How British Counter-Extremism and Counter-Terrorism Policy Went Wrong
The “Independent Review of Prevent” by William Shawcross, which was commissioned in January 2021, was published on 8 February 2023. Prevent is one of the four strands of the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy adopted in Britain after the 7 July 2005 attacks in London. Prevent is intended, as the name suggests, to stop people becoming terrorists—to interrupt their radicalisation process before they use violence, and to challenge the ideologies that draw people into terrorism. Shawcross finds that Prevent’s focus has strayed from this core mission, that there are gross inadequacies in the way even core duties are being executed, and the program is undermining itself not only by continuing to misunderstand the nature of Islamism, but directly engaging, legitimising, and actually funding some of the very groups whose influence it should be seeking to combat.
It Can Always Get Worse is a reader-supported publication. To receive all new posts, become a free subscriber. If you value this newsletter and are able, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Prevent’s duty is phrased as: “tackle the causes of radicalisation”, “respond to the challenges that terrorist ideology may present”, “safeguard and support those most at risk of radicalisation through early intervention”, and “support those who have already engaged in terrorism to disengage and rehabilitate”.
Shawcross writes that, as a practical matter, this has three components: (1) “upstream work” through civil society organisations to “work in local communities and online to counter-extremist narratives and increase resilience to radicalising influences”; (2) “interventions with those who have already subscribed to extremist ideology”; and (3) “the more direct work of seeking to disrupt the activities and, ultimately, influence, of those groups and individuals who promote extremist and radicalising messages to wider audiences”, even where these actors “on current evidence fall below criminal thresholds”.
Shawcross rightly offers ardent conceptual support for Prevent: “though no preventative scheme will ever entirely eliminate every threat, there is a moral imperative for us to do what we reasonably can to lessen the danger” and “[a]s a country, we should be proud of Prevent and the proportionate and humane response that it represents.” Nonetheless, in 60,000 words, over 162 pages, Shawcross documents serious problems at every level.
DISPROPORTIONATE FOCUS ON THE FAR-RIGHT
Shawcross documents that the Prevent apparatus is distorted by a politicised focus on far-Right extremism out of all proportion to the dimensions of the threat:
It is clear that Prevent is out of kilter with the rest of the counter-terrorism system, and the UK terrorism threat picture. Islamist extremism represents the primary terrorist threat to this country—consistently accounting for the majority of terrorist attack plots both carried out and thwarted by the intelligence services. At present, 80% of the Counter Terrorism Police network’s live investigations are Islamist while 10% are Extreme Right-Wing. The fact that only 22% of Prevent referrals for the year 2020-21 concerned Islamism suggests a loss of focus and failure to identify warning signs.
Of the nearly 5,000 prevent referrals in 2020-21, roughly 1,200 were for extreme-Right ideologies, 1,000 were Islamists, and just over half were for “Mixed, Unstable or Unclear”.
The background to this is the series of shocks since 2016, notably the outcome of the “Brexit” referendum and above all the election of Donald Trump, to the liberal worldview that dominates among Western elites. Similar to the way the Papal revolutionaries’ meditation on “heresy” in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as they constructed the concept spooked them into believing conspiracy theories wherein heresy was all around them and without drastic action people would soon give themselves over to the contagion, liberals have fixated on the far-Right or outright Nazism as the explanation for this interruption in the “progress” they believed was inevitable, then reliably found the “evidence” in junk statistics and innocuous mainstream conservative ideas to convince themselves a fascist takeover is imminent in the West, if not already underway.
The administrators of the Prevent program, largely drawn from this liberal milieu, have not been immune to this moral panic, as Shawcross documents in examining the work of Prevent’s research section, the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU):
I saw one RICU analysis product from 2020 on Right-Wing terrorist and extremist activity online which referenced books by mainstream British conservative commentators as “key cultural nationalist ideological texts”. The same document listed “key texts” for white nationalists as including historic works of the Western philosophic and literary canon.
A RICU analysis product from 2019, which discussed a cohort of social media users it termed “Actively Patriotic and Proud”, listed a prominent Conservative politician and former member of the government as being among figures “associated with far-right sympathetic audiences, and Brexit”.
Another RICU product about far right radicalisation online named a highly popular American podcast host, claiming that this individual had been described as a gateway to the far right.
Douglas Murray was able to get hold of these RICU materials: the “commentators” included himself, Peter Hitchens, and Melanie Phillips; the white nationalist “key texts” include Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, with George Orwell’s 1984 and books by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Aldous Huxley, and Joseph Conrad being considered radicalisation risks, as, amazingly, is The Thick of It television series; and the “prominent Conservative politician” is Jacob Rees-Mogg. Good money says the podcaster is Joe Rogan.
