The attacks on Borough Market provide an opportunity to reflect on what works—and what doesn't. Photo: PA

I used to head Prevent—here's why the program shouldn't focus on Islam

May is taking a risk by making the debate about ideology. Instead, we should look at personal issues that lead to radicalisation
June 16, 2017
Two weeks after suicide bomber Salman Abedi killed 22 concert goers leaving the Manchester Arena, terror struck again, this time on London Bridge and in Borough Market. Borough Market defines London’s transformation from dowdy insularity to cosmopolitan metropolis. Where better for terrorists to assault that most pernicious of western evils—ordinary people enjoying their lives on a Saturday night?

Within eight minutes of the attack starting all three terrorists had been shot dead by armed police. In addition to extremely professional policing, the response of ordinary Londoners showed the world’s most international city at its best: Albanian bouncers prevented attackers entering one nightclub; a Romanian baker fought back with bread baskets. Quick-thinking allowed hundreds to escape. Still, the attack claimed eight lives and raised serious policing questions.

The government’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest, was adopted in 2003. It breaks down into four: Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare. The last two were on display in London: without any knowledge of this group of attackers, the police knew that places such as Borough Market are targets for IS-inspired attacks. Exercises, briefings and war-games have been carried out to enable the swiftest response. The annoying “traffic management” that means many small roads are now dead-ends, and the bollards outside public buildings, all form part of the “Protect” strand. Had the Borough Market attacks occurred 10 years ago, the eight-minute response would have been unimaginable. More would have been killed.

Pursue and Prevent are more complex. Pursue relates to investigative and intelligence operations to track and disrupt terrorist activity. MI5’s 500 active investigations involve 3,000 individual subjects. Its successes are largely invisible, though occasionally we learn of plots disrupted or uncovered. In the aftermath of the Manchester attack, an unnamed Whitehall source briefed the press that police had stopped 18 serious attacks in the UK since 2013, five in the last two months. When governments talk of forcing messaging services such as WhatsApp to provide a “back-door” to their encrypted content, that is in support of Pursue. Similarly, retaining post-Brexit access to key European intelligence databases such as the Schengen Information System, which requires the UK’s ongoing membership of the European Court of Justice, will be one of the policy challenges of Brexit.

The fourth strand, Prevent, is the most controversial. Speaking outside No 10 in the wake of the attack, Theresa May declared, “enough is enough… there is—to be frank—far too much tolerance of extremism in our country.” One of the attackers, Khurram Butt, appears to have been involved with the banned Al-Muhajiroun group, and even appeared in a television documentary unashamedly sharing his radical views.

Prevent’s strategy, to quote official documents, “is to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.” The idea is to tackle the radicalisation that leads to violence. Using a medical analogy, if Pursue is surgery, Prevent encourages a healthy lifestyle. In the aftermath of attacks, some commentators say “Prevent has failed.” This is self-evident. But at the stage that a terrorist is ready to mount an attack that will lead to his death, radicalisation is complete. Prevent interventions need to occur far earlier.

To take an example: a young British Muslim reads online that the UK government is killing “his people” in Syria and feels duty-bound to fight back. Does he have alternative interpretations and ideas to draw on? Does he attend a mosque where the imam invites difficult questions and tries to offer answers on matters of loyalty, the rule of law and the rights of the individual? Or does the young Muslim have no authority figures who take his concerns seriously? Perhaps he knows a charismatic Muslim who is handing out leaflets calling for a Caliphate. Perhaps he feels a sense of belonging among a group of men who share his views and provide answers. But in wider society he feels under suspicion as a Muslim; he has experienced limited personal success and feels alienated and frustrated. He joins the group of like-minded Muslims, has his views reinforced and sharpened and eventually travels to Syria to join IS. Prevent exists to counteract this sort of scenario.

Yet government can only intervene in limited ways. Attempts to involve school teachers and NHS workers have led to allegations of the government “forcing” public servants to spy on vulnerable young people. In addition, the question of who is an acceptable partner for government quickly descends into name-calling about different types of Muslim. In some cases, Prevent projects have used arguably “radical” partners that would have greater credibility with potential targets of radicalisation; a 2011 review of the strategy found that funding had reached groups that preached extremist ideologies and promoted homophobic, sectarian, divisive viewpoints, but stopped short of supporting violent terrorism. Deciding who to deal with and who to shun is far from easy.

Governments have grappled with this challenge for years: David Cameron promised to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, a non-violent extremist group that agitates for an Islamic state in Britain, but was unable to do so under UK law. For years, the provocateur Anjem Choudary made offensive comments calling for women to be stoned for adultery and defending the use of crucifixion by IS. But most Muslims regard him as ludicrous with little influence: his main platform was given to him by the mainstream media.

By starting a debate about ideology, May is taking a risk: governments are not well-placed to debate religious matters and can end up stigmatising Muslims, including the huge numbers of law-abiding Muslims who abhor violence. British Muslims have been co-operating with authorities, passing intelligence and leads, as the 23,000 names on the counter-terrorism watch-list attests.

To be successful, Prevent would do far better to stop talking about Islam altogether and start focusing on the personal issues that lead individuals to become attracted to violent groups: the power of social networks, the impact of charismatic individuals and young people lacking self-esteem and a sense of belonging in wider society.

Now read Victor Jeleniewski Seidler on why young men turn to terror