Ebbing Tide: The Battle for Hearts and Minds in the UK

Al-Qa’ida has enjoyed little apparent success in the UK in recent years. There have been no successful attacks since the bombings of July 2005, the number of plots appears to be declining, and – if court cases and prisoner numbers are reliable indicators – fresh recruits to the cause in the UK are waning as well. Does this mean that Al-Qa’ida is a largely spent force in the UK? Have we entered the beginning of the end?

Victory in any terrorist conflict ultimately depends on two critical factors. The first is the intelligence war: each side must protect its own secrets and plans while uncovering those of the enemy. The second, and arguably the most important, is what has come to be known as the battle for hearts and minds. This is a psychological struggle to win and hold support. So long as a terrorist cause enjoys a significant amount of popular support, then a conflict can continue. But if that support ebbs away, then the terrorists and their cause become isolated, and their days are duly numbered.

So how is the battle for hearts and minds going in the UK? In the modern era, British counter-terrorism is guided by the government’s CONTEST strategy.[1] Four key elements provide the foundation for CONTEST – Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare – but of particular interest here is the Prevent strand.[2] Prevent aims to stop radicalisation and is the strand most keenly focused on winning the battle for hearts and minds. Arguably it has also been the most neglected and underfunded of the four strands.

Neglecting Prevention

The relatively peripheral nature of Prevent can be illustrated by examining its resources. In 2006, the police Anti-Terrorism Branch was merged with the Metropolitan Police Service’s Special Branch to create a new organisation: Special Operations 15 (SO15) counter-terrorism command (CTC). By 2007, some 2,000 police and support staff were involved in running the CTC and its three regional units.

While the CTC is certainly heavily involved in the Pursue element of CONTEST, very little effort seems to be focused on Prevent. One notable exception, the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU), has played an important role in building positive links between the police and Muslim communities.[3] Established in 2002, the Muslim Contact Unit’s principal objective was to create partnerships with Muslim community leaders who could help tackle the spread of extremist propaganda in London. This helped to facilitate some pioneering counter-terrorism community engagement projects. The Muslim Contact Unit’s remit was then expanded to cover all of England and Wales. However, resources for this activity have remained extraordinarily limited with a theoretical maximum of eight officers assigned to the work of the unit (and in practice often less than this).[4] Eight officers from a staff of 2,000 does not suggest a high priority.

The overall government budget for counter-terrorism also drives home the relatively peripheral nature of support for Prevent activity. Investment in counter-terrorism has increased enormously in recent years, with annual spending on UK security rising from roughly £1 billion in 2001 to £2.5 billion in 2009, and annual spending on counter-terrorism expected to rise to £3.5 billion by 2011.[5]

Yet, incredibly, no-one is able to provide exact figures on how much has been spent on Prevent-related activity, although rough estimates suggest 2009 spending was probably in the region of £60-70 million. Bearing in mind that the total CT budget for the same year was £2.5 billion, the relative importance of Prevent in the government strategy becomes clear. Even more ominously, the Home Office has already warned that funding for Prevent projects is set to decline sharply in the current economic climate.

But this relative neglect of Prevent does not necessarily imply a governmental belief that the hearts and minds battle is unimportant. Instead, it may illustrate a widespread uncertainty as to what actually works in this area. The government has deliberately avoided using any objective measures for assessing its counter-radicalisation efforts, and the current yardstick, ‘National Indicator 35: Building Resilience to Violent Extremism’, has no quantitative measures associated with it. Unusually, success or failure is self-assessed and judged on a subjective basis. The lack of more objective measures undermines efforts to identify what is working and what is not, and it is difficult to build momentum behind effective initiatives, and stop investment in failures.  As a result, almost none of the Prevent projects and initiatives have been properly evaluated, and in cases where a decent evaluation has been carried out, it has not been made public. The outcome is a profound lack of information on what actually works, making evidence-led policy impossible. In such circumstances, the lack of a clear and detailed strategy framework, or further investment, is hardly surprising. 

