Kurdish peshmerga guard Kirkuk against IS militants. Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson: Arrest British citizens who go to Syria or Iraq "without good reason"

"The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a 'rebuttable presumption' that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose," says the Mayor of London.

Boris Johnson has said that it should be assumed British citizens returning from Iraq or Syria have been involved in terrorist activities unless they can prove otherwise.

In his Daily Telegraph column, the Mayor of London wrote: "The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a 'rebuttable presumption' that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose." He adds: "There are perhaps five or six hundred Britons currently out there – overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, young men. If and when there is a real attempt to take on Isil, they may come back in a hurry and in a group."

Johnson also advocates the return of control orders, which were introduced in 2005 and repealed in 2011. These allowed the home secretary to restrict an individual's liberty on command, perhaps demanding a suspect surrender his passport and placing restrictions on visitors. They have been described as a "prison without bars".

On the wider question of intervention, Johnson is non-committal. He writes:

"These Isil wackos now control an area the size of Great Britain, considerable oil reserves, a population of about six million, some industry, and a military capability said to be second in the region only to Israel. To take them on will not be easy, and I can see all the arguments for doing little or nothing – letting “history” take its course. No one could claim that previous Western operations have been crowned with success. It is now pretty obvious to everyone (except the bonkers Tony Blair) that things were made much worse, not better, by the removal of Saddam Hussein. How can we be sure of doing better this time?

. . .

No option looks very appealing, to put it mildly; and yet doing nothing is surely the worst of all. If we let Isil get their way, then we will be acquiescing, first, in a gigantic and violent change in international borders. Next, we will be allowing a new and hideous regime to be born: a country where black-flag waving jihadis compete to show they have the most bigoted and reactionary understanding of their religion by persecuting women, Jews, Christians, gays, Yazidis and Shi’ites."

Johnson's comments will renew pressure on foreign secretary Philip Hammond to announce further measures to combat extremism in Britain and terror abroad, following the execution of journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. Last week, Hammond ruled out the option of co-operating with Syria's Bashar al-Assad to fight the jihadis of Islamic State (also known as Isis). 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.