What underlines that this absurd definition of what constitutes the far-Right or white supremacism is born of a political bias in the Prevent system—something pointed out by practitioners for some time—is that the net is not spread so broadly with other ideologies:
Prevent has a double standard when dealing with the Extreme Right-Wing and Islamism. Prevent takes an expansive approach to the Extreme Right-Wing, capturing a variety of influences that … have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalisation. However, with Islamism, Prevent tends to take a much narrower approach centred around proscribed organisations[.]
This is not simply a problem of wasting resources. The “present boundaries around … extremist Islamist ideology are drawn too narrowly while the boundaries around the ideology of the Extreme Right-Wing are too broad”, Shawcross writes. “This risks creating false equivalence in the minds of Prevent practitioners about the scale and nature of the threats from Extreme Right-Wing and Islamism.” Shawcross goes on: “Prevent must address all extremist ideologies proportionately according to the threat each represents” and the evidence is “clear that the intelligence services continue to regard Islamist extremism as the enduring threat this country faces”. Prevent’s current practice is inhibiting its ability to “reflect accurately, and deal effectively with, the lethal risks we actually face”.
Concretely, while RICU analysts have been trawling through conservative commentary they do not like, they have been “ignoring the contribution of non-violent Islamist narratives and networks to terrorism”. Shawcross implores Prevent to take “a consistent and evidence-based approach to setting its threshold and criteria, and ensure it does not overlook key non-violent radicalising influences”.
LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OF ISLAMIST IDEOLOGY
The flip-side of this over-focus on the far-Right is that Prevent continues to have serious gaps not only in its understanding of the ecosystem of Islamism in Britain, but basic aspects of Islamist ideology, and struggles even to name the phenomenon.
Shawcross finds “there is a wariness about using the term ‘Islamism’,” which has “in part been caused by Islamist-aligned activists themselves, who continue to perpetuate the narrative that there is no such thing as ‘Islamism’, and that core Islamist ideas are part of normative Islamic belief and practice”. There is an ongoing campaign to portray the word as “Islamophobic” and to an alarming degree this is taken seriously within Prevent. Shawcross (correctly) bluntly rejects this as “flawed and inaccurate”: the term is a “neutral descriptor”, one used by many Islamists themselves, the very intention of which is to separate those who “promote a hard-line political ideology” and Muslims. Shawcross (also correctly) pours scorn on alternative proposals like “anti-Islamic activity”, which “compel the state to take a theological position”, let alone “evasive or convoluted” options like “Terrorist Groups who Abuse Religious Motives” that are “insults [to] the intelligence of the general public”. More than two decades after 9/11, it is ridiculous that this argument is still going on within the state bodies charged with public security.
Shawcross outlines Prevent misunderstanding Islamism in two distinct senses.
First, and in the most direct sense, there are signs of deep confusion about what Islamism is, which is perhaps not that surprising when the use of the very word is still being contested. “There appeared to be lack of consistent understanding within Prevent as to the nature of Islamist ideology and its deployment of Islamic scripture”, Shawcross writes, adding that the citation of ideologues like Sayyid Qutb, Abu Ala al-Mawdudi, and Abdullah Azzam as heroic figures and theological guides has not been recognised as a warning sign for extremism. (Shawcross does not add, but it is quite clear from his evidence that it would immediately be seen as a red flag if someone spoke positively of, say, David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan “Grand Wizard”.)
The second sense in which Prevent misunderstood Islamism was how it operates in pursuit of what it wants. As Shawcross puts it, “The Islamist endeavour is an imperialist one” that intends to bring as much of the world as it can under its version of the shari’a. “Terrorism is only one manifestation of Islamist ideology”, Shawcross writes. “The Islamist worldview poses challenges for liberal societies beyond the confines of counter-terrorism”. Some elements of this are: the ideological assault on secularism, individual rights, and democracy; fostering hatred against Jews, homosexuals, Ahmadis, and dissident Muslims, particularly liberals and women; and the promotion of narratives “[p]ortraying Muslim communities as under constant attack”, presenting extremists who have legal sanctions imposed on them as “oppressed”, disseminating conspiracy theories (above all antisemitism), claiming “Islamophobia” when Islamist demands are resisted, and speaking with a forked tongue about the legitimacy of violence, especially in “blasphemy” cases.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its derivatives are leaders among the “non-violent” groups engaged in these activities, degrading societal cohesion in general and “providing ‘fertile ground’ for violent extremist groups to radicalise and recruit”. When it comes to the “challenges posed by groups that currently sit below the proscription threshold, but which are extremist in nature, explicitly hostile to the state, and provide moral support and legitimacy to those who perpetrate violence”, Prevent is clearly not doing enough.
