In 2003, “CONTEST”, the UK's counter-terrorism strategy was first introduced although this was not published until 2006 several months after the 7/7 bombings in London1. CONTEST consists of four “P” principles. PURSUE to disrupt any plots to attack2 and to prosecute those responsible. PROTECT to reduce the vulnerability of public places3, transport systems, national infrastructure, amongst others. PREPARE for an attack that cannot be stopped and to mitigate the harm caused. Also PREVENT, to stop people from becoming radicalised towards a cause be it religious, nationalist or other. PREVENT has garnered the most criticism and for various reasons. Evidence may show the system to be largely failing, other evidence may show it to be over-zealous in it's surveillance, while the most common criticism appears to be it's primarily targeting of Muslim communities (Awan: 2011). One senior police officer insisted PREVENT had become a tainted “toxic brand and is widely mistrusted”4.
Discussion regarding CONTEST and it's methods is an unfortunately topical subject following recent attacks on the UK, as well as on various other European cities such as Barcelona, Paris and Turku. The frequency of these attacks has already lead to sizeable changes in UK policy towards counter-terrorism as funding rose by £3.4bn in the wake of the Paris attacks5. The news that the failed Parsons Green tube bomber had been referred to PREVENT has also put the strategy further into the spotlight6.
Further reconsideration of CONTEST will also need to acknowledge the changing threat to the West. The September 11th attacks were the responsibility of Al-Qaeda, past threats have come from the Taliban, while modern day threats would largely come from Islamic State7. Furthermore, authors (Fischbacher-Smith: 2016) highlight the change of attacks being carried out, as terrorists moved away from “spectacular” catastrophes to relatively low-intensity assaults8.
News that PREVENT would undergo review in 2010 was widely greeted with positivity by analysts9 (Heath-Kelly: 2013), and since then much has been researched about terrorism. However, in the modern day where terrorism is a consistent threat, this is likely to bring a far more volatile reaction from either side, whether from those who feel it is in need of change or from those who feel it creates more problems than it solves.
The Problems Of PREVENT
As part of PREVENT, those who are believed to be vulnerable to radicalisation are referred to “Channel”, an “early intervention multi-agency panel”. As Heath-Kelly describes it10, the programme uses partnerships between the police and local communities to identify people potentially at risk of radicalisation and to help them away from this path. This is not without its failings as various people under its radar have previously continued to carry out an attack. The leader of the London Bridge attack and his brother were previously involved in PREVENT11, whilst the primary suspect of the Parsons Green tube bombing had also been referred to Channel12.
Further evidence shows a high amount of British-born Muslims leaving the UK of their own choice to join or fight for Islamic State or similar extremist groups13. Admittedly, one problem that PREVENT faces is the ignorance of those they are trying to help, as it is likely many of those en route to extremism do not consider their prospective acts to be criminal14, some of which see them to be justified due to past or current world politics15. Kepel commented as early as 200416 that the most important battle in the war for Muslim minds would be fought not in the Middle East but in Muslim communities in major European cities where Islam is a rapidly growing religion. The persistence and ease of so many people to bypass the help offered by PREVENT is a poor testimony to its effectiveness, and implies a real struggle from the system to keep up with modern day extremist recruitment. PREVENT and Channel perhaps needs to be updated to deal with this new modern threat from Islamic State (in particular, but not solely) and the appeal they have on so many younger Muslims. Unfortunately, ISIS similarly exploit and feed off the disillusionment felt by so many British-born or British-based Muslims, and in some ways, as explained below, PREVENT is in some ways ironically partially responsible.
The strategy is not without it's critics and has drawn strong condemnation for various reasons, such as those who believe it casts Muslims as a “suspect community” (Pantazis and Pemberton: 2009). PREVENT does not enjoy a high public trust rate and unfortunately the failings of PREVENT are numerous.
Right Idea, Wrong Execution
One issue is that the PREVENT scheme places a high amount of responsibility on people to whom counter-terrorism is not their forte. Gordon Brown (then Prime Minister) insisted that not only the police and intelligence agents will work towards preventing terrorism, but also emergency services, local authorities, community groups, educators and NHS staff17 would be trained to spot potential signs of radicalisation. Aside from the problem of adding to the workload of already heavily pressured staff, this also creates the likely cause that employees will be under-trained for such demands and could lead to mistakes being made. In one example, a child was referred to Channel for frequently saying the phrase “cooker bomb”18, though suspicion was allayed when this was found to be a mispronunciation of “cucumber”. Furthermore, aside from the responsibility this places on staff it also places a duty to report potential signs of terrorism and can leave employees feeling pressurised to show they are making efforts or to meet a quota. One MP claimed teachers felt wary of being marked down for inaction towards the scheme so therefore considered reporting students who attended an anti-badger cull protest19. The scheme would of course benefit from being enforced across various positions throughout the UK but the pressure this places on people to whom counter-terrorism is not their trained line of work is likely to throw it into disarray. Some might feel they are overreacting by reporting, some might feel that they are being prejudiced by referring someone of a particular ethnicity or background.
