Britain has one of the oldest, most aggressive programs in the Western world to stop homegrown terrorism. Here’s how it’s working.
Rashad Ali once belonged to an Islamic extremist group, but he now spends his days helping the British government prevent others from becoming radicalized.
His position makes him an easy target of criticism, from multiple angles.
“On the one hand, I get criticized from people in the Muslim community who see me as acting on behalf of the state and the authorities, and on the other hand I am criticized by those who are genuinely anti-Islam and see what I am doing—helping British Muslims reconcile their identity—as some kind of secret to plot to spread Islam,” Ali says.
As a Muslim growing up in Sheffield, an industrial city that carries what he calls an “anti-establishment” mentality, Ali says, he struggled finding his way. At 15 years old, he decided to join Hizb ut-Tahrir, a nonviolent Islamic political organization.
The program also seeks to identify and intervene with Britons who may be susceptible to extremism promoted by both left-wing and right-wing political groups.
At a moment when many countries in the Western world, including the U.S. and France, are trying to develop tools to defend themselves against the threat of homegrown terrorism, Britain’s intensive approach is receiving heavy scrutiny at home.
With anxiety and division over terrorism, immigration, and religion at a fever pitch, some Britons criticize Prevent as a heavy-handed, bureaucratic strategy that stigmatizes Muslims. Supporters, though, consider the program a necessary, serious-minded solution that reduces the risks of all forms of extremism.
Perhaps most contentiously, Prevent includes a statutory requirement that Britons who are part of public institutions that serve youth also must protect them from becoming extremist.
“There aren’t many people who get involved in this work at this level,” Ali tells The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “But because I was involved in the other side for quite a long time, I’ve seen the damage that radical ideas can do to vulnerable people.”
What you have to do is speak with parents of children who have been involved in these types of [terrorism] incidents. The one common thing they say is, ‘Why did no one help us? Why didn’t anyone do anything?’ So I don’t have the luxury of debating whether this program is necessary or not.
Backlash to ‘Mammoth Task’
Britain has not suffered a major terrorist attack since the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, unlike the U.S., France, and Belgium. But the United Kingdom long has been an attractive target for terrorists.
British intelligence services, considered some of the best in the world, have foiled planned attacks before they happened.
In 2015, authorities made 35 percent more terrorism-related arrests in the United Kingdom than in 2010. About 800 individuals from Britain have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight in the conflicts there. Among them: Mohammed Emwazi, a British Arab who notoriously beheaded multiple Americans and Britons before he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in November 2015.
About half of those who left Britain are estimated to have returned.
The British government currently designates the threat level of terrorism in the country as “severe,” meaning an attack is “highly likely.”
Long before the most recent threats, Britain maintained a comprehensive, preventive approach to counterterrorism, beginning its efforts shortly after the 2005 bombings by Islamist terrorists of London’s public transport network. That attack is commonly known as 7/7 for the month and day it occurred.
The Prevent program, one component of Britain’s overall strategy to fight terrorism, does not involve intelligence or police work, and few people, if any, who are referred to services through the program are arrested. Instead, Prevent is meant to help those who have shown early signs of extremism—before committing criminal acts—and have not demonstrated an imminent threat to do harm.
Indeed, the government intends for Prevent to complement a second element of Britain’s counterterrorism strategy, called Pursue, dedicated to detecting, prosecuting, and disrupting active plots against the homeland or British interests abroad.
The Prevent strategy has undergone different iterations. Its current form under Britain’s conservative government is especially controversial because its implementation is required by national law.
In July 2015, a section of Britain’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act placed a mandated duty on certain public institutions—including schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons—to prevent those it interacts with from “being drawn into terrorism.”
Specifically, the British government teaches front-line staff at these institutions how to recognize the early signs of extremism and refer those they have concerns about to intervention services such as mentoring and mental health treatment.
The government’s Home Office, a department responsible for immigration and security, defines extremism as “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
Since reporting became a legal requirement, referrals to the deradicalization program, known as Channel, have increased significantly. Almost 4,000 individuals were reported through the program in 2015—nearly three times more than the year before.
The Conservative Party made changes to the Prevent program.
It gave jurisdiction over the program to the Home Office, which new Prime Minister Theresa May formerly led. The government also became stricter about which community groups it funds to help implement the program, ruling out working with groups it considers to “oppose British values.”
Investigations into earlier versions of Prevent showed the government gave money to nonviolent extremist groups just because they denounced terrorism.
In addition, the government vowed to broaden its focus to combat all forms of terrorism, including right-wing and left-wing extremism, with a particular focus on confronting the ideology that it considers to be the driver of violence.
Some civil liberties groups and Muslim community leaders say the recent legal requirement to report has made public workers overly cautious, causing them to make referrals that are inappropriate and without justification.
A July report on counter-extremism efforts by Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee notes that unions representing educators, including the National Association of Head Teachers, are concerned about a lack of “guidance, support, and training for schools.”
Other educators and local Muslim leaders testified that the reporting requirement, coupled with the targeted focus on ideology, stifles classroom debate and alienates Muslim students.
Mohammed Khaliel, a community leader, told The Daily Signal in an interview that some Muslims view Prevent as discriminatory.
“The [Prevent] program is meant to address the problem of people becoming extremist and causing harm to Muslim communities; however, the very program trying to achieve that can also alienate the community that it is required to assist, which makes the problem go underground and makes it worse,” Khaliel says.
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