19 October 2021

Stopping terrorists starts with Prevent – but an overhaul is badly needed

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Publication of the review of the Government’s ‘Prevent’ counter-terrorism strategy can’t come soon enough. After the grotesque murder of Sir David Amess last weekend, details have emerged that the suspect had been referred to Prevent for screening after reported suspicions he was becoming radicalised. His alleged killer, Ali Harbi Ali, 25, has been detained under terrorism legislation with police saying they suspect an Islamist extremism motive.

Ali was reportedly referred to Prevent officers as a teenager. We don’t yet know what happened to him in the intervening period to put him on a fatal trajectory with his alleged victim. Hundreds of young people are referred to Prevent every year and only a tiny proportion of them are judged as serious enough in intent to warrant further intervention. The issue of whether he fell through the cracks is relevant, despite what other commentators may say. The 2015 Parsons Green tube bomber, Ahmed Hassan, was referred to the Surrey Prevent scheme on several occasions in the months before his attack. No meaningful action was taken. But there’s a bigger problem that the review led by William Shawcross must respond to.

Prevent is currently a national security strategy with a parish hall mentality. This vital strand of the Government’s counter-terrorist CONTEST strategy is run out of local authorities with wildly varying political complexions, resources, expertise and appetite when it comes to dealing with the threat of violent extremism. Many of these authorities and their local partner agencies, perhaps cowed by a relentless campaign of vilification by advocacy groups like CAGE and MEND, go out of their way to state what Prevent is not: ‘spying, stigmatising or criminalising people‘. The huge sensitivity of practitioners to avoid allegations of Islamophobia and racism has also been exploited by activists opposed to the whole concept.

At the same time publicity about the vital nature of its work has inexorably increased the workload (pandemic excepted). What should always have been a narrow and deep conceptual approach has become wide and shallow. So it is increasingly less clear what Prevent is actually for, and the message is further obscured by the language of ‘safeguarding’, particularly amongst teenage referrals.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that safeguarding isn’t an issue. Many vulnerable people will be drawn to the seductive and simple messages peddled by violent extremists. We have seen this on countless occasions in prisons where Islamist groomers inspire and mobilise others to violence. In the community, instead of being drawn into a national security response, such people ought to have been diverted to a mental health route where the capacity exists.

But it’s also important to say there are plenty of other examples where a commitment to violent extremism is a freely made personal choice, even in some very young people. This toxic world view does not emerge from environmental causes or victimhood, and is therefore immune to faltering and crude interventions based on that misconception. Here the ‘Healthy identity’ is the one that embraces death to the unbeliever not some pallid alternative advanced by naïve officials . In such cases, the deception used to disguise malign intentions may be well outside the capability of well meaning front line staff to detect. Are these the black swans currently sailing past our preventative capability?

The outcome of this cringingly careful triangulation is a system overwhelmed with trivial referrals, with the hard edges of national security blunted by layers of bureaucracy and philosophical differences between partner agencies. The primary goal – stopping people becoming terrorists – is therefore obscured. Time for a reset.

In my organisation’s submission to the Shawcross review, we argued for a reorientation of Prevent away from a local ‘safeguarding’ referral system competing with other statutory bodies, and towards a narrower, more muscular security response with greater expertise focused on geographic ‘hotspots’ where data on violent extremism drives the work. We worried the prevailing official narrative that right-wing extremism was the fastest growing threat was a ‘comfort blanket’ statistic, obscuring the patently more potent threat of Islamist extremism. The body count does not lie. The designation of terror plots thwarted by the security services does not care about your sensibilities. We contended that an increase in official sophistry to try to equate these ideological threats was seriously damaging public trust at a time when clear-sighted and decisive action was required.

The signs are that the Shawcross review will try to reverse the mission creep of Prevent and recast it as a national or at least regional service, removed from the local authority orbit and greatly professionalised with counter-terrorism specialists driving the decision-making. There are some outstanding practitioners in the field who would rejoice at such news, Many of them have shared the concerns raised here with me and my colleagues, but inevitably they feel unsafe discussing them in public. The best of them ought to be central to a new service.

Prevent may have nothing to do with the murder of Sir David Amess, but a refreshed and repurposed strategy should be entirely focused on finding and robustly managing only those who pose a potentially serious risk to national security before ideas become deadly action. We must end the notion of voluntary engagement and have in place criminal penalties for non-compliance with diversion activities. Our multi-agency risk management system for terrorist offenders in prison, further along this dismal pipeline is similarly broken. It requires the same vigorous and radical renewal we hope for in the Shawcross review. What we need in this time of national sorrow and outrage at the killing of Sir David Amess is the Government’s courage and conviction to go after the ecosystem that supports and enables such barbarity. Will we get it?

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

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