Restricting radicalisation or forbidding free speech?
Amid all of the Brexit drama that is dominating headlines, as well as the ongoing concerns that a No Deal Brexit could put the public at risk, the controversy around Prevent has ebbed and flowed undeterred, but also unmanaged. Counter Terror Business explores the issue
At the start of the year, the then Security Minister Ben Wallace announced that the much-criticised Prevent strategy will be subject to an independent review, consequently led by Lord Carlile. The strategy, which safeguards vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism, is one of the four strands of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, providing a statutory duty for schools, NHS trusts, prisons and local authorities to report concerns about people who may be at risk of turning to extremism. But, it has faced constant opposition since its inception.
Civil liberties and human rights organisations allege that it fosters discrimination against people of Muslim faith or background and inhibits legitimate expression, particularly interfering with children’s rights to education and free expression. Civil rights group Liberty maintain that the Prevent strategy in the UK is the biggest threat to free speech at universities, labelling the tactics of the strategy for monitoring campus activism as having a ‘chilling effect’ on black and Muslim students, provoking self censorship for fear of being labelled extremist.
Such claims founded merit this summer when six writers and activists pulled out of the Bradford Literature Festival, protesting against the event receiving funding from the programme. Bradford-born poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, the first to withdraw, claimed that the government strategy treated all Muslims as potential criminals and that she could not endorse community organisations working with counter-extremism funding and support.
Nonetheless, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu has repeatedly stressed that the Prevent programme is the UK’s ‘best chance’ of reducing the threat from terrorism. Recognising that a lack of communication in the earlier years of the Prevent strategy had allowed critics to gain too strong a voice, he said that he and his policing colleagues have since been urging and working for ‘better communication, more transparency and no longer allowing an information vacuum to give people opportunity to attack Prevent without any rebuttal’.
The role of defining extremism
Much of this comes down to how we view extremism, and the definition we apply to the phrase. Extremism is a hotly contested term, and many feel that the government has not clearly outlined what it means by the term. The risk of human rights abuses is significant if clarity of what ‘extremism’ means cannot be reached. It is therefore essential to outline a clear and precise definition of what ‘extremism’ means and who exactly can be considered to be an ‘extremist’, a move that the government has not quite achieved. Alongside Islamaphobia, anti-semiticim and even the word terrorism itself, we have seen usage increase but understanding falter, or at least common understanding fall short.
But when extremism becomes radicisalition, the challenge becomes at what point to you intervene? To respond appropriately to this question, you need to understand what makes someone go from reading content online (the base), to communicating with others on the topic, to organising and planning an event, to actually leaving their house and committing a terrorist act (the tip)? And, of course, the biggest challenge in that is that everything up until the terrorist act itself is not necessarily a crime and is certainly not easy to prove in a court process. The criminal justice process in the UK applies to acts of terrorism – there is no special terrorist court or process – and this means that clear evidence needs to be provided in order to get a conviction. However, much of the information obtained prior to an act of terrorism being carried out is part of a much wider intelligence picture, a significant proportion of which cannot be presented in a trial. Therefore, it becomes extremely challenging to prosecute successfully.
Success or failure?
Returning to Prevent itself, the issue of whether the programme has been successful is a difficult one to judge, depending on which side of the fence you sit. On the one hand, the purpose of Prevent is to support individuals who are especially vulnerable to becoming radicalised and working with sectors and institutions where the risk of radicalisation is assessed to be high. Khuram Butt, the leader of the 2017 London Bridge attack, was involved with the Prevent programme, as was his brother. Likewise, following the attempted bombing on a train at Parsons Green Underground station in September 2017, it was reported that the main suspect, Ahmed Hassan, had been referred to Prevent. Both men were highlighted by the programme as being susceptible to radicalisation.
There is also little in the way of argument that the threat of right wing extremism is growing stronger. AC Neil Basu informed us earlier in the year that nearly a third of terrorist attacks foiled since 2017 were linked to the ideology, and that public help is important to help tackle right wing extremism by seeking help for those vulnerable to radicalisation. Data shows that the number of people referred over concerns about far-right activity increased by 36 per cent last year, accounting for 18 per cent of all referrals. That is the definition of Prevent, whose remit appears ideal to tackle such a threat.
Conversely, if the strategy is taken at its most basic aim, which is to stop people from becoming terrorists, the success of it is marred by the simple fact that both attackers mentioned previously carried out their charges. If Prevent is working, why were two young men, considered to be vulnerable, able to carry out the attacks that they did?
Writing for Counter Terror Business magazine last year, Erika Brady, from the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St Andrews, said that ‘you can tell a little more about the success or failure of a counter terrorism strategy by what doesn’t happen’. Describing CONTEST as having ‘many moving parts’, Brady stresses that it would be naive to assume that all of these parts are working at the same level of effectiveness at all times, but concluded that several substantial terror plots have been prevented from taking place each year and that the strategy, as a whole, was working.
Perhaps the ‘hitting the nail on the head’ assessment of the strategy from our interview with Brady was that casting CONTEST, and within that the Prevent programme, in a success-failure dichotomy is an over-simplification of a complex problem. She has said that more research is needed, and reviews are welcome.
Lord Carlile has said that his review is an opportunity to take stock of what Prevent looks like in practice, what’s working and what isn’t, and identify what improvements need to be made to respond to how the threat might change in the future. There is a worry that the independent review will be independent only in name, and, as Lord Carlile previously served the UK's Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation until 2011, such concerns seem warranted. And then, of course, Brexit could change everything…
This article was submitted as part of the media partnership between Counter Terror Business and the Counter Terror Expo.
This topic will be discussed further at World Counter Terror Congress, at CTX in ExCeL London, 19 – 21 May 2020. Don’t miss out, visit www.ctexpo.co.uk to register your interest and be among the first to know when registration goes live!