The underlying problem is that ideology is just not taken seriously enough within Prevent when it comes to Islamism. The reductio ad absurdum of this was the tendency for Prevent officials to explain why Britons went to join the Islamic State (IS) “caliphate” “in secular terms”. There was a recurrent problem of “equat[ing] ideological motivation with theological literacy or intellectual capability”, when it is perfectly plain that “one can be radicalised, or ‘ideologically motivated’ via simple ideas and beliefs”.
Reiterating that politics, rather than malpractice, is at play, Prevent does recognise and understand “the ideological motivation behind individual action” when it comes to the far-Right, and shows an “awareness of non-violent extremists who promote wider Extreme Right-Wing ideological narratives”. Indeed, as mentioned, is alert to the point of paranoia about far-Right influences.
As Shawcross sums up:
I have heard several examples of the role of Islamist ideology being misinterpreted, misunderstood, or even overlooked by Prevent staff. By contrast, when analysing terrorism associated with the Extreme Right-Wing, core ideas, goals, and narratives were generally taken seriously and accepted as a radicalising influence. …
This inconsistency goes to the heart of the fundamental question of how Prevent should approach ideology as part of its objective of tackling radicalisation.
RICU’s analysis products convey the sense that for the Extreme Right-Wing, non-violent trends and narratives are of crucial importance, but that for Islamism, it is largely only the terrorist ideology and the narratives of the most serious jihadist groups that are relevant. [emphasis added]
RICU produces “high quality and detailed research products” about Al-Qaeda and IS, but its view of Islamism is so tightly restricted that it has not, Shawcross was surprised to find, produced anything on Hizballah or HAMAS, violent Islamists proscribed in full as terrorist groups in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
This is a problem because “extremist or terrorist ideology” is not “merely a challenge, but an actual cause of terrorism”, as Shawcross points out, and this is tied to a bigger problem in the Prevent system.
“It became clear during this review that within Prevent there is a contested understanding of the term ‘radicalisation’ itself, as well as the strength of the relationship between extremist ideas and violent action”, Shawcross records. Prevent’s tendency has been to secularise jihadists and this has operational implications.
It means that instead of experts on jihadist ideology, the program “frequently seeks guidance from academics or psychologists with a clinical or theoretical background” and “appears to have led to a medicalised understanding of terrorism within the system—one that mischaracterises radicalisation as an illness, rather than having an ideological root in ideas and beliefs.” Here again the group think of the social-political cohort from which Prevent administrators are largely drawn can be seen. It has been a popular understanding in such circles that extremism is like a virus people can catch by watching the wrong YouTube video. One had hoped those charged with public safety would be more evidence-driven. Part of the problem seems to have been a lack of ministerial oversight.
A similar dynamic is at work in the over-emphasis on “online radicalisation”. As Shawcross notes, “Online radicalisation is currently a popular area of research and discussion”, but in-person radicalisation remains “more effective” and ignoring this means Prevent does not give due attention to the “social-ecology” of family, neighbours, and charismatic preachers who forward the Islamist cause. The centrality of physical social networks is why, for example, the origin points of “foreign fighters” to IS were so geographically concentrated, often detectable not only by city or town but by neighbourhood and even individual streets and apartment blocks. (These same elements are why prison radicalisation is such a major problem.) Difficult as interventions in these circumstances would be, they have more chance of success than policing the Internet.
The downplaying of ideology has led to accentuating the Prevent duty of “safeguarding”, summed up in the word “vulnerability”. Politicians, when they bother to defend Prevent at all, will do so in terms of rescuing “vulnerable” people from being indoctrinated and exploited by extremists. As Shawcross notes, this is appropriate in some cases, but this has seeped into the whole system:
Prevent is primarily about stopping individuals becoming radicalised into terrorism, including many who tend to do so through their own accord rather than because they are particularly vulnerable. …
Presenting Prevent as a largely safeguarding initiative may cause confusion, for practitioners and frontline professionals alike, about what it is that the scheme is seeking to do.
This inclination has been exacerbated by a large increase of referrals where people do have externally-imposed problems that the state should assist them with (see below). The problem there, though, is that Prevent is not the appropriate mechanism, and such people should not be in the system to begin with.
In terms of the problem Prevent was actually set up to deal with, the “vulnerability” framing, which usually goes hand-in-hand with the medicalised conception of extremism as a contagion that poses “risks” to people’s “well-being”, is misleading and potentially quite dangerous. As one counter-terrorism expert explained, “it has removed the agency from the individuals who willingly decide to pursue or support violence for political ends”. Shawcross adds that it fails to grapple with the reality that many if not most extremists and terrorists are “highly rational, calculated, and astute”. Shawcross advocates using the term “susceptibility” and limiting the use of “vulnerable” to “discussions relating to welfare concerns and circumstances beyond an individual’s control” that create risks of exploitation, especially young age, as with those children taken to IS’s “caliphate”.
