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7 July bombings five years on: Is there still a role for communities in tackling terrorism?

Commentary, 6 July 2010
Government policy since 7/7 has placed equal importance on tackling terrorism at the grassroots level. 'Community-based counter-terrorism' might be at the so-called 'soft' end of the security spectrum, but it is the hardest to get right.

Government policy since 7/7 has placed equal importance on tackling terrorism at the grassroots level. 'Community-based counter-terrorism' might be at the so-called 'soft' end of the security spectrum, but it is the hardest to get right.

By Rachel Briggs, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI

Tanweek Khan_July 7 BombersWhen we talk about community-based approaches to counter-terrorism, we often describe them as sitting at the 'soft' end of the spectrum, in contrast to the 'harder' interventions employed by the military, police or intelligence services. This language of 'hard' and 'soft' can wrongly imply that community-based approaches are easier; in reality they are some of the hardest things to get right and the easiest things to mess up. Our experience in the UK is testament to this.

We have been trying to get them right in the UK for a number of years: it is five years since 7/7, when we were shocked by the images of four 'home-grown' lads preparing for mass murder as they boarded the train in Luton. It is three years since the concept of Prevent was launched, and two years since it was rolled out nationally. In 2006, this correspondent co-wrote a report called Bringing it Home: Community-based approaches to counter-terrorism, which made the case for strong and equal community partnership in tackling terrorism and criticised many of the early efforts of government.

Strategic success, tactical failure

Looking back on the intervening years, it is clear that at a strategic level community-based approaches have been successful. The argument for community partnership has been won, with our experience in Northern Ireland teaching us that counter-terrorism without community buy-in is like fighting with one arm tied behind your back. Even in these tight financial times, it would be hard to imagine the new government scrapping the idea entirely.

Despite this success, delivery at the tactical level has been patchy at best. For this reason, it is to be expected that the Prevent strand of the UK Counter Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST) will come under considerable scrutiny in the forthcoming review rightly so given its performance on the ground. The poor delivery of Prevent tactics has occurred for four main reasons: it hasn't been properly embedded, the messages from the centre have been mixed, policy makers at the local level are not yet equipped for the job, and negative unintended consequences have hampered efforts.

Community partnerships are not embedded

For communities to play a role in tackling terrorism they need to be treated as trusted and equal partners by the government: an attitude which needs to be reflected in the structure and culture of decision-making. The government can't talk about partnership, openness and trust and then hide behind complex and opaque decision-making structures that require Freedom of Information requests to make public even the most basic details of funding and project commissioning. This has occurred in many local authority areas, where Prevent action plans are not published, and information about projects is not subject to the same kinds of demands for openness and accountability that is necessary in almost all other areas of local spending.

There are obvious reasons to restrict public access to threat assessments and intelligence, but most aspects of Prevent relate to upstream activities aimed at community and capacity building, so there are not the same requirements for secrecy. There needs to be a shift in mindset in terms of information sharing and the default position should be one of disclosure unless there is a very good reason to do otherwise. The concept of partnership also needs to be 'locked in' through structural changes to decision-making, funding, reporting requirements and accountability mechanisms.

Mixed messages from the centre

For partnership to be effective, there needs to be a clear and commonly agreed purpose and direction for policy. There has been considerable effort to make counter-terrorism policy overall more transparent which is to be welcomed; CONTEST has been published, there have been updated versions and a review in 2010, and guidelines to partners are publicly available. But policies have been translated differently from government department to government department, which has left local practitioners and communities confused about what they should be doing.

Should Prevent focus on just Muslims or all communities, as it does in many parts of Europe? Should it be about the prevention of violent extremism, or extremism more broadly? Is it best delivered upstream in a highly preventative and broad way, or downstream in a narrow focused way? Is it about security, human rights and democratic freedoms, or promoting integration and cohesion?

Allowing local areas the freedom to design locally specific responses is a good thing. But my own research shows that most local Prevent action plans bear no relation to the corresponding local threat assessments; they are not risk based or locally tailored. It is often hard to understand the rationale for the projects that are commissioned; women's cooking groups, playgrounds, and sports activities for young people alongside intensive work with mosques, Channel referral processes and rehabilitation programmes for prisoners at risk of radicalisation. There is a tendency for local authorities to focus on the projects that are easier, rather than those that are most important.

Local authorities are poorly equipped to deliver

Local authorities are not on the whole equipped for the task in hand. The rationale for de-centralisation was obvious: community-based counter-terrorism needs to be community-based, i.e., local. But evidence suggests that local authorities simply don't know their communities, which means they make poor decisions when commissioning projects.  

What's more, many spend large proportions of their precious Prevent budgets on community mapping projects and community needs assessments, which are conducted by external consultants who take the relationships and knowledge away with them at the end of the contract: these external consultants are usually not even local to the area.

Local authorities do need to prioritise this work, but it is perfectly obvious that they need to do it themselves. Yes, it is likely to be difficult to do so initially; many of the vulnerable and fragile communities we are talking about do not necessarily trust government and authority. But through doing this work themselves, local authorities would help to break down these barriers, gain a nuanced understanding of their local communities, and forge vital relationships that would bear fruit across many different areas of policy.

Local authorities should reassign this money towards creating community liaison posts which, from what I have seen, would cost less than these outsourced projects but provide real, tangible and human links to underpin a community-based approach to counter-terrorism. 

The impact of negative unintended consequences

We need to remember that efforts over the last five years have been conducted against a highly negative backdrop for Muslims in the UK: research by Insted Consultancy showed that in the media they surveyed, 96 per cent of tabloid coverage of Muslims was negative and 89 per cent of broadcast coverage of Muslims was negative. The Home Office's own research shows that Muslims trust the police and authorities less than non-Muslims, in large part a result of heavy-handed anti-terror laws. There are also reports of rising Islamophobia across the country.

Even where community-based approaches are delivered with the best of intentions, efforts will inevitably be at least partially viewed through the lens of these wider experiences. The blurring of lines between security and community policies has now become so unhelpful that a clear line needs to be drawn between the two. Wider efforts at community building with the aim of reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience to radicalisation remain as important as ever, but they need to be insulated from security policies, and be directed at all fragile communities together under the banner of human rights, political freedoms and equality of opportunity. Projects aimed at the de-radicalisation of individuals, referrals processes for those identified to be at risk, and counter-extremist strategic communications need to remain a central part of counter-terrorism, but it's time for the rest to be tackled in a broader and more inclusive way to ensure that any negative unintended consequences do not undermine the entire counter-terrorism effort.

Partnership is vital to successful counter-terrorism; it is a whole-society endeavour, although the government clearly needs to steer, coordinate and ensure that core values are maintained in the face of the terrorist threat. But partnership - like friendship - only works when both sides are committed, when common interests and concerns can be identified, and where fine words are matched by routines, structures and rules. Community-based counter-terrorism might be at the so-called 'soft' end of the security spectrum, but it is the hardest to get right. It might have won the strategic argument, but there is still a considerable amount of hard work to be done to get the delivery right at the tactical level.

Rachel Briggs recent essay on this subject 'Community Engagement for Counterterrorism: Lessons from the United Kingdom' has been published in the July 2010 issue of International Affairs.

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