Preventing Violent Extremism: Responsibilities and Failures in the Police and Probation Services

Two recent events have ignited an all-too-familiar debate on the threat posed by extremists radicalised in the UK. On Christmas Day a 23-year-old Nigerian man and one-time student of a British university attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit by detonating explosives sewn into his underwear. Just over a week later, Islam4UK, a radical Islamist organisation with close links to Al-Muhajiroun[1] in both ideology and membership, announced its intention to march in Wootton Bassett, the Wiltshire town through which the bodies of fallen British soldiers pass following repatriation. The public outcry was so strong that the home secretary later announced the proscription of the organisation, in all its guises, under the provisions of the Terrorism Act.[2]

In light of these incidents, it is perhaps unsurprising that Prevent – the nom de guerre of the UK’s counter-extremism strategy – has received renewed criticism. Two critiques are particularly prevalent. First, that Prevent has a laissez-faire attitude towards individuals who broadcast extremist beliefs on British soil.[3] Second, that Prevent is unfeasible because it requires criminal justice agents to identify and interact with individuals who boast alarming extremist credentials, without providing these agencies clear direction about with whom and under what conditions such engagement should take place.[4]

This article has three central aims: to describe, in brief, the counter-extremism responsibilities of the police and probation services; to refute the criticisms so frequently levelled at Prevent; and to highlight Prevent’s more pertinent and pressing difficulties.

Counter-Extremism Initiatives in the Police and Probation Service

The success of Prevent pivots on the successful collaboration of government, local partners and local communities in providing targeted counter-extremist initiatives within the community.

For the police, Prevent’s main responsibilities are fourfold: to create and maintain dialogue with local communities in order to foster strong relationships; to enhance knowledge of the array of demographic differences within and between Muslim communities; to use the knowledge and relationship acquired to identify those at risk from the attractions of extremist ideology; and to counter these attractions using a range of tailored interventions. To take a concrete example, the Channel strand was designed to identify individuals and groups vulnerable to, or in the early stages of, radicalisation, by using existing relationships between the police and local partners to provide appropriate interventions for those in the early stages of radicalisation. The Channel project is symptomatic of the initiatives under Prevent’s aegis; other projects also aim to create new local partnerships (or employ existing ones) in order to strengthen community resilience, aid integration and reduce support for and recruitment into extremist groups.

Whilst academic and political attention has been particularly focused on the police’s Prevent initiatives (and failures), it has overlooked the responsibilities of the probation service, whose Central Extremism Unit was set up and funded by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) in 2008. The unit is responsible for those individuals convicted of terrorism-related offences and subsequently released on licence from the UK’s prisons into the care of the probation service.

The probation service has two primary functions. In the first place, it seeks to prevent potential risk to the public from these offenders by employing Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPAs). Historically, MAPPAs have been used in the rehabilitation of sex offenders and violent offenders who are deemed to pose a significant risk to public safety. Risk assessment is negotiated by the probation service in co-operation with the police, the prison service and other Prevent partners, and shapes the drafting of ‘bespoke’ licence conditions to which the offender must adhere in order to complete his or her sentence in the community. In addition to this risk assessment role, the probation service is also responsible for the rehabilitation of offenders. Interviews conducted by the author in 2009 suggest that probation officers tasked with the risk assessment and supervision of terrorist offenders often found that they simply did not possess the training or knowledge required to aid the offender’s rehabiltation. This is part of the long-standing neglect of the probation service’s essential Prevent role.

In the near future, this will present the government and its Prevent partners with a real problem. How is the probation service to risk-assess and risk-manage those individuals convicted of non-terrorist related charges who have become radicalised in British prisons? Currently, the probation service is stretched dealing with the relatively small number of extremists convicted of terrorism-related offences. On the face of it, Prevent in its current format has neither the intelligence capability nor the counter-extremism initiatives to deal with the ever-increasing numbers (if current research is accurate) of individuals becoming radicalised in UK jails.[5]

Dispelling the Failure Myths

As noted earlier, there have been frequent calls to proscribe groups that disseminate extremist ideology in the UK. A recent article in the press, for example, argues that proscription is a mechanism for protecting society from extremist ideology, and concludes that ‘if providing that protection requires fewer “consultations” with “community leaders” and more arrests, then so be it’.[6]

The problem with proscription of extremist groups (in contrast to violent extremist groups) is that it leaves the government, the criminal justice agencies and, indeed, the Prevent strategy open to precisely the allegations of Islamophobia made by extremists. Islam4UK, for example, specifically adopted this position following their proscription, describing it as ‘an evident failure for democracy and freedom’, arguing that Britain has become an ‘apartheid state, where Muslims are treated as second class citizens’.[7] The outlawing of non-violent extremist organisations lends precisely the kind of credibility and media attention to violent Islamist ideologies which they crave and which Prevent is designed to counter. Moreover, it has the potential to contribute still further to the alienation and demonisation of peaceful Muslim communities in the UK – communities whose trust and integration is required for Prevent to work successfully.

