In what seems to be becoming my rather curious emerging role as Bright Green’s resident terrorologist, a few words are probably in order about the government’s new ‘Prevent’ strategy, released last Wednesday. I’d like to make something clear before I start. In this analysis, I take the government in good faith. I assume that Prevent is a genuinely well-meaning exercise in trying to protect British citizens from what its authors perceive as a real and serious threat. I suspect that many Bright Green readers will wish to treat this with a dose of scepticism. But even if you think that Prevent has some larger, more sinister purpose, I hope that you will still find it helpful to consider what – in my opinion – is wrong with it on its own terms.

Prevent is the first strand of the government’s overall counterterrorism strategy, ‘CONTEST”, devised under four headings: ‘Prevent’, ‘Pursue’, ‘Protect’ and ‘Prepare’. Not least because of its clever use of alliteration, CONTEST has actually been widely admired and copied worldwide. Its framework is basically replicated, for example, in the strategies of the EU and Australia.

And, to give credit where it’s due, as counterterrorism strategies go, CONTEST has its merits. To start with, it is generally a law enforcement model, rather than military model. To this extent it was intended as Britain’s answer to the ‘War on Terror’ approach. To say that something is better than the War on Terror is not exactly high praise, but there you go.

It also seems to have a nice, clear, logical structure. ‘Pursue’ is about the old fashioned business of catching terrorists; Protect is about physically guarding places they might attack; ‘Prepare’ is about getting ready to respond if there actually is an attack. ‘Prevent’, meanwhile, is about addressing root causes of terrorism.

In a sense, it is perhaps just a little surprising that Prevent has been, of all the strands of CONTEST, by far the most problematic. After all, it is supposed to be the ‘soft’ one of the four strands – the one that does what liberal critics of what Paul Wilkinson calls ‘hard line’ counter terrorism by addressing underlying problems leading to terrorism.

That’s not to say of course that there haven’t been other big controversies in areas covered by other strands. 28, 42 or 90 day detention periods fall into the ‘Pursue’ remit. Just how intrusive scanners at airports end up being comes under ‘Protect’. But these controversies are seen, I suspect, as relating to collateral problems raised by the approaches. They do not – at least, so I think the logic runs – challenge the validity of the relevant strands as strategies within their respective bits of the overall remit. That this is so in itself tells us something useful about how counterterrorism thinking (as other policy thinking) works: every issue is dealt with in its own little box, with the wider issues that may be raised by what is happening in that box viewed as peripheral, rather than fundamental to the approach in each area.

This in itself goes some way towards explaining why ‘Prevent’ has been so controversial; it sets out to deal with issues which simply cannot be approached through the pigeonhole style of governmental thinking. Therefore the critiques and controversies it generates cannot simply be brushed to one side as issues of ‘balance’ which do not reflect on the basic soundness of the underlying strategy. By the very fact of generating the kind of critiques it has, Prevent is to that extent invalidated as strategy.

The new Prevent strategy document is pretty candid about what was wrong before. In essence, it makes the following claims:

 

  • Prevent came to be perceived by the British Muslim community as a front for an intelligence gathering exercise: people felt they were being ‘snooped’ on.
  • Prevent gave money and support to extremist groups who espoused similar beliefs to those of the Al Qaeda inspired terrorists whom the government is mainly worried about.
  • Prevent had no adequate procedures for evaluating the effectiveness of its activities, and ended up wasting money.

 

Before talking about what the new Prevent is trying to do about these, let’s take a step back and consider why it got into such trouble in the first place.

The basic problem for Prevent is the sheer vagueness of the ‘problem’ which it is set to tackle. That is, that the problem which Prevent is supposed to ‘Prevent’ is not actually terrorism per se (which, strictly speaking, is the job of ‘Pursue’), but rather ‘violent extremism’. This presumes that extremist ideology is, in and of itself, a major ‘root’ cause of terrorism. And yet, as the new Prevent strategy document admits, it is not altogether clear that this is really the case. Only 15% of people convicted of radical Islamist terrorism in the UK have had previous associations with what are classed as extremist groups, for example and some are, as it puts it ‘radicalised and recruited at the same time’. It is basically tautologous to suggest that someone who is convicted of planning an act of terrorism is ‘radical’. If they weren’t, we would simply recategorise them as a common criminal.

However, even if we accept the basic premise that ideology can be thought of as a sort of independent cause of terrorism, thus making it sensible to try to intervene with ‘vulnerable’ people who are ‘at risk of radicalisation’, there would seem to be good reasons why, practically speaking, Prevent cannot work, simply by virtue of the fact that it is, in the final analysis, a ‘counter terrorism’ initiative. Here’s why:

Imagine that someone walked up to you on the street and explained that they were working for a governmental serial killer prevention initiative and wanted to have a chat: not because you were necessarily about to become a serial killer but just, you know, on the off chance. How would you react? This absurd scenario represents, in essence, what Prevent has to try to accomplish.