The Wider Problem Of Narrowing Its Focus
The CONTEST scheme and it's four components are created to foil all kinds of terrorist attacks, be it Islamic or white nationalist, or others. With significant attacks coming from Islamic extremists it is understandable that CONTEST will place further emphasis on this threat. The downside is this can be counter-productive counter-terrorism20 and can create a feeling of victimisation towards Muslim communities, something that has drawn criticism from organisations such as “CAGE”21 and has been accused of creating an “us and them” mentality22.
Bonino (2013)23, who describes the scheme as “pervasive and burdening”24, highlights the damage that counter-terrorism practices can have25. In one study from the Equality and Human Rights Commission it was shown that such programmes can potentially make Muslim communities feel like a “suspect community” and create further alienation and isolation, whether this is due to heavy-handed tactics or feeling demonised politically26. It is not uncommon for some communities to find difficulty in building bridges with Muslim communities due to past mistakes27, and when this is done wrong it can create a large sentiment of impressionable people feeling rejected by the society they desire to be a part of.
Awan28 highlighted the detrimental effect that close surveillance of Muslim communities can have. Awan refers to the botched attempts by West Midlands police to greatly increase CCTV in predominantly Muslim areas but done so under the guise of trying to stem increasing crime rates29. When it was revealed that this increased surveillance was due to the higher population of Muslims, not only did this potentially open up a legal action regarding Human Rights30, this created significant damage of the trust between police and community. More seriously this could create a feeling of victimisation and ostracism that could potentially drive younger males into extremist retaliation. The Australian car attack of December 2017 was allegedly motivated by anger over the way Muslims are treated throughout the country31. McCulloch and Pickering highlight the potential dangers of pre-crime action on counter-terrorism grounds. This suggests that no actual crime has been carried out by the individual(s) yet authorities wish to suspect them in the shadow of that very crime32. The authors further highlight the possibility for these charges to be brought as a result of prejudice or stereotypes against Muslim communities.
Room For Improvement
Prevent will likely have to undergo radical changes to adapt to the current social and political climate. One suggestion may be a higher focus on Imams and hate-preachers who encourage extremism. While PREVENT largely focuses on individuals themselves who could become radicalised, a stronger effort against those who are actually trying to radicalise people into extremism could aid in cutting the problem at the roots. This could be aimed at hate-preachers in mosques or also those who exploit vulnerable, angrier and easy-to-influence younger men in prisons. For some Islamic extremists such as the killer of Lee Rigby33, an enclosed incarceration area of men who have grown to hate society, “the system”, the government and the nation that imprisoned them is a hotbed of potential recruits, some of whom have nothing to lose upon release. A more solitary life in jail could prevent those with radical views and who are vocal about these beliefs from espousing them to an impressionable audience.
Numerous terrorist attacks have been foiled in the UK in recent years34, whether they were at an advanced planning stage or early plotting. This could argue the success of counter-terrorism procedures to prevent attacks however simultaneously it could argue the failures of PREVENT that they were being planned at all. Evidently there is sufficient reason to update and re-evaluate the PREVENT programme, whether this is due to the significant increase in attacks over recent years, the growing methods that terrorists are using to recruit people, or whether this is due to communities feeling rejected and victimised. Preventing this radicalisation however will need to take into account the various cultural, religious, political, social and personal aspects that come into play during these processes. This in itself has proven to be a potentially volatile area if done wrong, and could in turn lead to exacerbating the problem further. If PREVENT can learn from its mistakes and create a fine-tuned and experienced method of counter-terrorist procedures that seeks to help those who may be turning towards radicalisation, the programme would become a great asset to add to the already-extensive methods of British counter-terrorism procedures.
1Ben Stanford, Yasmine Ahmed, “The Prevent Strategy: The Human Rights Implications of the United Kingdom’s Counter-Radicalisation Policy” (Questions In Law, 26 July 2016) <http://www.qil-qdi.org/the-prevent-strategy-the-human-rights-implications/> Accessed 7 February 2018.
2Joe Watts, “Nine Terror Plots Foiled in the UK in the Past Year, MI5 Chiefs Reveal” Independent, 5 December 2017.
3Katie Forster, “London Terror Attack: Security Barriers Installed on Three Bridges in Capital”, Independent, 5 June 2017.
4John Gearson, Hugo Rosemont, “CONTEST as Strategy: Reassessing Britain's Counterterrorism Approach” (2015) Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38:12, 1050.
5Lynsey Barber, “George Osborne Promises £3.4bn Extra Counter-Terrorism Spending in Wake of Paris Attacks but No Police Cuts Commitment” (City A.M, 22 November 2015) <http://www.cityam.com/229260/autumn-statement-and-comprehensive-spending-review-2015-george-osborne-promises-30pc-increase-in-counter-terrorism-spending-in-wake-of-paris-attacks> accessed 24 February 2018.
