Prevent is a key part of addressing terrorism in the UK. Whether you like the specifics of the programme or not, no one credible thinks there should not be interventions that try to stop those dabbling with extremism from going further and perhaps taking part in violence or terrorism.
Such a programme is self-evidently part of safeguarding our society – but it also helps the (often young) individual involved – diverting them from a route that could end up with long-term imprisonment, or worse.
Given the nature of the Prevent programme, it is naturally controversial. It’s easy to lazily characterise Prevent as the thought police – acting before a crime is committed. That’s why it is structured as it is: as a voluntary programme designed to divert people away from the path of extremism.
As a voluntary programme it requires public support. We can’t force people to take part, we need them to willingly engage. That public confidence is particularly important in those communities where a disproportionate amount of our current terror threat comes from. And that’s why a review of prevent was an opportunity.
Firstly, it was an opportunity to identify the improvements that need to be made, especially given the high-profile cases where Prevent engagement had not adequately dealt with high-risk extremists who went on to attack.
The second opportunity was to reassure the public that Prevent wasn’t ideological, but followed the evidence and threat.
The perception of Prevent as biased against Muslim communities has plagued it since its inception. That’s partly because when it was set up in 2003 it was focused explicitly on Islamist extremism, and also because it made mistakes – especially in the early stages. Those issues were then exploited by groups who wanted to undermine Prevent for ideological reasons. Despite this, the principles behind Prevent remain popular including across Muslim communities.
Since 2003, the programme has broadened and improved. As today’s report notes, its referrals today are a mix from far-right to Islamist, Incel to mixed or unclear motivations. This provided an opportunity to build wider support for the scheme.
Sadly, the appointment of William Shawcross to lead the review made it almost impossible for it to hold credibility right from the start. His outspoken views on the threat of Islam in Europe meant even some moderate Muslim commentators and civil rights groups like Amnesty moved to distance themselves from the review before it started.
His unsurprising conclusions – Islamist extremism should be the real focus, we are spending too much time on the far right threat – will make it easier for those wanting to undermine the programme. Even more worryingly it makes it harder for Muslim groups who support Prevent to do so. It risks making the programme look ideological rather than threat based.
On the substance, there is no doubt that the Islamist inspired terror threat remains the most serious. The question is whether in five or ten years that will still be the case? Are the far-right referrals a sign of a growing problem or a temporary issue? Will the incel movement become a bigger thing? Will environmental terrorism emerge? We don’t know all the answers to these questions. But we do know that the threat will evolve. Irish Republicanism was long the focus of our security services, so much so that they struggled to spot the early growth in the Islamist threat. We can’t repeat that mistake again.
We need to encourage our security services to follow the evidence and make sure Prevent is seen as the non-ideological intervention it should be. And, given its voluntary nature, we need to not only improve the programme – but increase public support for it. Today’s report is therefore not only a missed opportunity, it has set back the cause. And for all those of us whose lives have been impacted by terrorism that’s a source of profound regret.
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