7 July 2020

Our counter-extremism policies are ripe for reform – and now is the perfect time to do it

By Robin Simcox and Hannah Stuart

It is 15 years to the day since the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London. These were the first Islamist terror attacks that the UK had experienced, leaving 52 dead and around 700 injured.

Since then we have had a Labour Prime Minister declare that “the rules of the game are changing” and –  after suffering a spate of Islamist terror attacks in 2017 – a Conservative Prime Minister warn that “enough is enough”.

Yet neither party was quite able to back up tough words with policies to match. A persistent threat remains. The stabbing in Reading last month that left three dead and several injured was the fourth attack linked to someone on the radar of the police or security services in the last seven months.

This is not to say that no progress has been made. A raft of anti-terror legislation has been introduced or loopholes closed. Tighter security measures – in airports, city centres, at the border and more – were implemented. The terrorist groups who either directed or inspired attacks in the UK were placed under military pressure in Syria and elsewhere.

However, progress has been trickier to come by in the so-called battle of ideas. It is here where there are opportunities for Boris Johnson to make headway.

Any Government seeking to make progress in this area is hobbled, first and foremost, by structural issues limiting the effectiveness of two key programmes: the Prevent strategy, which aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, and the Counter-Extremism Strategy, designed to tackle the social harms caused by extremism.

At present, the relationship between Prevent and the Counter Extremism Strategy lacks clarity. The policies share overlapping objectives, leading to confusion over who is meant to be delivering what. Furthermore, rather than actively challenging the ideologies of extremists, funding has tended to be funnelled towards less contentious programmes designed to promote integration and cohesion. This is important work but also only part of the solution. More must also be done to push back against groups pushing extremist ideas in the first place.

Another part of the reason that the Government has not challenged extremism as effectively as they could is that confusion reigns within the bureaucracy about who exactly it is they are meant to be challenging.

It was not intended to be like this. As of 2011, Prevent – in theory – explicitly ruled out working with or funding organisations that do not accept the fundamental values of “universal human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society”. That was laudable in theory but has not always proved workable in practice, with some in government believing the scope was too broad to ultimately identify key areas of concern.

The negative consequences of this are particularly felt within the civil service, where there is an in-built assumption that the very process of engagement with a variety of groups with wildly divergent viewpoints is a positive outcome.

That can lead the Government to engage with, and be influenced by, groups whose support for Islamist causes overseas makes them unable to condemn the actions of violent groups, or whose politicised interpretation of their religion leads them to accuse Muslims who work with the Government of being collaborators. Groups determined to sow division and mistrust of state institutions are not good partners for identifying those areas where Islamist influence needs to be firmly pushed back against.

The scepticism with which allegedly-mainstream British Muslim groups treated the Trojan Horse schools scandal is one example of this.

The good news is that, while there are clear issues to resolve, this is the perfect time for the Government to do it. The Counter Extremism Strategy has recently expired and a review of Prevent is due this year. That means there is an opportunity for the Government to resolve these issues and provide clarity on objectives.

For now, Covid-19 has shunted the counter-terrorism and counter-extremism agenda down the list of government priorities but the tempo of attacks means it will inevitably keep resurfacing. A proactive response is required. That does not mean wholesale change. It means tweaking areas that are not working properly. It means publishing clear criteria of engagement for Government and its partners, based on democratic principles. And it means providing a clarity of vision on how best to push back against extreme ideologies.

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Robin Simcox is Director of Counter-Extremism Group. Hannah Stuart is Director of Research.

Columns are the authors' own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.