6Ian Cobain, “Parsons Green Tube Bomber was Referred to Prevent Programme” Guardian (16 March 2018).
7Uncredited Author, “UK to Launch ‘Contest 3.0’ Counterterrorism Strategy After Spate of Attacks”, Russia Today (25 November 2017).
8Denis Fischbacher-Smith, “Framing the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Within the Context of a Wicked Problem” (2016) Public Money & Management, 36:6, 399.
9Charlotte Heath-Kelly, “Counter-Terrorism and the Counterfactual: Producing the ‘Radicalisation’ Discourse and the UK PREVENT Strategy” (2013), BJPIR v15, 411.
10Charlotte Heath-Kelly, “Counter-Terrorism and the Counterfactual: Producing the ‘Radicalisation’ Discourse and the UK PREVENT Strategy” (2013), BJPIR v15, 405.
11Lizzie Dearden, “London Attacker Khuram Butt 'Cautioned by Police Over Extremist Behaviour' Six Months Before Rampage” Independent (7 June 2017).
12Lizzie Dearden, “Parsons Green Attack: Teenager Arrested Over London Tube Bombing 'Was Referred to Counter-Extremism Scheme'” Independent (20 September 2017).
13Ewan MacAskill, “Tally of Britons Joining Isis and Similar Groups Abroad Grown to 850” Guardian (11 August 2016).
14Jason Roach, Paul Ekblom, Richard Flynn, “The Conjunction of Terrorist Opportunity: A Framework for Diagnosing and Preventing Acts of Terrorism” (2005), Security Journal 18:3, 10.
15Jason Roach, Paul Ekblom, Richard Flynn, “The Conjunction of Terrorist Opportunity: A Framework for Diagnosing and Preventing Acts of Terrorism” (2005), Security Journal 18:3, 9.
16Giles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (first edition, Harvard University Press, 2004) 8.
17Uncredited Author, “UK Rethink on Counter-Terrorism” (2009) Strategic Comments, 15:4, 1.
18Tal Fox, “Four-Year-Old Who Mispronounced 'Cucumber' as 'Cooker Bomb' Faced Terror Warnings, Family Say” Independent (12 March 2016).
19Harry Yorke, “Children Who Go to Badger Protests Could be Reported to Anti-Terror Programme, MP Warns” Telegraph (1 February 2017).
20Ian Cobain, “UK's Prevent Counter-Radicalisation Policy 'Badly Flawed'” Guardian (19 October 2016).
21Joel David Taylor, “ ‘Suspect Categories,’ Alienation and Counterterrorism: Critically Assessing PREVENT in the UK” (2018) Terrorism and Political Violence, 1.
22Joel David Taylor, “ ‘Suspect Categories,’ Alienation and Counterterrorism: Critically Assessing PREVENT in the UK” (2018) Terrorism and Political Violence, 2.
23Stefano Bonino, “Prevent-ing Muslimness in Britain: The Normalisation of Exceptional Measures to Combat Terrorism” (2013) 33:3.
24Stefano Bonino, “Prevent-ing Muslimness in Britain: The Normalisation of Exceptional Measures to Combat Terrorism” (2013) 33:3, 385.
25Stefano Bonino, “Prevent-ing Muslimness in Britain: The Normalisation of Exceptional Measures to Combat Terrorism” (2013) 33:3, 390.
26Stefano Bonino, “Prevent-ing Muslimness in Britain: The Normalisation of Exceptional Measures to Combat Terrorism” (2013) 33:3, 386.
27Therese O'Toole, “Governing Through Prevent? Regulation and Contested Practice in State–Muslim Engagement” (2016) Sociology, 50:1, 170.
28Imran Awan, “COUNTERBLAST: Terror in the Eye of the Beholder: The ‘Spycam’ Saga: Counter-Terrorism or Counter Productive?” (2011) Howard J.Crim.Just, 200.
29Imran Awan, “COUNTERBLAST: Terror in the Eye of the Beholder: The ‘Spycam’ Saga: Counter-Terrorism or Counter Productive?” (2011) Howard J.Crim.Just, 202.
30Imran Awan, “COUNTERBLAST: Terror in the Eye of the Beholder: The ‘Spycam’ Saga: Counter-Terrorism or Counter Productive?” (2011) Howard J.Crim.Just, 202.
31Odysseus Patrick, “Australian police: Melbourne Driver Says Attack Motivated by Mistreatment of Muslims” Washington Post (22 December 2017).
32Jude McCulloch, Sharon Pickering, “Criminology and the War on Terror” (2009) British Journal of Criminology, 49:5, 640.
33Ian Robson, “Lee Rigby's Evil Killer 'Radicalising Inmates' at Frankland Prison”, Chronicle Live (26 June 2017) <https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/lee-rigbys-evil-killer-radicalising-13236310> accessed 23 February 2018..
34Anushka Asthana, “Nine Terrorist Attacks Prevented in UK in Last Year, Says MI5 Boss” Guardian (5 December 2017).