Assessing Hearts and Minds

Yet evidence in different forms is obtainable. In a battle for hearts and minds, psychology offers many insights as to how the struggle is progressing. Attitudes, for example, are frequently measured, surveyed and assessed in other policy areas. It is important to ask sensible questions: ‘On a scale of one to ten, please rate the strength of your sympathy with Al-Qai’da?’ is hardly likely to gain an honest answer from a strong supporter of the group.

Of course, more useful questions are possible. There are two sides in the battle for hearts and minds, and measuring support and sympathy for the government can be just as useful as measuring support for terrorism. For example, a number of surveys have asked less-loaded questions such as ‘Do you believe that the British government is anti-Muslim?’ which can yield useful material to work with.

Interestingly, surveys using such questions have found that among Muslim communities in the UK, belief in purported institutional Islamophobia has declined in recent years. For example, in March 2004 an ICM poll found that 64 per cent of Muslim respondents thought that UK anti-terrorism laws were being used unfairly against Muslim communities. A Times Populus survey in July 2006 found that this figure had dropped to 47 per cent, while a BBC poll carried out in June 2009 found that it had dropped further still, with ‘a third of respondents saying they thought the police, government and British society were anti-Muslim’.[6]

This type of data is helpful in understanding what is happening in the battle for hearts and minds, and suggests that the UK is indeed becoming an increasingly austere environment for Al-Qa’ida and its kin. Such a picture ties in with the declining number of plots, court cases and convictions.  The threat is by no means over but the tide does, for now, seem to be ebbing.


Naturally, there are still problems. The surveys themselves are still very flawed in their current states. There have been very few of them, none have been tied in to specific initiatives, and all have used different questions. This last point is crucial, as psychology has long shown that even very subtle changes in phrasing can dramatically affect the responses received. For example, three polls in 2006 asked Muslim respondents questions relating to sympathy or tolerance for both Al-Qa’ida and acts of terrorism. One suggested a sympathy/approval rate of 20 per cent among British Muslims, another was very similar at 22 per cent, but the third suggested an astoundingly high 51 per cent.[7] Variation in the type of questions used across the three surveys therefore seriously clouded the answers, hindering rather than helping efforts to understand what was really happening.  Consistency in the type of questions, attitudes and issues examined is therefore vital for these approaches if they are to effectively evaluate the impact of the small-scale projects which make up most of Prevent.

Are Prevent projects changing people’s attitudes? Or are wider forces – such as foreign policy and international events – the real driving forces behind any changes? The short answer is that at the moment we simply do not know.

Professor Andrew Silke is Chair of Criminology and Programme Director for Terrorism Studies at the University of East London. He is also Special Advisor to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee. His next book, The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism, will be published by Routledge later this year.


[1] Home Office, ‘Counter-terrorism Strategy’, <http://security.homeoffice.gov.uk/counter-terrorism-strategy/>, accessed 29 January 2010.

[2] Home Office, ‘The four Ps - Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare’, <http://security.homeoffice.gov.uk/counter-terrorism-strategy/about-the-strategy1/four-ps/>, accessed 29 January 2010.

[3] Select Committee on Home Affairs, ‘Memorandum submitted by the Metropolitan Police Diversity Directorate’, <http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmhaff/165ii/165we25.htm>, accessed 29 January 2010.

[4] Darren Thiel, Policing Terrorism: A Review of the Evidence (London: The Police Federation, 2009).

[5] <http://security.homeoffice.gov.uk/news-publications/news-speeches/CONTEST_HS_statement_240309>.

[6] Anthony Richards, ‘Countering the Psychological Impact of Terrorism: Challenges for Homeland Security’, in Andrew Silke (ed.), The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism (Oxford: Routledge, 2010).

[7] Andrew Silke, ‘The Psychology of Counterterrorism: Critical issues and Challenges’, in Silke, op. cit. in note 6.

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