The recent lowering of the terrorist threat level of the UK by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre indicates a reduction in active, credible plots. However, it is unlikely that this decision incorporates an assessment of the reduced potential of violent radicalisation. The ability to include such assessments remains an ambition and at the moment would have little to offer an immediate appraisal.
Nevertheless, the combination of a demonstrated potential for rapid violent radicalisation and the prevalence of electronic and printed extremist propaganda presents a substantial risk, and is at the core of efforts to understand and prevent violent radicalisation. The Prevent approach seeks to offset this risk through effective communication and the engagement of communities in countering propaganda.
The UK has invested substantially in Prevent efforts. These initiatives remain somewhat experimental and while significant signs of promise exist, this component of counter-terrorism strategy remains largely unproven. The Prevent strategy aims to reduce support for terrorism and to disrupt the process of radicalisation. Its objective is to provide some diversion or counter-argument to individuals either actively seeking, or vulnerable to, recruitment into terrorism. Prevent focuses on sub-criminal activity or situations where law enforcement options would be unproductive. In the UK the approach depends upon actors within communities for its delivery since only they have the access and local expertise necessary to identify and counter violent extremist views.
An early challenge to the strategy was the difficulty of separating the public discourse around the 9/11 attacks and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts from the more conciliatory language required for engagement. In 2001 the War on Terror was described as a ‘world war’ by US officials in which states were either with or against the US; Afghanistan was the ‘first overseas front’. The effect of this polarised narrative was to divide communities across the world, fostering racism, resentment and siege mentalities.
In the UK, domestic Prevent progress has been limited by the idiom of the War on Terror and our own international positioning. Only now, as the US moves towards a ‘post-war on terror’ law enforcement model to counter terrorism, is there potential to abandon the rhetoric and credibly isolate the radicalisers.
Al-Qa’ida’s single narrative of a Western conspiracy against Islam is weaker now than at any time since 2003. While it remains as binary as the early positioning of the Bush administration, current policy is moving towards recognising the need to influence a spectrum of views. The change in rhetoric from Washington brings an opportunity for terrorism prevention policy to yield benefits in the reduction of domestic radicalisation. The election of Obama itself has dented Al-Qa’ida’s polarising propaganda; overtures to Iran and the impending closure of the Guantanamo facility have further undermined it.
However, the international context of the War on Terror and its ongoing consequences continue to weigh heavily on the minds of the public, commentators and politicians. Political credibility in relation to counter-terrorism remains low despite numerous successes. Experiences and perceptions of persecution have isolated many Muslims in Europe and every policy announcement and arrest is scrutinised from a position of scepticism by the press and public.
Current Barriers to Prevent
Practitioners in the police and local government have had to contend with significant conceptual, practical and communications-based problems. Engaging and funding local partners to deliver a high profile component of counter-terrorism strategy has proven extremely difficult. Further problems have been manifest in ensuring that partners are themselves credible and capable of defining the parameters of their engagement, as well as ensuring value for money.
At the core of these difficulties are two problems: the standing of officials in recruiting local partners; and the definition of radicalisation that guides their activity. While credibility is tied to the global factors highlighted above, there are more proximate barriers that can and must be addressed.
A key obstacle remains the need to identify and, if possible, address grievances. Though an identified area in the government’s Prevent strategy, it has so far been neglected. The inability of government to explicitly recognise the impact of foreign policy on domestic radicalisation has impeded Prevent progress. This political denial, which some ministers have come close to recognising, destroys credibility. Moreover, identifying real grievances will aid statutory partners in engaging with sceptical communities.
The growth of the far-right across Europe cannot be ignored in attempts to counter violent radicalisation in Muslim communities. In the UK, the activities of far-right groups have been recently assessed as presenting an increasing violent threat. Their views encourage extremist views in their target communities. This tension is exploited by radicalisers in their propaganda as an example of state persecution of Muslims. It is clear that a sole focus on the Muslim community in relation to terrorism is self-defeating, lacks legitimacy and inhibits co-operation.
The recent case of Neil Lewington’s planned campaign of racist violence against ‘non-British’ communities is significant. It serves to highlight the real threat of extreme violence, and the devastating impact a successful attack would have on a strategy too focused on the Muslim community. The government must ensure that Prevent incorporates the range of sources of violent radicalisation, and adopts a broad understanding of community cohesion.
This presents a problem for the government since the current strategy is clearly focused on Al-Qa’ida inspired terrorism; funding priorities also relate to this. While this type of terrorism remains the main concern in terms of frequency and scale of attacks, there is a clear two-fold rationale for incorporating the threat from right-wing violent extremism into the counter-terrorism approach: firstly, it is a convincing threat to security; and secondly, it is a factor in the radicalisation of individuals by Al-Qa’ida propagandists.