The final area where the confusion over ideology’s place in “radicalisation” is having baleful effects is the rehabilitation scheme, which is seriously defective. The event that has focused this for the public is the attack by Usman Khan at the Fishmongers Hall on London Bridge in November 2019.
Khan, previously imprisoned for involvement in an Al-Qaeda-related terrorism plot, was out on a license that did not allow him to be in London. Khan’s handlers at Cambridge University’s “Learning Together” acquired special permission for Khan to travel to London, to attend a conference where he was one of their star examples of successful rehabilitation, and it was at this conference that Khan, wearing a fake suicide vest, stabbed to death two of his rehabilitators and injured three other people, before being nearly killed by a convicted murderer wielding a narwhal tusk. Khan was finally was shot dead by counterterrorism police.
The inquest afterwards found that Khan had been caught being dishonest with his rehabilitation workers, but they had attached little significance to this, and had instead focused on “compliance” in a passive sense (i.e., being polite, and avoiding breaches of his license conditions and overt criminal behaviour) rather than assessing his “positive compliance” (i.e., abandoning extremism). Shawcross finds that the use of these metrics is general and has led to an “optimism bias” in the rehabilitation system. Khan is not the only major failure in recent years. Ahmed Hassan, the Iraqi asylum seeker who tried to bomb the Parsons Green train in September 2017 on IS’s behalf, and Sudesh Amman, a convicted terrorist out on license when he carried out a stabbing attack on Streatham high street in February 2020, had both previously been through the Channel system, the administrative part of Prevent where referred individuals are assigned tailored interventions.
The failure to understand “radicalisation” as the voluntary adoption of an extremist ideology, and therefore “deradicalisation” as an effort to change the mind of a rational individual, makes “deceptive compliance” easier. If “radicalisation” is viewed as having material and social roots, it means officials involved in rehabilitation are looking for the wrong warning signs—for signs of emotional instability, failing at relationships, or not coping in holding down a job, which are largely irrelevant in terms of their “radicalisation”. What needs to be looked for is signs of a divergence between self-presentation and inner conviction, which is much more difficult, conceptually and practically. Starting from that premise would have a salutary effect in diminishing the optimism that someone could be certified as “de-radicalised” and allowed back into society.
THE STATE HAS RESUMED GIVING SUPPORT TO ISLAMISTS
Each year, Prevent supports between seventy and one-hundred civil society organisations (CSOs) in the name of countering-extremism. This approach is grievously flawed.
The fundamental problem with this whole area is that the CSO projects—which “ranged from theatre groups to sporting clubs and education workshops”, as well as groups aimed at “promoting tolerance, interfaith or intercommunity dialogue, or reducing feelings of isolation or marginalisation”, and tackling other “social problems, such as drug abuse or unemployment”—have a conceptually vague relevance to Prevent’s first objective (“tackle the causes of radicalisation and respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism”), and there is not even the pretence of a systematic review mechanism to judge their efficacy in practice.
Shawcross looked at a sample of fifteen CSOs funded by Prevent and RICU, and “found insufficient evidence that these CSOs were countering Islamist ideology or non-violent extremist groups and ideologues”, despite RICU trying to “bolster the communications capacity of a network of CSOs to help them ‘speak out credibly to undermine terrorist narratives, deny the space for extremists to exploit grievances and build resilience among vulnerable people’.” This is the finding of Prevent itself when it has done checks on the CSO programs: “Recent internal evaluations suggested that a large proportion of local Prevent community projects had little or no demonstrable impact”.
Most of the CSO projects had no explicit intention even in theory to counter Islamist ideology, and those that did were “ideology agnostic”: they worked against the far-Right and Islamism, or they sought “to build resilience against radicalisation in a general way”, such as by fostering “tolerance” and a sense of “belonging”—or Britishness or a belief in “fundamental British values”—and “trying to improve critical thinking skills”. (Note that there is once again a disparity here: many projects do solely focus on combating far-Right ideology.) As Shawcross notes, even where CSOs are working in good-faith on the “ideology agnostic” track, it is most unlikely they have sufficient expertise to directly, ideological confront the specific narratives of both forms of extremism, and the capacity to adequately reach the relevant, divergent audiences. As to the broader efforts at building “resilience”, through sensitivity indoctrination and teaching critical thinking, these are primarily “indicative of how Prevent has too often strayed into community cohesion and wider public health work … with little-to-no benefit to Prevent’s stated objectives”.
So, at best, the Prevent-supported CSOs are generally doing nothing to advance Prevent’s mission: whatever societal good they are doing, funding them with money ear-marked for counter-extremism and counter-terrorism is inappropriate.
