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Britain’s Prevent strategy faces tough criticism but detractors may be misreading the situation
Hostile vehicle mitigation barriers installed on London Bridge to prevent future attacks. Image: ChiralJon
Prevent, part of the model for the UK’s countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy, has been in effect for over a decade and it continues to face two major challenges – proving its effectiveness and winning over the public.
Though fundamentally designed as a method to stop people from becoming terrorists, the media frequently reports on the controversies surrounding Prevent. Critics of the scheme accuse it of targeting Muslim communities and, in doing so, alienating these communities, creating a ‘climate of fear’ and stoking far-Right sentiment. Others allege it is ‘spying’ on citizens rather than keeping them safe.
In response, a senior Scotland Yard police officer recently told the BBC’s Asia Network that criticism of the strategy is based on “ignorance”.
Commander Dean Haydon, head of the London Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism command, also said that Prevent had in fact achieved “fantastic” results.
Regardless of whether Prevent is working as intended, it is unquestionably suffering from a PR problem. Haydon and many other officers involved in the scheme believe that positive results rarely go noticed by the public or reported by the media.
William Baldet, the Prevent Strategy coordinator for Leicester, told Defence IQ that the main criticisms do not add up.
“The Prevent strategy gets accused of overlooking the involvement of at-risk communities, but even before it came into being, its genesis was rooted in community consultation and working groups. In other words, Prevent was built by communities,” he said.
Meanwhile, the notion that Prevent only focuses on Islamic extremism is outdated.
When Prevent began to be formulated in the early 2000s, Al-Qaeda (and its various splinter affiliations) was the only target because it was the most likely group to engage in violent attacks. ISIS then emerged as the dominant threat and began to use the internet to recruit followers on an unprecedented industrial scale. The breadth of their propaganda was soon able to reach anyone with a digital device, from people in coffee shops to children in their bedrooms.
“But other groups were listening to these developments and learning from them,” said Baldet.
“This led directly to a surge in white supremacist and neo-Nazi extremism, many leveraging the murder of Lee Rigby. These groups began to use the same tactics as Islamist extremists to further their own ideology. They try to create a public discourse around Islam that has a dehumanising effect and that makes our efforts to confront Islamism harder.
“So everything we write as a policy has to include provisions on how to tackle white supremacy as much as how to tackle Islamist fundamentalism.”
The 2017 Finsbury Park attack and the murder of MP Jo Cox one year earlier are stark examples of the reality of extremist violence beyond ISIS. Recent figures from the Home Office revealed that suspected Islamic extremism still remains a much more likely reason for someone to refer an issue to Prevent officers – accounting for 70 per cent of the 4,000 cases received each year – but that 15 per cent of counter-terror interventions now relate to far-Right sympathisers.
Part of the problem, said Baldet, are the narratives presented by some elements of the mainstream press. News agencies have actively promoted divisive sentiments in front-page coverage and opinion columns, from debasing particular communities to demonising government CVE or counter-terror initiatives.
Baldet confessed that the advent of social media has polarised society “to the point when in those dark, quiet moments I genuinely wonder whether society will ever be able to come back”.
The Prevent model can be viewed as a pyramid of priorities.
At its foundation is ‘inoculation’ where work is done around cohesion, social integration, and engagement with civil society and the political system.
Beyond that stage is ‘targeted intervention’ where officers will assess areas at particular risk, such as schools and colleges or specific areas of the country. They will then involve themselves in these areas to provide guidance, communication and support.
The last phase is mentoring, required when a person has already committed to an ideological cause. Mentors will look to provide one-to-one relationships with these individuals to give them a different perspective on how they see the world. The effectiveness of this phase rests on whether subjects detach from their extremist activities or beliefs and can be encouraged to reengage with society.
Budgets for the strategy aim to match this pyramid, with most funds going towards inoculation – building resilience and promoting critical thinking to tackle the root causes before they become a problem.
Results are difficult to quantify. On the surface, extremism looks to be on the rise, with Prevent referrals practically doubling every year over the past five years. But as these figures only account for reported suspicions of extremism, they tell us little.
Similarly, convictions for extremist offenses have risen but this fact neither supports or denies the effectiveness of UK CVE work because arrests are only made of known criminals, not of all those planning or supporting terrorist actions.
Other recent reports offer more tangible numbers. Prevent is said to have helped to disrupt more than 150 attempted journeys to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
While the effectiveness of Prevent’s mentoring programmes is perhaps easier to calculate on a case-by-case basis, it remains extremely difficult to measure the effectiveness of any preventative work taking place in the middle to lower region of the Prevent pyramid.
Huge budgets are now being spent worldwide on CVE and vast numbers of academics are working hard to determine the best ways to measure effect on something that may never happen.
Despite uncertainties, the core work being done in the ‘inoculation’ phase is much the same as has been undertaken in UK classrooms for many years – breaking down barriers, promoting tolerance and championing diversity. This could provide genuine opportunity.
With Prevent’s attention to tackling issues among young people, coordinators are hoping that more work can be done through schools and by synching efforts with the national curriculum. The Department for Education may be able to provide a better test-bed for this work by enabling teachers to gather student feedback and to monitor whether young people are, as a whole, becoming more engaged in democratic and civic processes. The results would then – theoretically – be easier to quantify.
Either way, Prevent will continue. Home Secretary Amber Rudd has staunchly defended the strategy and vouched for its worth. Discussion is also underway to determine whether this voluntary programme could soon become compulsory in some parts of the country.
Defence IQ will soon be launching a report on online extremism, exploring the ways governments and social media platforms are using new methods and technologies to counter radicalisation. For access to this report and all of our in-depth content, sign up to become a Defence IQ member for free.