Which poses the greatest threat: Islamist or far-right terror? That has become the focus of much of the debate surrounding William Shawcross’s review of Britain’s Prevent anti-terror strategy published last week.
Most knowledgeable people accept that while far-right terror is the fastest growing threat, Islamist terrorism remains the biggest problem. However, the danger of posing the problem this way is both that it can turn into a zero-sum game in which one threat is played off against another, and that the underlying problems with Prevent become obscured.
The problem with Prevent is that all too often it fails to prevent what should be prevented while trying to prevent what should be allowed. So Usman Khan, the perpetrator of the 2019 Fishmongers’ Hall attack in London, which killed Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, had completed two anti-terrorism programs while in prison and was monitored by Prevent. A 2018 Home Office evaluation suggested that 95% of deradicalisation programs were ineffective.
At the same time, too many cases are referred to Prevent, such as the four-year-old boy whose kindergarten teacher misinterpreted “cucumber” as “cooking bomb” or the eight-year-old who was brought to a pro-Palestinian rally by his parents.
The Shawcross review has had a rocky journey. Lord Carlile, appointed to carry out the review after Theresa May announced it in 2019, was forced to resign following a legal challenge to his independence. In January 2021, Boris Johnson appointed Shawcross in his place, an even more controversial choice given his hardline views on Islam and terror, including support for Guantánamo and waterboarding. The review was boycotted by 17 human rights and community groups who objected to its lack of “objectivity” and “impartiality”.
To understand the issues with the Shawcross review, we need to understand the issues with Prevent itself. Launched in 2003 as part of Contest, Britain’s anti-terror strategy, Prevent aims to distract people from radicalisation.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the notion of “radicalization” helped provide a relatively simple story of jihadism and its cause. It suggested that people became terrorists because they acquired certain extremist ideas, usually religiously informed; that there was an “assembly line” leading from resentment to religiosity to the adoption of radical beliefs to terrorism; and that there were certain informants who enabled the authorities to determine who was at risk of radicalisation.
Much evidence has accumulated over the past two decades that suggests much of this is false. For example, studies show, perhaps counterintuitively, that those attracted to jihadist groups are not necessarily attracted to fundamentalist religious ideas. There is little evidence for the existence of a “conveyor belt”. Nor are there convincing signs of a tendency towards radicalisation.
Large segments of civil society have become involved in the state’s formal anti-terror program
While some of this research has led to the work of security agencies, many anti-terror programs, including Prevent, still too often chase the ghosts of the old radicalization thesis. It’s a failure compounded by Prevent’s second major problem: the continued expansion of its remit.
In 2011, a new Prevent strategy expanded the program to include measures against nonviolent extremism and against those “who oppose our values of human rights, equality before the law [and] democracy”. Four years later, the government imposed a legal obligation on schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and other providers of public services in England and Wales to identify those at risk of radicalisation. As a result, large parts of society are civil society has become involved in the state’s formal anti-terror program, just as the “hostile environment” policy has turned doctors, teachers and landlords into deputy immigration officers.
This dual role is made even more difficult by the vagueness and ambiguousness of the alleged signs of radicalization. For example, they include someone who changes their “dress style or personal appearance” or “is disrespectful or angry towards family and peers”. What might be seen as an experiment or an annoyance in another context is seen in the context of Prevent as a show of sympathy for terrorists, especially if one is Muslim. The wrong kind of political interest, such as curiosity about Palestine, is also a warning light. And so misunderstood toddlers or eight-year-olds whose parents attended a protest get involved in anti-terror programs.
The government wants to censor opponents of Prevent and portray them as potential terrorists
All this leads to Prevent’s third fundamental problem: creating an intrusive system not only of surveillance but also of censorship. In the parliamentary debate on the Shawcross review, Home Secretary Suella Braverman stressed that it was “vital” to “ensure that there is no platform for these campaigns”. [against Prevent] within universities and that misrepresentations of Prevent are deterred”.
In other words, the government wants to censor Prevent’s opponents and portray them as potential terrorists. And this from a government that has threatened to penalize universities and sororities that are “not platform” speakers.
Prevention guidelines have long limited academic freedom. In 2018, the University of Reading labeled an essay on the ethics of the socialist revolution by the late Marxist academic Norman Geras as “security sensitive.” Students were told to read it only in a safe environment and not to leave copies lying around where they could be read by those not on the course. Elsewhere, teachers have been warned not to introduce students to historically significant Muslim books, lest they “encourage radicalization”. A criminology teacher had her reading list checked by the police to make sure it was Prevent safe.
The Shawcross review does not address these issues, it only exacerbates them. It wants to expand the scope of Prevent even further by attracting job centers and immigration houses. Shawcross has denounced criticism of the strategy as “an insult”, describing many of those seeking to “delegitimize” it as themselves “radicalizing influences” who must be silenced. He demands that Prevent “need to feed a strong pro-free narrative”, while not acknowledging that Prevent itself hinders free speech.
What we need is a complete reassessment of counter-terrorism strategy to create a process that embodies a more nuanced understanding of radicalization, develops systems better able to deal with potential terrorists, does not blur the line between state activity and that of civil society and takes distance from the imposition of arbitrary surveillance and censorship. For that we need not an ‘independent’ review, the starting point of which is the need to anchor current policy, but one that is prepared to question its framework.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist