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The New PREVENT Strategy: Establishing Realistic Expectations

Commentary, 9 June 2011
Terrorism, Europe
In conducting a review of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, a genuine effort has been made to recalibrate the policy. Yet, behind the rhetoric of the document, the substance of the argument risks to be lost over vague, and sometimes contradictory, terms of reference. More clarity is still required for the counter-radicalisation policy to be effective.

In conducting a review of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, a genuine effort has been made to recalibrate the policy. Yet, behind the rhetoric of the document, the substance of the argument risks to be lost over vague, and sometimes contradictory, terms of reference. More clarity is still required for the counter-radicalisation policy to be effective.

By Valentina Soria, Research Analyst, RUSI 

Prevent Strategy 2011The release of the revised PREVENT strategy is the culmination of a review process initiated in November 2010, when the Home Secretary Theresa May expressed the need to fix a strategy which up to that point had not been effective enough because of a lack of proper focus and clarity.[1] It also apparently brings to an end a controversial debate which has unravelled over the past few months around the role of multiculturalism in British society; while David Cameron famously asserted last February that 'multiculturalism has failed' and it would be necessary to promote British values more decisively,[2] Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promptly recognised a few weeks later the benefits of an open society,[3] emphasising the need to adopt a tolerant approach towards different ethnic and religious groups. Certainly, attempts to smooth the substantial collision that would result from this have been made within the Coalition Government. But a solution of compromise has apparently failed to materialise, with inevitable repercussions on the essence of the new PREVENT which seems to explicitly mirror the Prime Minister's more hard-line stance.

It is clear, for instance, that the strategy incorporates a broader definition of extremism which, at least theoretically, should enable local authorities and other governmental actors involved in the programme to more easily identify and select suitable organisations to work with. The provision of clearer criteria for partners' selection was undoubtedly one of the most compelling issues the review had to address, this being a critical element for the effective implementation of the counter-radicalisation strategy. Yet, it also represents its most controversial aspect, in light of the significant divergence of views in political circles about the merit of working with groups who embrace more radical ideas and principles.  

The problem with engagement

Under the new approach, funding will be cut to 'Islamic groups that espoused extremist views'[4] and do not support essential British values such as respect for human rights, democracy, equality before the law and full participation in society.[5] These new requirements would therefore preclude a wider array of organisations from receiving public money for PREVENT-linked projects than it was the case under the previous Labour government. Indeed, whereas a subtle threshold existed previously between radical ideas and the promotion of violence which would determine who was acceptable to engage with, the current approach rejects the distinction between violent and non-violent extremism, condemning all radical ideologies in the first place. However, several inconsistencies and problematic issues seem to arise from this attitude which may ultimately hinder the effectiveness of the Government's counter-radicalisation policy.

First of all, by making explicit reference to Islamic groups with extremist views, there is the risk, once again, of narrowing down the strategy's remit so as to deal exclusively with radicalisation within Muslim communities. This is not a fundamental weakness per se (insofar as jihadist terrorism is nowadays regarded as the biggest threat to UK national security and the same PREVENT strategy was launched as a consequence of the terrorist attacks on 7 July 2005); yet it seems to defy the government's declared commitment to tackle 'all forms of extremism, from the far left to the far right'.[6] Although the need to combat right-wing and other forms of extremism and terrorism is acknowledged in the new strategy,[7] doubts remain as to the extent of public funding which will be devoted to, as well as the number of projects devised to deal with, this type of extremism.

This is an important aspect since coherence between the substance of a governmental policy and the way in which this is communicated to the public is the condicio sine qua non for its successful implementation.

The greatest contradiction, though, refers to the overall approach towards extremism and how the Government plans to deal (or not) with it. It is clearly stated in the document that 'extremism and extremist organisations will not be part of Prevent',[8] which means that the strategy's focus will be on terrorism and preventing individuals from becoming terrorists. Yet, the ideology promoted by terrorist organisations largely shares, and in fact is mostly based on, the same narrative which underpins many extremist organisations. This is something the strategy itself acknowledges, by suggesting that extremist individuals are the ones more likely to be drawn towards terrorism-related activity.[9] This creates confusion and risks hinder the Government's effort to counter terrorism, in that it seems keen to deal with the disease without addressing the symptoms. An apparent solution offered is to leave open the possibility to somehow engage with extremist groups without funding them. But such an approach has other implications.

Ruling out the possibility for extremist groups to get access to public funding will mean for, instance, that Islamist organisations who acted as advisors [10] under the previous Government will see their financial support withdrawn; as a matter of fact, twenty of such organisations have already been identified.[11]

This certainly allows channelling public money towards groups and individuals who embrace moderate views, thereby avoiding the risk of financing those who instead tend to promote a version of society which is fundamentally incompatible with 'mainstream British values'. Yet, the downside of such an approach is that moderate organisations may lack the appeal needed to engage vulnerable people, and therefore may not necessarily be the best placed to carry out de-radicalisation work. Most crucially, the strategy still fails to provide appropriate criteria to help determine whether an organisation should be deemed as extremist. The vagueness which characterises the definition of extremism contained in the document inevitably leaves this assessment process vulnerable to an arbitrary and incoherent judgement.

Assessing effectiveness

Those working at the 'hard edge'[12] of Prevent (which involves dealing with already radicalised individuals rather than preventing radicalisation from occurring in the first place) have apparently come to appreciate this and have, therefore, seen the necessity to adopt a more pragmatic approach in order to be effective. The police, for instance, have found working with Islamist groups particularly useful, having realised that often the latter have the legitimacy and credibility to more effectively counter the message and narrative of violent jihadists. In this regard, they are seen as a valuable tool to prevent cognitive radicalism from becoming behavioural[13] and turning irreversibly into terrorism. Thus, the complexity of a counter-radicalisation policy may well imply the need for a multi-faceted approach requiring engagement with a broader and more diversified spectrum of actors than otherwise envisaged. Groups who are suitable partners at the 'soft' edge of Prevent may work ineffectively at the other end of the spectrum of intervention and vice-versa. It is important to bear this in mind when assessing the performance of such organisations, especially if it is true that the Government will expect very clear outcome from the projects it chooses to support.[14]

There has been criticism that, in the past, groups have been required to deliver results within a too tight timeframe, which has made it extremely hard for them to effectively engage with hard-to-reach individuals.[15] This might lead  us to speculate whether specific projects that have been judged as unsuccessful could have otherwise worked out, provided more time had been given to the selected partners or had such projects been carried out by organisations more likely to appeal to the intended target groups. In light of such a possibility, it is imperative for the new strategy to provide clearer measures of success which would therefore enable us to appreciate in advance whether or not specific projects and/or groups would be effective.

Arguably, a genuine effort in this direction has been made; the document makes clear that, when assessing the effectiveness of projects, the focus will be on qualitative outcomes (such as attitudinal and behavioural change) rather than quantitative outputs.[16] Yet, this guideline looks still too vague and the risk is to link the success of a programme to parameters which are by definition particularly difficult to measure.

Prevent concurrent to an Integration Strategy

However, the distinction between preventive and de-radicalisation work on the one hand and community cohesion initiatives on the other might facilitate the overall assessment process, and should therefore be viewed as a significant achievement in the evolution and recalibration of Prevent. While the Government has certainly stressed the fundamental link between fighting terrorism and creating a more integrated society,[17] it also seems to have come to appreciate that, in order for the overall strategy to be successful, the two strands need to be pursued concurrently yet separately.

To this end, it has been anticipated that a second strategy will be produced, specifically focused on integration.[18] This will hopefully help develop the necessary relationship of trust with specific communities upon which to build a more solid partnership, ultimately aimed at countering radicalisation and defeating violent extremism. In this regard, it is telling that Prevent-linked initiatives have generally been more successfully pursued in those areas where an already positive and well-established relation between the police and local communities existed before 2007. [19]

At the same time, though, it is necessary to acknowledge the inherent paradox of the Prevent policy which significantly limits what it can reasonably achieve. Until recently, the involvement in this governmental programme has brought specific groups to be viewed with suspicion by the same community they are part of and were supposed to engage. In other words, the idea of Prevent being a 'tainted strand' has made over time an increasing number of organisations and individuals reluctant to link their projects to the Government's counter-radicalisation agenda over fears of losing credibility and legitimacy.

Thus, while it is necessary for the Government to rework its communication strategy so as to remake Prevent appealing to as a wide and variegated range of organisations as possible, it does also need to appreciate the limitations of its intervention so as to define realistic expectations as to what it can reasonably expect to achieve. In this regard, some measure of 'self-restraint' - which would translate into a tendency to provide some kind of indirect assistance - could bring about a greater chance of success for initiatives that would otherwise risk to derail if too directly affiliated with governmental policies. The circumscribed effectiveness of a policy should not be read in itself as utter failure.



[1] 'Home Secretary Announces Prevent Review', Home Office Press Release, 9 November 2010

[2] Mark Townsend and Hannah Olivennes, 'PM Wins Row with Clegg over Crackdown on Muslim Extremists', The Observer, 5 June 2011

[3] Wesley Johnson, 'Ministers Rethink Anti-Extremism Strategy', The Independent, 7 June 2011

[4] Duncan Gardham, 'Universities 'Complacent' Over Islamic Radicals, Theresa May Warns', The Telegraph, 5 June 2011

[5] Prevent Strategy, HM Government, June 2011, p.1

[6] 'British Security Minister Outlines Key Elements of New Prevent Agenda', available at

[7] 'Universities 'Complacent' Over Islamic Radicals, Theresa May Warns''

[8] Prevent Strategy, HM Government, June 2011, p.25

[9] Ibid. p.39

[10] Michael Holden, Stefan Ambrogi, William Maclean, 'Special Report: Beyond Bin Laden, Britain's Fight Against Jihad', Reuters, 24 May 2011

[11] Joe Sinclair, 'Universities Criticised for 'Complacency' Over Extremism', The Independent, 6 June 2011

[12] Tufyal Choudhury and Helen Fenwick, 'The impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures on Muslim Communities', Research Report 72, Equality and Human Rights Commission, Durham University, Spring 2011

[13] Lorenzo Vidino, 'Countering Radicalisation in America. Lessons with Europe', Special Report 262, US Institute of Peace, November 2010

[14] 'Universities 'Complacent' Over Islamic Radicals, Theresa May Warns'

[15] 'The impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures on Muslim Communities'

[16] Prevent Strategy, p. 39

[17] 'British Security Minister Outlines Key Elements of New Prevent Agenda'

[18] 'Universities 'Complacent' Over Islamic Radicals, Theresa May Warns'

[19] 'The impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures on Muslim Communities'

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