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

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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.