Without even rising from the proverbial armchair then, it is possible to diagnose in advance many of the problems which Prevent has been accused of simply by thinking about how one might try to escape this predicament. If the government tries to approach people it deems to be at risk clandestinely then, even attributing the best intentions, what we have is ipso facto a serious violation of trust. If it tries to move its interventions further along the ‘radicalisation process’ to deal with more defensibly ‘at risk’ individuals, then it necessarily moves itself into the territory of ‘Pursue’. If, conversely, it tries to broaden its approach then it ends up paying for things like football clubs and rap concerts and media training which, worthy as they might be in and of themselves, court the accusation either that ‘money has been wasted’, as the new ‘Prevent’ document bluntly puts it or, worse, of ‘securitising integration’ – another risk which it admits to.

So, after all this, is the government’s new ‘Prevent’ strategy actually an improvement? Is an improvement even possible? My early verdict is that, despite what look like earnest efforts to own up to the serious critiques the old strategy generated, and what looks like a genuine consultative exercise, Prevent remains as confused as ever. On the one hand, it stresses the need to draw a harder line between ‘integration’ as it sees it, and the threat of terrorism. On the other, it emphasizes the need to ‘challenge’ extremism qua extremism (i.e, even when it isn’t actually illegal under the sweeping provisions of the 2006 Terrorism Act). And it does this even while trying to stress the importance of freedom of expression and not passing judgement any form of religion (though one might argue that radical Islamism, after all, defines itself as a kind of religion).

I would suggest that ultimately Prevent has three main problems. First, it’s a counter terrorism strategy. This makes it incapable of acknowledging that the harm of acts of terrorist violence – however bad – does not inhere in the violent action itself, but rather in a wider set of political issues within which it will be made sense of. That is to say that when we say we are worried about terrorism, what we are really saying is that we are worried about some bigger social phenomenon of which the terrorism is an epiphenomenon. So Prevent gets things the wrong way round: it has to say (because it would be unthinkable for the government to say otherwise) that the real issue is stopping potentially dozens of people from dying nastily. But what the real issue actually is, is in fact what effect those acts of terrorism, if they happened, would have on the solidarity of our society. Trying to reduce community tensions and group polarization (if there is any practicable way of doing it) may be all well and good. But if it is, it can only be pursued as an end in itself. Indeed, counterterrorism strategy arguably should be folded into the framework proposed by that end, rather than vice versa.

Secondly, Prevent is about Prevention. But we simply don’t have enough predictive capability in relation to the ‘high impact, low volume crime’ of terrorism to really say, beyond the very immediate issues to which ‘Pursue’ relates (and often not even then), what, exactly makes someone ‘vulnerable’ to becoming a terrorist.

Thirdly, Prevent is mainly about Muslims. Prevent defends this fact by arguing that, according to intelligence, the main terrorist threat to the UK still comes from Al Qaeda. But one doesn’t have to think that Prevent is Islamophobic to think that its focus on Muslims is a bad idea for one simple reason: it helps encourage Muslims to think of themselves as Muslims. And at this point I think I simply have to comment on why the simplistic view of ideology that Prevent seems to rely on matters so much. Running through the strategy seems to be a notion that what there is normal, decent mainstream Islam on the one hand, and bad, new fangled phony Al Qaeda Islam on the other: what we need is to basically market the former over the latter. It is possible to argue that this view has actually been adopted for quite defensible reasons. By artificially separating ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ Islam, it is possible to defend the ‘overwhelming majority’ of Muslims as ordinary citizens, while securitizing against the ‘tiny minority’ of radicals. This, I suspect, is also why Prevent uses the language of ‘vulnerability’ (in similar contexts we even come across the notion of ‘grooming’) to present those who are ‘radicalised’ as innocent victims of predatory recruiters.

The problem is that ‘Prevent’ seems to be premised on the government believing its own spin, when the reality is likely to be much more nuanced. Like anyone else, British Muslims, I suspect, negotiate a number of different narratives and a number of different identities. But if they are continually addressed as Muslims, they will understandably be more likely to define themselves politically as such. From here, it is a easy step to see, for example, British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as actions against Muslims, rather than, say, ill-advised military adventures; the financial crisis as evidence for the need for an Islamic financial system which would outlaw interest; contemporary social problems as evidence for why we ought to adopt a traditional interpretation of the Islamic shari’ah, and so on. Simply by such acts of ‘framing’ one has arrived the very radical Islam(ism) which the government seems to see as an utterly distinct form of the religion.

Ultimately, I think, ‘Prevent’ is a good example of the ‘scripturalism’ that so often dogs government policy. Despite being all about culture, all about language, it seems to think that it, itself, can stand outside of these things. It fails to appreciate that, simply by existing, it helps to change reality in such a way as to make its goals impossible to achieve.

Gilbert Ramsay

About Gilbert Ramsay

Dr. Gilbert Ramsay is a lecturer on terrorism at the University of St. Andrews.