Ignorance and suspicion towards the Muslim community continues to drive tensions that undermine Prevent and feed radicalisation. A particular problem is the growth of conscious and unconscious discrimination in the minds of some officials. This is seen in the effective racial profiling of individuals in public places, disproportionate attention at airports and ill-considered use of stop-and-search powers. All of these cause resentment, undermine Prevent and feed the propaganda of radicalisers. These practices and attitudes must be eroded through better training and elimination of the permissive policies that allow them.
A recent assessment by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) highlights the progress that police forces have made in developing capacity to deliver Prevent. Almost all forces in England and Wales have Prevent considerations built into their strategic risk assessments. An increasing number have Prevent teams and Channel Project Co-ordinators who aim, in co-operation with other statutory and local partners, to identify individuals vulnerable to violent extremist propaganda, and intervene to prevent their radicalisation.
Organisational capacity in local and regional government has closely followed progress in policing. Efforts are currently underway to develop the means by which Prevent considerations can be comfortably introduced into wider social and educational services. Such structural developments have been the primary area of expansion, parallel with a growing ability to engage local partners. In many respects, however, the strategy remains conceptually vague and indeterminate – leaving it open to accusations of muddled thinking and mission creep in related areas of social policy.
The foundations of promising Prevent activity are evident. However, taking it beyond this and addressing the barriers identified above will require some difficult, long-term decisions. The next generation of Prevent activity must take a more holistic approach – identifying and addressing disproportionate or incompatible policies. The Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, has highlighted the need to review areas of anti-terrorism legislation whilst the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, announced his intention to review the operation of stop and search under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. These sentiments represent an understanding of the limits of legislation and recognition of the counter-productive impact that areas of legislation and policy can have.
One recent positive development is guidance to police recommending that law-enforcement options give way to Prevent alternatives where possible. This is an important example of where the Prevent and Pursue components of counter-terrorism strategy overlap. It further demonstrates how far anti-terrorist legislation reaches when opinions, attitudes and beliefs are held up as grounds for prosecution. Points of view cannot be prosecuted out of people. Moreover, the risk of having a radicalised prison population indicates the need for careful community-based solutions.
Critically, the Prevent policy needs to adopt a lower profile. Initiatives should be integrated into existing local government and voluntary activities. It should be presented as no more or less than it is: social policy aimed at protecting vulnerable individuals and the wider public from terrorists of any ilk. Alongside efforts to improve credibility, this will make Prevent more acceptable to the wider public. Mainstreaming into other social and protective services is the primary way in which Prevent can be cemented cost-effectively into long-term policy.
Finally, exploiting existing practice and learning is essential to developing sophisticated understandings of what constitutes vulnerability to violent extremism. This will enable focused, measurable and financially lean initiatives that can provide the analytical bedrock for preventative approaches in the coming years.
Richard Reid and Andrew Ibrahim, as the first and most recent terrorism cases in the UK, demonstrate the need for and success of Prevent. Reid could have been identified at a number of points following his release from prison prior to his attempted attack. Current Prevent activity now means that such an individual would be much more likely to come to the attention of the police and even have their radicalisation prevented. The suicidal ambitions of Andrew Ibrahim were disrupted as a consequence of local Prevent engagement which resulted in a member of the community bringing their concerns to a police engagement officer.
Official assessments produced so far have pointed to success in appointing Prevent-focused officials, the creation of teams and allocation of resources. Success in creating local partnerships and delivering projects is also evident. Much can and should be learned from funded Prevent projects. In defining the parameters of vulnerability to violent radicalisation and the appropriate ways to counter this, however, there is still much to do. For example, more focused Prevent work based upon reviews, evaluations and learning is required. Guiding this with more research into specific areas of the country, particular socio-economic groups, modes of communication, and conflicting areas of policy will also help. This will enable the development of specific criteria against which activity may be assessed in the future.
Senior officials and politicians regularly point to Prevent as self-evidently the only way to counter terrorism over the long term. Prevent is a new, progressive area of policy and its development, in the face of scepticism and the absence of substantial empirical guidance, can be judged a qualified success. However, it remains a politically vulnerable and controversial area of policy. If it is not to fall with a change of government or be lost in the cost-savings of a debt-mired Treasury, it must prove itself quickly.
Head, Security & Counter-terrorism
NOTES The Prevent Strategy is one of the four Ps of the UK Home Office’s counter-terrorism strategy,
 Duncan Gardham, ‘Terrorist Andrew Ibrahim was turned in by the Muslim community’, Daily Telegraph, 18 July 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/5851168/Terrorist-Andrew-Ibrahim-was-turned-in-by-the-Muslim-community.html, accessed 22 July 2009.
Head, Security and Counterterrorism