14 September 2023

Suella Braverman is right – Prevent should be about stopping potential terrorists, not treating them as victims


A week ago today, the furore over a low value terror suspect slipping out of HMP Wandsworth obscured an important announcement by the Home Secretary on improvements to how we stop people becoming violent extremists in the first place.

Suella Braverman made a statement in the House of Commons on progress to implement the recommendations of the Shawcross report – the long awaited review of our national counter terrorism Prevent strategy.

My organisation, the Counter Extremism Project contributed a submission to the review, which delivered its analysis in February this year. Shawcross delivered a pretty devastating critique of the way we manage people reported to be at risk of being drawn into ideological violence. He said the strategy had lost focus on its core mission – to stop people getting into terrorism. Motivation was looked at through the lens of vulnerability, not agency. Double standards applied to the interpretation of Islamist and extreme right wing ideologies, the former being tightly prescribed, the latter on a mission creep that threatened to stifle legitimate political discourse. 

This biased world view was actually assisted by the Home Office’s own research unit, which spent time and public money talking up a chimera of neo-Nazi extremism with cack-handed and partisan analysis, even casting mainstream media commentators in the same light as Islamist murderers. If you’re looking for black humour in their works, their reading list of ‘gateway’ texts to fascism include the author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Antisemitism is a feature of many hateful ideologies, but was hardly on the radar of practitioners. Similarly there was little in the way of action against violence related to blasphemy, even the threat of which causes institutions which should be defending enlightenment values to collapse. 

Some of the most egregious findings of the Shawcross review showed officials sending public money to organisations that seek to legitimise Islamist extremism. To tackle this, Braverman has created a new compliance and monitoring oversight body for Prevent and outsourced it to the Commission for Countering Extremism. We have become accustomed to public bodies defaulting back to old positions for lack of robust oversight. So because Prevent will still be largely operated through local authorities, some of whom are actively hostile to its existence, we need a watchdog with teeth.

The Home Secretary seems determined to push through recommendations that would stop Prevent from being a safeguarding crèche and take it back to first principles. This flies in the face of many organisations and activists who spend their lives, and sometimes our money, contextualising or excusing the behaviour of people who want to do this country harm. 

Two thirds of terrorist prisoners in UK jails are Islamist extremists; 90% of MI5s surveillance activity relates to violent jihadis. The pre-eminent national security terrorism threat in this country by history, bodycount and future intent is Islamist extremism. Braverman’s progress update is a way of reversing some of the institutional timidity that has been disastrous for public safety and community cohesion. Being in the thrall of a small number of activists who are determined to talk up neo-fascism and minimise the threat of Islamism is a propaganda goldmine for real right-wing extremists. I see these people every day online capitalising on state inertia and the perception that police, educators and local politicians fall over themselves to collude with non-violent Islamist extremism. They are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the creation and delivery of online material directed not at mouth breather racists, but mainstream Britain. So I also welcome the creation, long overdue, of a rapid rebuttal unit to counter the pernicious and relentless efforts by haters of all persuasions to undermine the effectiveness of Prevent. 

Shawcross was careful to recognise that we have some brilliant Prevent practitioners working under great pressure. I know and admire many of them. They must be freed from political dogma to focus on actual security threats, not those that are most palatable to progressives. It’s quite possible that these reforms will push others more comfortable with Prevent as social justice work to seek other employment. That too would be a good thing. Those working with those who are a potential risk to our safety must be up to that challenge. 

People are rescuable from violent extremism, particularly the young. But we must not discount their toxic beliefs and intentions because of their age, nor read them as vulnerabilities. While many young people from across the ideological spectrum are radicalised, in part due to their environment, and can be exploited or manipulated it is a dangerous fallacy to dismiss their agency. It’s also counter-productive if your approach to weaning people away from destructive behaviours is built on externalised excuses. A tougher security focus on Prevent may be the one thing that stops young people wrecking their lives and others.

While the progress report from Braverman is a welcome sign that the state is rebalancing our counter-terrorism strategy, we can’t be complacent. There are big questions still to answer about why our society is an incubator for violent extremism. I’ve argued in the past that we have a missing piece in our policy jigsaw – the non-securitised ‘Promote’ which assertively advances the rights and responsibilities of living in a democratic society to all citizens. These bigger themes can’t be addressed by Prevent alone. But the Home Secretary deserves praise for insisting that within its remit national security will come first.  

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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.