Britain is reviewing its cornerstone anti-terror programme. As the name implies, Prevent is a strategy designed to stop radicalisation before it metastasises into killer intent. But how well is it working?
There have been accusations that Prevent is discriminatory. Groups such as Liberty and the Muslim Council of Britain have criticised the anti-terror strategy for targetting Muslims, arguing that it has caused hurt to Britain’s Islamic communities. But there are also criticisms that, even on its own terms, the Home Office programme isn’t working as well as it should. Dame Sara Khan, the social cohesion tsar, last week warned that efforts to tackle Islamist extremism are being hampered by ‘political correctness’. The fear of being called a racist, she explained, is hampering our ability to avert deadly extremism.
Khan is of course right, as anyone who has followed Britain’s numerous terror attacks will have heard. Remember the Manchester Arena bombing and the security guard who spotted the Salman Abedi behaving suspiciously with his rucksack? Kyle Lawler, then aged just 18, claimed that if he had confronted Abedi, his career might have been ruined by an accusation of racism. This is far from the only case. Khan herself has given the example of an unnamed local authority in which councillors were ‘very comfortable’ talking about the far-right but altogether more coy when it came to the Islamist threat – which, regardless of what some media outlets might have you believe, is still by far the greater danger to Britain’s streets
And it isn’t just local government that’s the problem. Hannah Stuart, a terrorism expert who previously worked at the independent Commission for Countering Extremism alongside Dame Sara Khan, has spoken of how common it was to sit through hours-long meetings with government departments only for Islamist extremism to be studiously avoided. She has said how during these meetings, civil servants seemed ‘very wary of talking about Islamism and very wary of being called racist’.
The police too even discussed dropping the term ‘Islamism‘ in favour of ‘faith-claimed attack’ in order to avoid accusations of stigmatisation. While in prisons the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation described an understandable fear of discriminating against Muslim prisoners, resulting in a ‘tendency to regard Islam as a “no-go area” [and a] reluctance to focus on Islamist group behaviour.’ But across Britain and Europe, prisons have proved an incubator of Islamist terror.
Surely academics, the last defenders of truth, would study this phenomenon without fear or favour? Not a bit of it. All of the career and funding incentives point toward safer subjects while focusing on jihadism risks accusations of hardline politics at best or islamophobia at worst. A colleague recently tried recruiting a graduate analyst to work on Islamist extremism and terrorism. He couldn’t find a single researcher. All of the applicants – perfectly polite and eloquent – spoke of their interest in studying the far-right, incels, or in studying video gaming and extremism. In other words, in studying anything but Islamist extremism.
Studying jihadism is not only unpopular, it can at times feel dangerous. Just ask the Bristol University professor forced to leave his home after a spurious campaign was whipped up against him – mere months after a fellow educator was forced into hiding in Batley and another was decapitated on the outskirts of Paris.
Even at the very top, the response to Sir David Amess’s murder quickly descended into a debate about online trolling. The reality was clear, if uncomfortable. During the trial of Ali Harbi Ali, who was later jailed for life for the attack, the jury heard that the killer had written that he was motivated by ‘revenge for the blood of Muslims’.
The review of Prevent, led by Sir William Shawcross, will attempt to redress some of these problems. How easy that will be remains to be seen. Far-right referrals to Prevent now outweigh their Islamist reports. It is clearly a problem – just look at the planned Neo-Nazi attack on Labour MP Rosie Cooper. But there is a question of proportion. Only so many resources are available for halting extremism. The public rightly expects that those resources are used as efficiently as possible. And yet there seem to be substantially differing referral thresholds for far-right and Islamist extremists, as well as a rapidly expanding category of what constitutes ‘far-right’ in the first place, at least according to Prevent practitioners I've spoken to. Perhaps that has something to do with the various NGOs and civil society organisations pushing the notion of a burgeoning far-right terror network in Britain. Their unmistakably celebratory tone whenever far-right referrals outweigh Islamist reports gives away rather more than they'd wish.
There is something unmistakeably bleak about our institutional response to an enduring extremist threat. Too often those who clearly state the problem are hounded by accusations and ditched by colleagues for fear of cross-contamination. Those charged with understanding and preventing terrorism shouldn't be afraid of accurately and fully describing where it comes from. The risks are just too high.