The second ubiquitous criticism of Prevent has concerned the selection of Muslim partners, in particular those with extremist backgrounds. A report from the Policy Exchange, for example, argues that the Prevent strategy is fundamentally flawed, not only because there is a lack of guidance on how to identify appropriate partners, but also because a number of community ‘leaders’ have lengthy extremist, and in certain cases violent extremist, credentials.[8] Indeed, the Policy Exchange report goes so far as to say that Prevent ‘has ended up empowering the very people [it] was supposed to undermine’.[9]

But the report’s criticisms of Prevent’s selection of local partners are misleading. Primarily, these criticisms blur the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘violent extremism’. Secondly, to exclude non-violent extremists is to open up the state to precisely the same accusations of totalitarianism and Islamophobia incurred from the proscription of these organisations; and, thirdly, the recommendation that a community-led counter-extremism strategy should be increasingly directed by the guidelines of central government seems to be both ill-conceived and contradictory.

Operational Difficulties for Prevent

The UK’s counter-extremism strategy is not failing because it is selecting the wrong partners, nor because extremists are permitted to broadcast their ideology in the UK. It is failing because of the universal failure to provide definitional weight to terms such as ‘radical’, ‘extremist’ and ‘violent extremist’. The consequences of the failure to identify the target audience are threefold.

Firstly, the multiple and conflicting definitions at an organisational and local level of ‘extremist’ and ‘violent extremist’ have constructed a target audience so loosely specified that it has caused widespread confusion over whose extremism should be challenged. Moreover, interviews conducted by the author in 2009 with members of key Prevent agencies revealed that the slippage between these terms had a real impact at the operational level. The Probation Service, for example, view extremism in terms of risk assessment and rehabilitation, the police view it in terms of criminality, and the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism in terms of long-term strategic priorities. Unsurprisingly, these definitional differences had ramifications when Prevent partners had to co-operate, particularly when required to assess the risk posed by Terrorist Act offenders in MAPPA meetings. Prevent partners tended towards definitions which were derived from their organisational ‘mentality’ and which corresponded to the priorities, responsibilities and training provided by the agencies for which they worked. Consensus was, not surprisingly, difficult to achieve.

A second consequence of the slippage between ‘extremist’ and ‘violent extremist’ has been that the government and its Prevent partners have, in response to widespread criticism, focused all too heavily on the politically driven matter of who they should partner with, rather than the underlying problem of how to build partnerships. As a consequence, Prevent’s counter-extremism measures have been derived from incomplete, subjective community concerns, voiced by small numbers of partially-representative Muslim leaders rather than being the flexible, directed initiatives required to prevent violent extremism. To be successful, Prevent requires access to the broadest possible cross-section of individuals in local communities, and this, crucially, requires high levels of trust to exist between those communities and local Prevent teams.

A third and closely related problem for the Prevent strategy has been the persistent claim, in academic and political spheres, that community-led counter-extremism work creates trust as a sort of social by-product – that it can be a ‘strategy for building trust’.[10] This is, as it were, to put the cart before the horse. In fact, the Prevent strategy requires trust between Muslim communities and the criminal justice agencies as a prerequisite for successful counter-extremist work. Without this trust, there is little hope of fostering effective partnerships and even less hope of identifying extremists and potential extremists in the community with the help of local partners.

Ways Forward

Solving the problem of the lack of rigour in identifying a ‘target’ extremist will not only provide a firm response to Prevent’s multiple and vocal critics, but also ensure that the UK is tackling problems of extremism in a successful and democratically accountable fashion, without alienating or losing the trust of large portions of the Muslim community. To be clear, Prevent is a salvageable and potentially effective counter-extremist strategy, but it needs to be refocused in light of the crucial problems outlined above. Specifically, there is a real and urgent need to foster and maintain high levels of trust between communities and Prevent partners, and to provide a better overall conceptualisation of the extremists at which Prevent is directed. On top of this, Prevent partners – particularly the Probation Service – must be adequately equipped with the appropriate skills and training to address the problems of extremism in the UK. Without such refocusing, Prevent will not only fail to counter extremism, but may actually contribute to it.

Benedict Wilkinson
Department of War Studies
King’s College, London


[1] Al-Muhajiroun is an Islamist organisation that was proscribed under the UK Terrorism Act 2000 on 14 January 2010 together with four other organisations including Islam4UK.

[2] BBC News, ‘Government to Ban Islam4UK under Terror laws’, 12 January 2010.

[3] Michael Gove, Celsius 7/7: How the West’s policy of appeasement has provoked yet more fundamentalist terror – and what has to be done now (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006); Melanie Phillips, ‘“Londonistan” is still the weakest link’, Daily Mail, 28 December 2009.

[4] Policy Exchange, Choosing our friends wisely: Criteria for engagement with Muslim Groups (London: Policy Exchange, 2009).

[5] Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan, Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

[6] Daily Telegraph, ‘A murderous ideology tolerated for too long’, 29 December 2009.

[7] Islam4UK, ‘Al-Muhajiroun/Islam4uk Ban?is a Victory for Islam and Muslims’, 13 January 2010.

[8] Policy Exchange, op. cit.

[9] Policy Exchange, op. cit, p. 42.

[10] Jytte Klausen, ‘British Counter-Terrorism After 7/7: Adapting Community Policing to the Fight Against Domestic Terrorism’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (Vol. 35, No.3, 2009), p. 416.

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