any serious attempt to reform policy and seriously address far right extremism. May’s empty words after the Finsbury Park attack represent nothing more than an opportunistic political move from a weakened Prime Minister who is desperate for approval – and for power.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.

Dr Naaz Rashid is a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourse (Policy Press 2016) about the UK government's engagement with Muslim women as part of its Prevent agenda. She can be followed on Twitter @naazrashid.

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