“Prevent” is one of four strands of the Government’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy, focused on trying to stop the emergence of the next generation of terrorists by working with Muslim groups to counter radicalisation. On 8 February, the Government published the report of the Independent Review of Prevent by William Shawcross, the key points of which are as follows:
The Statutory Prevent Duty “works well to ensure that public agencies consider radicalisation as a risk, facilitate engagement with partners, and that counter- radicalisation measures are implemented on the ground”, but Shawcross has found “several areas that require improvement. Above all, Prevent must return to its overarching objective: to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.
Prevent’s first objective – to tackle the causes of radicalisation and respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism – is not being sufficiently met. It is not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism:
“Challenging extremist ideology should not be limited to proscribed organisations but should also cover domestic extremists operating below the terrorism threshold who can create an environment conducive to terrorism. 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, at times, has been so broad it has included mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, right-wing leaning commentary that have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalisation. However, with Islamism, Prevent tends to take a much narrower approach centred around proscribed organisations, ignoring the contribution of non-violent Islamist narratives and networks to terrorism.”
He is doubtful about the effectiveness of some Prevent-funded civil society organisations and community projects and found that there were inadequate mechanisms to evaluate individual projects: “Funding too often goes towards generic projects dealing with community cohesion and hate crime, and few … could be seen publicly to contest extremist discourse”. He is particularly concerned that some have promoted extremist narratives, including statements that appeared sympathetic to the Taliban: “As a core principle, the government must cease to engage with or fund those aligned with extremism”.
Under the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, individuals thought to be at risk of being drawn into terrorism under the Prevent programme can be referred to a “Channel panel” so that they can get the help and support needed to turn them away from radicalisation. Shawcross is disturbed by the prevalence of antisemitism within the Channel cases that he observed. Individuals tended to harbour violent and fanatical beliefs about Jews, often expressing an intent to kill or assault members of the Jewish community:
“Prevent must better understand and tackle antisemitism where it is relevant to its work … [and] should cover UK extremist networks supportive of terrorist movements that explicitly target Jewish communities. Prevent should also better address the anti-Jewish component of both Islamist and Extreme Right-Wing ideology”.
He believes that Prevent is “out of kilter with the rest of the counter-terrorism system, and the UK terrorism threat picture”. Islamist extremism was the primary terrorist threat to the UK, but the fact that only 22 per cent of Prevent referrals in 2020-21 concerned Islamism “suggests a loss of focus and failure to identify warning signs”.
He also found that Prevent was acting as a referral mechanism for mental health services and vulnerable people who do not necessarily pose a terrorism risk were being referred to Prevent to access other types of support: “This is a serious misallocation of resources and risks diverting attention from the threat itself”.
He concludes that the Desistance and Disengagement Programme is a positive addition to Prevent’s mission, with tailored interventions providing tangible benefits to an offender’s life circumstances. However, he is not satisfied that rehabilitation work is being carried out with sufficient precaution: “As the murderous Fishmongers Hall attack of 2019 showed, optimism bias can have tragic consequences”.
He also identifies a lack of training on how to manage controversial issues of substance regarding extremist ideology, and a lack of confidence referring effectively and recognising extremist behaviour in Islamist cases. He is “concerned that a culture of timidity exists among practitioners in the round when it comes to tackling Islamism”.
Finally, he notes “a concerted campaign by some, including a number of Islamist groups, to undermine and delegitimise Prevent through the spread of disinformation, misinformation and half-truths” and says that the Government has to do more “to recognise and tackle the disinformation and demonisation around Prevent, and to protect frontline staff against intimidation”.
In a Commons statement on the report, the Home Secretary said that Prevent had defined the extreme right wing too broadly, encompassing the respectable right and centre-right:
”The threat from the extreme right wing must not be minimised. It is serious and it is growing; it must be robustly addressed. But it is not the same, either in nature or in scale, as the threat from Islamism. Prevent is a security service, not a social service. Too often, the role of ideology in terrorism is minimised, with violence attributed instead to vulnerabilities such as mental health or poverty. ‘Protective factors’ do not absolve ideological fervour or individual responsibility. We must be more nuanced in our approach”.
Ms Braverman said that she would implement all the review’s recommendations and report on her progress a year from now: “Prevent’s focus must be solely on security, not on political correctness”.