In “some cases” the Prevent-funded CSOs are doing actual harm. An analysis of thirty-three Prevent “de-radicalisation” programs in 2018 by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) found that 95% of them were ineffective, including within that 15% that were actively counter-productive. One of the negative effects was reducing support for free speech and the “de-radicalisation” programs “particularly had this negative effect for Muslim participants”. A number of the projects reduced participants’ trust in state institutions like the police, and in independent institutions like the media.
Worse, Prevent has been engaging and funding extremists—again.
In the mid-2000s, British state policy was one of “outreach to moderate Islamists”, whose ideology was barely less extreme than the jihadists, but whose tactics (ostensibly) did not include violence. The theory under the Labour government of the day was that by giving Islamists peaceful pathways to pursue their goals, it would blunt the appeal of the violent radicals. In practice, it meant engaging Islamists as if they were representative of British Muslims, funding the programs run by such groups and making them the go-to address for Muslims who wanted “access” to further one cause or another, thereby making the Islamists disproportionately powerful and legitimising many of the divisive extremist narratives that terrorists rely on to recruit.
The Labour government itself was realising the error of this by the end. For example, it severed state ties with the Muslim Brotherhood-derived Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in 2009. And when this Conservative government came into office in 2010 the practice of engaging “moderate Islamists” was officially terminated. The Prevent review in 2011 stated clearly: “In future, neither Prevent funding nor support will be given to organisations that hold extremist views or support terrorist-related activity of any kind, in this country or overseas. This applies irrespective of the source of the funding: central Government, local government or policing.” Shawcross finds that this promise has not been kept.
The main problem, Shawcross outlines, is that while the central government (largely) follows the “no engagement” policy with “non-violent” Islamist extremist groups, local authorities that administer Prevent do not, and local police forces have behaved in particularly alarming ways.
Dr. Musharraf Hussein, the chief executive at the As-Shifa mosque and deputy lieutenant of Nottinghamshire County Council, runs a Prevent-funded CSO, the Karimia Institute. It is described by the Home Office as “supporting individuals and families to develop life skills, moral and spiritual values through education, worship and recreation”, and as a “national charity offering support to Muslim organisations, particularly in deprived areas”. Shawcross finds it to be “one of the most egregious cases” where tax-payer money intended for counter-extremism is funding extremists.
Hussein made public statements in support of the Taliban as it was allowed to reconquer Afghanistan in August 2021. Months earlier, Hussein had referred to HAMAS as “so-called ‘terrorists’ of the legitimate resistance groups”, and the Karima Institute has persistently promoted antisemitism. Hussein has spoken of when Muslim soldiers in the British Army should refuse orders and attacked Prevent as a program that targets Muslims. Nor is any of this new: Hussein signed an open letter in 2015 decrying Prevent as a “McCarthyite witch-hunt against Muslims”. The Home Office seems to have finally put Hussein in the category of “significant” risks for CSO funding in November 2020, but nothing was actually done. As Shawcross says, this finding “ought to have had immediate consequences for the funding of this CSO by Prevent”.
Al-Manaar, a mosque and “Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre” in north-west London, receives Prevent funding, yet it still invited as a speaker Yvonne Ridley, the former journalist who converted to Islam after she was captured by the Taliban. Ridley has been a supporter of the Taliban and a number of other Islamist terrorists for many years. Just before appearing at the event with Al-Manaar, Ridley had publicly donated money to HAMAS leader Ismail Haniyeh and announced that it was “one of the proudest moments in [her] life” when Haniyeh presented her with a Palestinian passport. It goes without saying that Ridley is a virulent antisemite; one of her favourite themes is comparing Israelis to Nazis. It has also come to light that some members of “the Beatles”, the British Islamic State cell that murdered the hostages, found Al-Manaar to be a conducive environment, and “the institution has been attended by a number of terrorist suspects”, Shawcross reports.
Asad Fazil, in charge of Al-Hurraya, another Prevent-supported CSO, hosted the leadership of the Nottingham Islam Information Point (NIIP), which regularly hosts extremist speakers and held a public fundraiser for Shaker Aamer, an Al-Qaeda operative who was close to Usama bin Laden. The Prevent-supported Imam Online initiative seems to have been a fiasco, with its speakers instructing on the proper way for men to beat their wives, offering support to Al-Qaeda convict Aafia Siddiqui, and at a minimum giving mixed signals about whether murder is an appropriate reaction to “blasphemous” cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Irfan Chishti, the imam running Me and You Education, which trains the NHS and schools in how to detect extremists and divert them to the Prevent program before they commit terrorism, attracted much attention for his antisemitic outburst in May 2021.
The most flabbergasting example Shawcross highlights is the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), an advocacy group formally constituted as a “charity” that Shawcross delicately describes as “an Islamist group ideologically aligned with the Iranian regime that has a history of ‘extremist links and terrorist sympathies’,” which “recently received £10,000 in public funding as part of government support for local businesses during the pandemic”. The money in this one case did not come from Prevent or the counter-extremism apparatus, so that’s something. But it speaks to the woefully inadequate oversight mechanisms in place at this late date that the British state cannot “prevent the funding, inadvertent or otherwise, of those who have expressed support for—or justified—violent extremist activity”.
The Muslim Council of Britain, a group very much on the “no engagement” list, was “recently” described by Counter Terrorism Policing “as one of their advisory network’s ‘trusted partners’ and senior officers have appeared with MCB representatives at events. … As recently as November 2020, the Metropolitan Police branch in Lewisham have promoted Imam Shakeel Begg as part of their interfaith engagement work.” Outside Britain, the name Shakeel Begg might not mean much, but domestically he was very well-known in counter-extremism circles for a long time and came to broader public notice in 2016 after he sued the BBC, claiming it was libellous for one of their broadcasters to describe him as an extremist who promoted violence, and lost the case, with the judge ruling that Begg was exactly that: “an extremist Islamic speaker who espouses extremist Islamic positions” and had “recently promoted and encouraged religious violence”.
Then there is Muslim Engagement and Development, better-known as MEND, one of the most notorious agitators against the Prevent program, as Shawcross notes, which nonetheless lists the police as a “delivery partner” and has been invited to give “Islamophobia training” to local police.
All of this is extremely worrying.
First, it raises “serious questions about whether Prevent is knowingly taking this approach”, of providing legitimacy and funds to Islamists, and, if not, whether it … has an acceptable level of understanding of Islamist extremism”, not to mention the more basic issues of bureaucratic oversight.
Second, the issue of politics is once again salient. The argument some in the government put forward for meeting these Islamist extremist and extremist-linked groups is “for the purposes of listening to their perspective or in an attempt to change their behaviour”. Shawcross dismisses this, since there is no difficulty knowing what these groups think—they broadcast it at every opportunity—and, “There is also no evidence to show it leads to groups changing their behaviour”. The only thing this does is “risks awarding them the opportunity to unduly influence and undermine the work of officials tasked with meeting Prevent’s objectives”. But what is notable is that this argument is never applied to the far-Right: “There is no indication of Prevent partnering with Extreme Right-Wing-linked groups, either for delivering CSO counter-narrative projects, or for advisory purposes.” It appears to be a “result of officials setting a very high threshold for what they define as ‘Islamist extremism’ but a relatively low threshold for defining ‘Extreme Right-Wing extremism’.”
Third, Prevent is empowering the people who are actively working against it and creating an environment where those who want to support its mission cannot. MEND, along with CAGE (formerly Cageprisoners), “were specifically cited on multiple occasions” by Prevent officials as groups leading the “preventing Prevent” effort. Shawcross documents the particular support the anti-Prevent disinformation campaign gets from academics and universities in Britain, the “international dimension” of this campaign, and the disastrous fact that the presentation of Prevent as anti-Muslim “even seems to have been internalised by elements of government, with bad-faith Islamist grievance narratives sometimes taken at face value.” (Again, it is impossible not to notice that Prevent consistently “recognises Extreme Right-Wing grievance narratives as being a key part of the problem” and seeks to counter them, rather than internalising them.) It adds up to the country’s counter-extremism officials assisting Islamist extremist narratives that aid terrorist recruitment, and creating an atmosphere where those who want to work with Prevent to counter the Islamists are afraid to do so. About 80% of counter-extremist campaigners and practitioners have experienced some form of harassment or intimidation, and this is particularly bad for Muslims.
MORE WORK NEEDED ON ANTISEMITISM
Shawcross found an extraordinary prevalence of antisemitism in the Channel system. Antisemitism “spanned across the full range of Channel cases we observed regardless of the nature of the ideology … [Antisemitism] unites both Islamists and Extreme Right-Wing, as well as the Extreme Left, in a kind of modern-day Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact”, Shawcross writes. Individuals not only openly expressed their belief in antisemitic, Protocols of the Elders of Zion-type conspiracy theories, but their wish to blow up synagogues, admitted to having done hostile surveillance to enable same, and their desire to do violence against Jewish people, either collectively or individually. Shawcross recommends discovering how representative the sample he saw is within Channel as a whole. This would allow a weeding out of the cases “better categorised as being of hate crime concern, rather than counter-terrorism and subsequently of relevance to Prevent”. Broadly, however, Prevent needs to do more in its ideological work specifically to counter antisemitism and to keep track of and confront groups like HAMAS and Hizballah that have targeting Jews as a priority. Shawcross does not mention that Hizballah is a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the report consistently fails to recognise when a terrorist group under discussion is a state entity.
