COMMENTARY: William Shawcross must put fight against non-violent extremist ideology at the heart of what Prevent does

January 26, 2021

The announcement that William Shawcross will lead the independent review of Prevent – the Government’s counter-radicalisation programme – is welcome news to all who care about the issues of extremism and radicalisation. His record of standing robustly against the extremist misuse of the charitable sector, during his stint as Chair of the Charity Commission, suggests he is an excellent choice for the job. By appointing Shawcross (a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, as I am), the Government has indicated the seriousness with which it takes this issue.

Prevent matters. It has done invaluable work in steering vulnerable people away from violence and reducing the security threat we face. Of course, it is not perfect. Schemes of this kind, that look for the early warning signs of radicalisation, can always be improved – which is why a review is important. But some of those who called for this Prevent review did so in the hope of scrapping the scheme. They label Prevent divisive, claiming it has lost the trust of British Muslims.

The reality is rather different. First, polling released in March by Crest Advisory indicates that far from opposing Prevent, most British Muslims had never heard of the scheme. Second, when presented with a description of the programme, 80 percent of respondents expressed their support. The review is therefore an opportunity to reinvigorate our efforts, not abandon them.

The 2011 Prevent Review under the Coalition Government, with independent oversight from Lord Carlile QC, brought a step change in Britain’s approach to counter-radicalisation. Initial iterations of Prevent had been flawed because “it failed to confront the extremist ideology at the heart of the threat”. Lord Carlile stressed that it was vital we challenge those who act as apologists for terrorism, and counter their narrative that the West is at war with Islam.

Yet that new post 2011 policy flew rather like a satellite at 80,000 feet – without the necessary “boots on the ground” to match. Likewise, David Cameron’s 2015 Birmingham speech saw the then Prime Minister speak boldly about the grievance culture that poisons the minds of young Muslims. His ideas failed properly to take hold in Government departments, let alone in communities. Nor was it fully understood and self appointed sectarian agitator groups like MEND too often successfully besmirched it.

In the last decade, the landscape for counter-radicalisation work has continued to evolve too. Technological change has accelerated, and terrorists, as we know, don’t just hide in the dark web but excel at exploiting new platforms. They are innovative in their content and interactions. Radicalisers have also become skilled at disguising their true intentions and speaking in languages that resonate with a wider audience.

Thus, if the archetypal radicaliser in the first decade after 9/11 was the almost pantomime figure of Abu Hamza with his eye-patch, hook hands and wild rhetoric; his counterpart in the last ten years was likely to be smartly dressed, soft-spoken and to mouth platitudes about social justice and human rights.

It is therefore vital that the Shawcross review both brings the Prevent strategy up-to-date – while simultaneously taking us back to some of the most important principles established in 2011, which have perhaps been lost in the intervening years. As a starting point, the Review might usefully do the following:

  1. Re-state what it is we are trying to Prevent. The last ten years have seen a worrying rise in the activities of Far-Right extremism. Prevent should seek to challenge extremism in all its forms. Equally, it must be acknowledged that Islamist radicalisation remains by far the greatest threat here in the UK as well as overseas (and Isis continues to propagate online). Have we judged the balance appropriately in terms of allocation of Prevent resources between the Far-Right and the Islamists? Is there now too much focus on the former?
  2. Re-focus on Ideology. There is no single pathway for radicalisation; no serious expert would argue to the contrary. But ideology matters. It shapes the worldview of the would-be terrorist and structures their actions. It is the decisive ingredient. However, social scientists often prefer to focus on “vulnerabilities”. These could be anything from mental health issues, to social isolation. While such factors can be relevant, we will soon go off course if our understanding of radicalisation overlooks ideology in favour of “vulnerabilities”. I reference the work undertaken by the Home Affairs Select Committee, when we published a report titled: Radicalisation: the counter narrative and identifying the tipping point. It is therefore vital that we continue to identify the way in which extremist ideologies operate on the vulnerable. And given the nature of the security threat, this means placing an understanding of Islamist ideology at the core of our efforts.
  3. Reassert the importance of challenging the extremist worldview. Countering radicalisation means deconstructing the ideas that form an extremist worldview. The place for this vital counter-narrative work is RICU—the Research, Information, and Communications Unit within the Home Office. Yet, there have been suggestions that RICU has been overly focused on managing interfaith optics, and promoting social media campaigns of only tangential relevance. The review must examine RICU’s messaging and operations. RICU should be more democratically accountable, through greater direct Ministerial oversight. Likewise, is there sufficient Ministerial oversight of the highly political issue of the promulgation of official language and terminology about how to characterise current threats?
  4. Re-establish fundamental principles for partnership with civil society groups. At the heart of much Prevent work a key question remains: with whom does the British State work in its efforts to counter extremism? Policy Exchange has long argued that it should ‘choose its friends wisely’. But what does that mean today? What are the key indicators of extremism? Does it include a readiness to tell Muslims that they should not cooperate with the police? Or the suggestion that the British State is waging war on Islam? Islamists systematically misrepresent Government policies, attempting to make British Muslims mistrustful of wider society. Few policies have been more misrepresented than Prevent itself. So, it shouldn’t be controversial to acknowledge that groups which have repeatedly and consistently opposed counter-extremism, and undermined public confidence, aren’t part of the solution.
  5. Identify where the problems lie. Just as the Prevent Review in 2011 called out the student group FOSIS, we should be prepared to name groups like Cage, MEND, or the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), and say that such organisations should not be misconstrued as representatives of all Muslims (we aren’t one monolithic group – controversial I know) or “critical friends”, or offered a seat at the table. Yes, Prevent should have communities onboard. But let us make it truly representative and constructive — and that isn’t achieved by filling advisory panels with those actively hostile to Prevent and who have a long record of not being on board with what we are seeking to achieve. We should avoid any drift back into reactionary “Gatekeeper Politics” as a matter of principle. The rush to find partners who can “deliver” Muslims, and the tendency to embrace those presenting themselves as experts, can drown out voices who could be genuinely helpful.
  6. Tackle the question of how Prevent relates to the wider effort of countering extremist discourse. The 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy put forth a bold vision for this. Yet, counter-extremism schemes have looked like rather diminished counterparts to the well-oiled machinery of Prevent. This is wrong. Countering non-violent extremists and their disruptive propaganda must be integral to what Prevent does. The review should determine how these two vital strategies can be effectively married up.
  7. Ensure consistency between Prevent and other strands of Government policy. There is a longstanding policy of non-engagement with the MCB, but is this being properly applied across Government and the public sector? If Whitehall doesn’t have clear criteria for engagement, how can others get this right? Failure on this front raises the likelihood that bad actors will continue to have an inside-track, and be able to undermine Prevent. Straightforward criteria on engagement must be coupled with robust due diligence, overseen from the centre.
  8. Make sure that the public sector tout court – especially the police – understand the rules of engagement. Few public agencies are as crucial for Prevent as the police. Yet many senior figures in the police too often seem to fall prey to the temptation of making a Faustian pact with non-violent Islamists, in order to help keep their more violent comrades at bay. What is the price to the rest of society of this approach? The Shawcross review therefore needs to consider the apparent exemption from the rules on engaging with Islamist extremists which the police seem to enjoy — under an all too expansive definition of “operational independence”, which not only permits highly politicised engagement with Islamists but also brings those Islamists into a consultative role on policy making within police forces.

Recently, several prominent counter-terrorism figures have expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of de-radicalisation. That makes preventing people from becoming radicalised in the first place all the more important. Prevent has been a successful endeavour thus far. But the nature of the extremist threat evolves, and our response must evolve too. The Prevent review is an opportunity to do this.

By putting the fight against non-violent extremist ideology at the centre of what Prevent does, we have the opportunity not only to guard against the terrorist threat, but also to diminish the corrosive effects of extremism on our democracy.

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