27 January 2021

William Shawcross faces a daunting task overseeing Prevent

By Will Baldet

With the announcement of William Shawcross as the new Independent Reviewer of the ‘Prevent’ strand of UK counter-terrorism, you can expect the media to be saturated by commentary over the next few months, as the various stakeholders and interested parties battle it out in the press. 

Although often preceded by the word ‘controversial’ the Prevent Strategy is supported by the vast majority of those who actually know about it and seen as something of a world leader in the field of preventing and countering violent extremism. That, of course, should not make it immune to genuine criticism or improvement. The new reviewer will have plenty of people to talk to as he settles into his role, but as a practitioner, I would urge connecting with sincere critics, while retaining a healthy scepticism about the political motives of others.  

Consider Rights Watch UK (now rebranded to Rights and Security International), which brought a successful application for judicial review of the decision to appoint Lord Carlile as the previous Prevent Reviewer.

Just why were Rights Watch UK so animated? It is notable that from 2011-2015, one of their officers was also the Research Director for controversial advocacy group Cage. The officer is listed on Companies House as both a Director and Secretary of Rights Watch UK until his resignation on March 9 2015, just days after Cage’s infamous ‘Jihadi John’ press conference, in which Islamic State’s masked executioner was referred to as a “beautiful young man”.

It is also interesting that Rights Watch UK and the law firm they engaged to launch the judicial review are both listed in a document on Cage’s website as organisations which “in the course of our work, Cage has worked closely with”. I remain to be convinced that a group which praised an ISIS murderer, campaigned on behalf of a convicted terrorist and promoted “inspirational” jihadist imam Anwar al-Awlaki is best placed to opine on countering radicalisation. Certainly, such an organisation should not be working with any genuine human rights group.

For the review to be meaningful it must seek out constructive critics, beyond the noise of the lucrative anti-Prevent lobby. It also means engaging with the victims of terrorism and radicalisation. No one could feel anything but inspiration for Figen Murray, whose son Martyn Hett was a victim in the Manchester Arena attack. Since the attack, Murray has waged a brave and tireless campaign for a new ‘Martyn’s Law’, to ensure crowded venues implement airport-style security checks in the hope of avoiding similar tragedies in the future. Similarly, Nicola Benyahia, a mother who saw her family torn apart by Islamic State, with the radicalisation and subsequent death of her son in Syria, now works with other parents terrified of losing a loved one to extremism.

It means talking to academics specialising in studying and researching terrorism, terrorist groups and the ecology of radicalisation; that is, those social and psychological factors intersecting with ideology to facilitate the adoption of a terrorist worldview. Academics and experts will often tend to reach for a preferred single factor as the driver of extremism. Most often it will be the issue that aligns most strongly with their own worldview, be it foreign policy, immigration policy or social and economic marginalisation.

Bear in mind that political biases and tribalism have too often blighted public discourse on radicalisation. The truth is: it’s complicated. But this stalemate has stunted a more effective response to radicalisation.

Which brings me to my own perspective. After 13 years as a practitioner in Prevent, I have seen cases swing between socio-economic factors, psychological vulnerabilities and naked ideological commitment. Looking at just one of these explanations at the expense of others is rarely sufficient.

In my work, I am also seeing more and more cases of general disillusionment and disenfranchisement leading individuals to flirt with violent solutions, even in the absence of a clear ideology such as those of the Far-Right or “Salafi-Jihadis” like Isis. Even without a clear ideological cause, these individuals can nevertheless be supported through Prevent’s Channel counter-radicalisation program. The challenge for the new Prevent Reviewer, will be to examine existing referral processes to ensure that Prevent does not simply become a filtering system into which society’s most vulnerable are funnelled.

Prevent must, however, be careful that in our efforts to embed safeguarding principles into countering violent extremism, the ideological dimension of the problem is not overlooked. After all, one of Prevent’s core objectives is to “respond to the ideological challenge” posed by terrorism.

In a period of relative quiet compared to the horror years of Islamic State’s “Caliphate”, we should heed the recent reminder by the Counter Extremism Group that the post-Caliphate threat level would have been seen as “disastrous” just a decade ago. Now it is our new normal. This, an increase in far-right and Neo-Nazi activity, and the inevitable anxiety of the pandemic aftermath, ensures that a role for a preventative response to extremism and terror will remain in one form or another. 

The response to these threats – whether within the scope of Prevent or otherwise – should be subject to the utmost scrutiny and debate. However, the new reviewer must be clear-eyed about the motivations of some of the most vocal critics. A top priority of the review must be to ensure that the strategy successfully challenges extremist ideology. But the new reviewer should be aware that some of those very same critics would rather ideology wasn’t discussed.

For the rest of us, those interested in working together to prevent radicalisation and terror, throwing our weight behind the new Reviewer will be essential. I certainly don’t envy the inferno he is about to step into. 

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Will Baldet is a Regional Prevent Strategy Coordinator and a Policy & Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right.

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