FAILURE TO TREAT ALL TERRORIST AND EXTREMIST GROUPS EQUALLY
Speaking of the “Islamic Resistance Movement” (HAMAS), Shawcross says that its “support network” in Britain “warrants attention”. Shawcross is supportive of the government’s decision to (eventually) proscribe HAMAS, but points out that enforcement of the law has been lacking. “The open support voiced in the UK for Hamas, including by those in senior political or community roles, is totally unacceptable”, Shawcross writes, and HAMAS’ fundraising mechanisms—its “charities” and companies—continue to operate without legal penalties. The Charities Commission is encouraged to take more robust action. There is also the issue of several “British individuals who travelled to Hamas controlled territory before going on to join other terrorist groups”, including the Islamic State. The bottom line is: “There is no reason why those who support Hamas should be treated any differently to those who support Islamic State, National Action, or other proscribed organisations.”
Left-wing extremism was another area where Prevent showed a “disparity in approach” when compared to the far-Right. Shawcross discovered training slides where ANTIFA was described as comprising “individuals and groups united by opposition to racism and the far right”, which, as he understatedly notes, is not “politically neutral framing”, pointing to other research on the extremists—mostly Communists and anarchists—that make up ANTIFA’s membership. Since March 2017, two “Left, Anarchist, or Single Issue Terrorism” (LASIT) attacks have been thwarted, one of which was a bomb plot by an “eco-terror group”. Essentially, Prevent needs to broaden the aperture in its handling of far-Left terrorism. Shawcross recommends considering devoting more resources to research so that the ideological underpinnings of far-Left extremism are more fully appreciated, and: “Prevent should be interested in potential radicalisation connected with the lawbreaking, civil disobedience, and disruptive activities broadly associated with anarchism or causes tied to the Extreme Left”.
In a small but significant section of the report, Shawcross writes: “Prevent should also be mindful of pro-Khalistan extremism emerging from the UK’s Sikh communities”. As Shawcross notes, the Khalistanis are inciting British Sikhs against their government by spreading a false narrative that London is repressing Sikhs domestically and colluding with Narendra Modi’s government in India to persecute Indian Sikhs. The Khalistani groups also “glorify violence carried out by the pro-Khalistan movement in India”. At present, the “threat is low”, but the Islamist-like victim narrative and the support for violence—albeit overseas, for the moment—is “a potentially toxic combination for the future”. As with Hizballah and Iran, however, Shawcross again misses the state element: the Khalistan movement is a creature of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
MORE ATTENTION NEEDED ON ISLAMISTS’ USE OF “BLASPHEMY”
Where Shawcross did mention Pakistan was in the section of the report dealing with Islamist accusations of “blasphemy” (and “apostasy”) as “[a]n area of particular importance requiring more attention”. In February 2016, two Islamic State loyalists murdered Jalal Uddin, an imam in Rochdale whose opposition to IS was considered “blasphemous”, and the next month shopkeeper in Glasgow, Asad Shah, an Ahmadi (a group whose existence the jihadists find “blasphemous”), was murdered “by a Sunni Muslim admirer of an extremist Pakistani cleric [Muzaffar Shah Qadri] who founded an organisation designed to oppose Pakistan ever repealing its blasphemy law.”
As Shawcross sets out:
It is common for narratives around blasphemy in the UK to have a connection back to hard-line Pakistani clerics and/or the Khatme Nubuwwat movement, which has a well-established presence in Pakistan. I have similar concerns over how rhetoric from Pakistan is impacting UK Muslim communities when it comes to inflaming anti-India sentiment, particularly around the subject of Kashmir. There is an element of crossover between those who seek to impose limits around blasphemy with those who voice incendiary rhetoric on Kashmir.
I have seen evidence of UK extremist groups, as well as a Pakistani cleric with a UK following, calling for the use of violence in Kashmir. I have also seen evidence demonstrating that flashpoints related to Kashmir leads to a significant surge in interest from UK Islamists.
“It is vital that Prevent proactively seeks to address this ideological threat [from Islamists’ use of blasphemy], given the serious challenge it poses to our national culture of free speech—which must be fiercely protected—as well as to the safety of individuals and the public”, Shawcross writes. “There is no reason to believe this issue will disappear as a grievance that Islamists will seek to exploit in years to come”, and the Kashmir connection has direct relevance since several Britons who have first been mobilised into jihadism in Kashmir have gone on to join Al-Qaeda and other global terrorist groups.
Shawcross reports: “senior security and local counter-terrorism officials have raised concerns that Prevent may be suffering from ‘mission creep’, and is increasingly becoming overloaded and/or unfocused”.
