21 October 2021

Political correctness must not obscure the fight against violent jihadism

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The terror-related killing of Sir David Amess was a fundamental assault on our democracy. A long-standing MP, stabbed to death at a constituency surgery – a public-facing democratic exercise which is designed to foster stronger ties between individual MPs and their local constituents. 

The suspect – who is detained under terrorism legislation, with potential links to Islamist extremism being explored – is reported to have been referred to the counter-extremism Prevent programme, but did not spend long on the voluntary-participation scheme. 

However, much of the narrative surrounding the killing of Sir David has been fundamentally divorced from reality. Some, for instance, have referred to toxicity and divisiveness in British politics. That may be a perfectly reasonable concern, but I’m not sure how it relates to this terror-related killing. Talking about civility and language also ignores the reality that Britain has a confrontational and adversarial culture for decades – something which largely stems from a historically two-party system and a Parliament whose very architecture encourages heated debate.

Others have tried to establish some kind of link between Sir David’s cruel death and social media anonymity, with one MP calling for a ‘David’s Law’ to force users of sites like Twitter to identify themselves. As Matthew Lesh argued on CapX earlier this week, cracking down on online anonymity will do little to protect parliamentarians but would have plenty of negative effects of its own.

What’s clear in all this is that a large section of our political and media class studiously avoided discussing the attack’s potential association with violent Islamist extremism. 

The way we are dealing with that threat is a huge cause for concern. My new report for the Henry Jackson Society argues that there is a fundamental mismatch – on paper – between our counter-terrorism efforts and our overall terror threat. While leading counter-terrorism officials, such as Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, have stated that while far-right extremism represents the fastest-growing terror threat, jihadists remain a far more prevalent menace.

The 2019 Independent Review of Terrorism Legislation by Jonathan Hall QC, which was published in March 2021, concluded that ‘Islamist terrorism remains the principal threat in Great Britain’, with the majority of terrorism convictions in 2019 relating to Islamist extremism. It has also been reported that the vast majority of the 43,000 people on MI5’s terror watchlist – as many as 39,000 – are jihadists, compared to a few thousand far-right extremists. 

The Government’s Prevent and Channel counter-extremism programmes are designed to nip potential extremism in the bud by focusing on those vulnerable to radicalisation. However, the ideological breakdown of the broader terror-threat picture is not necessarily reflected in the ideological composition of suspected radicalisation-related risks referred to Prevent, cases discussed at a Channel panel, and cases eventually adopted as a fully-fledged Channel case.

From April 2019 to March 2020, fewer than one in four cases referred to Prevent – 24% – fell into the category of Islamist radicalisation (with 22% being classified as far-right radicalisation). For cases discussed at a Channel panel, the pattern reverses – with Islamist radicalisation and far-right radicalisation representing 30% and 38% of cases respectively. This gap further widens when it comes to being adopted as Channel cases – 30% are associated with Islamist radicalisation (210 in total), and 43% with far-right radicalisation (302 cases).

The average member of the public would find it bizarre that far-right cases outstrip Islamist cases when it comes to Prevent referrals officially diverted for de-radicalisation, given that Islamist extremism clearly poses a far bigger threat. It’s therefore incumbent on the relevant public agencies to provide official explanations – in the shape of comprehensive reports – for the disconnect between the ideological composition of cases referred to Prevent and adopted as Channel cases, and the ideological composition of the overall terror threat in the UK. This would help to bolster the legitimacy and accountability of the UK’s counter-terrorism infrastructure. Strengthening public trust and confidence is key – especially when one considers the possibility that the suspected killer of Sir David Amess had previously been referred to Prevent.

Moving forwards, hard-headed discussions must be had on the ideological underpinnings of Islamist extremism – and it must be recognised that being anxious over the country’s most significant terror threat is not a form of anti-Muslim prejudice. Indeed, a report by Crest Advisory found that – much like the wider public – a comfortable majority of British Muslims are concerned about Islamist extremism. It is also worth noting that when compared to the general population, British Muslims are more likely to say that they would report a radicalisation risk to the authorities. For example, before the Manchester Arena bombing, Salman Abedi was banned from a local mosque over his radical views on ISIS and reported by Muslims to the authorities. 

The UK – including its counter-terrorism structures and law-enforcement institutions – cannot afford to be paralysed by political correctness and tribal identity politics in the fight against Islamist extremism. It is a terror threat that concerns both Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain to similar degrees. Playing down the role of violent fundamentalist ideologies in deadly terror-related attacks – such as the killing of Sir David Amess – only undermines our counter-terrorism efforts. 

It is time to adopt a more robust and mature approach to tackling Islamist extremism – a threat to decent Brits of all faiths and none.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

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