Part of this is simply blurred bureaucratic lines of responsibility. Disrupting extremist influence was supposed to be the job of the Counter Extremism Strategy, set out by the government in 2015, with Prevent conceived of as a counter-terrorism instrument, but, “in reality, [Prevent’s] work is not always easily distinguishable from counter-extremism” since “it is undeniable that extremism and terrorism do have significant overlap”. This issue has been somewhat clarified by the Home Office restructure that brought the Extremism Disruptions Unit (EDU) into Prevent, and the Counter-Extremism Directorate into the Homeland Security Group, the coordination body for the intelligence services under which Prevent operates, which deals with terrorism and organised crime.
A related issue that is both bureaucratic and conceptual is handling “hate crimes”. The number of recorded hate crimes rose from 39,000 in 2013 to 105,000 in 2020. (Shawcross does not point this out, but the scale of the targeting of British Jews in hate crimes is staggering: seven times the rate of attacks on Muslims, and nearly one-quarter of all hate crimes, despite being less than 0.5% of the population.) There is a lack of clarity within Prevent about whether hate crimes are or should be within the program’s remit: some see hate crimes as a “community cohesion” task and others see them “on a continuum to extremism, and a potential path to future radicalisation”. Shawcross judges that a focus on hate crimes “risks distracting from Prevent’s core purpose” as a “counter-terrorism tool”: “Hate crime is a vital area for the government to tackle but Prevent cannot be the primary means of doing so”.
Another serious extraneous burden is that Prevent has been “carrying the weight for mental health services”. The most obvious place where this is reflected is the explosion in “Mixed, Unstable or Unclear” (MUU) referrals. The defence of the MUU category, only introduced in 2018, is that the government is evolving to meet a diversifying threat picture. Shawcross disagrees: “the MUU category is facilitating large numbers of individuals being unnecessarily referred to Prevent”. And the evidence he presents is compelling. For one thing, there has not been a single terrorist attack in Britain that “could be described as falling within the MUU category”. Generally, the people referred in the MUU category have clear social and/or mental health problems, and sometimes signs of criminality, but—as the name suggests—no clear ideological motivations of concern.
In the few cases where an ideological component is posited for MUU referrals, it breaks down on examination. The MUU referrals include people with a “school massacre fixation”, when RICU itself notes that school shootings are usually motivated by personal grievance not ideology and thus are not classified as terrorism, and it is under the MUU banner that Prevent partakes in the relentless effort to make “incel extremism” a Thing. Shawcross says he agrees with Tim Jacques, the deputy senior national co-ordinator for UK counterterrorism policy, “that Incel is not a terrorist ideology”. Shawcross goes on to say that it may be that someone involved in the incel online subculture will commit an act of violence motivated by misogyny, but this would fall under the “hate crimes” legislation and should, therefore, not be handled by Prevent because “the Incel phenomenon is not currently a counter-terrorism matter.”
Shawcross questions the entire premise of the MUU category, asking “whether it makes sense to refer to Prevent individuals who have no clear ideology, given that acts of violence committed by such people would not be regarded as terrorist in nature”. Prevent coordinators tell Shawcross that the growth of MUU referrals is “because ‘agencies are unsure’ of how else to provide support for vulnerable individuals flagged to the system”. This is simply a misuse of resources, Shawcross writes: “By including MUU within Prevent’s remit, a large number of referrals are made of individuals who are of doubtful relevance to the national counter-terrorism strategy.” If the MUU category is to remain, and Shawcross says the option of its elimination should be considered, it needs to be much more tightly delineated and cease being used “as an all-encompassing channel for assisting vulnerable individuals who have not sufficiently demonstrated susceptibilities to radicalisation”.
Shawcross closes with thirty-four recommendations, all of which have been accepted by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who says she is “committed to quickly delivering wholesale change”. The primary one is that “Prevent should go back to first principles” and focus on “stopping people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”. To this end, Shawcross recommends rephrasing Prevent’s mission, set out above, as: “tackle the ideological causes of terrorism”.
Other important recommendations are:
Reset the thresholds on extremism so one standard is used, ensuring there is proportionality in the resources devoted to threats and that Prevent is working in all areas against extremists that fall short of the legal terrorism bar;
Investigate the extent and the causes of the imbalance in the way Islamist and far-Right ideologies are being handled;
Move away from “vulnerability” language;
“Restrict Prevent funding to groups and projects which challenge extremist and terrorist ideology”, rather than allocating funds to general community work;
Ensure that extremists are not consulted with or funded and apply the same standards across all ideologies;
Improve the way data is collected on referrals and consider abolishing the “Mixed, Unstable, or Unclear” category altogether;
Take specific measures to counter the anti-Prevent campaign at universities; and
Develop a dedicated unit in the Homeland Security Group that publicly rebuts lies and misinformation about Prevent, specifically and in real-time.