FOCUS:  The ‘where’ of Prevent

FOCUS: The ‘where’ of Prevent

Shereen Fernandez, Rob Faure Walker and Tarek Younis

In 2015, the Prevent Duty was made statutory in public institutions across the UK (except Northern Ireland) including state schools, healthcare sectors and universities. Public sector workers are now responsible for monitoring signs of extremism and radicalisation amongst the public they interact with as well as their colleagues. These workers are routinely referred to as frontline staff because of their proximity to the public, as if they are placed on an imaginary border, where they must filter out ‘risky’ individuals.

It would be incorrect to suggest however that these frontlines, as demarcated by the Prevent Duty, are fixed within the boundaries of where these public sector workers are based. Taking the document at face value would certainly suggest that the Prevent Strategy is only effective within these spaces, but the reality is that these ‘borders’ expand and contract depending on the definition of risk. In recent years, discourses around countering extremism and radicalisation have attempted to shift the parameters of the ‘frontline’ beyond the spaces outlined in the Prevent document. For example, following the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester in 2017, Theresa May stated that, “while we need to deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online, we must not forget about the safe spaces that continue to exist in the real world. Yes, that means taking military action to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But it also means taking action here at home”.

This mini-special issue looks at the ‘where’ of Prevent in four different contexts. Its aim is to start a conversation and encourage professionals, academics and researchers to interrogate the ‘where’ and ultimately the ‘how’ of Prevent, whether it is in their settings or elsewhere. Looking at the ‘where’ of Prevent, and the language that has developed to underpin the Duty, offers us a window into where the strategy has come from historically, politically and as part of a shameful legacy of colonialism. While these might be uncomfortable lessons to learn, they need to be engaged with if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated.

The Prevent Duty: Where did it all begin?
Accusations of a takeover of schools in Birmingham by so-called Islamists (which became known as the ‘Trojan Horse’ ‘scandal’) resulted in a duty being placed on schools across the country to teach Fundamental British Values and to provide safeguarding against extremism and, ultimately, being put under pressure by Ofsted to implement PREVENT. This notion of national values and extremism has now been embedded in the language that we carry with us, is supported by the aforementioned calls for public vigilance and is being exported internationally as Prevent-like strategies appear in France and countering violent extremism (CVE) agendas are exported globally. Subsequent accusations of a ‘Trojan Horse 2’ were made by The Department for Education and were levelled at The London Borough of Tower Hamlets, a place that was already feeling the shockwaves emanating from Birmingham as the schools that are over a hundred miles away rushed to implement Prevent to head off criticism by the schools inspectorate (OfSTED). The Trojan Horse impacts left lasting effects, as demonstrated in Anna Lockley-Scott’s piece that reflects on the ‘geographical silence’ in her work as schools were reluctant to take part in the research unless their location was completely anonymised. Such a demand results in the loss of critical analysis which is much needed in policy analysis of any kind.

So ‘where’ did Prevent, a strategy to target ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’, come from? Looking back over debates in the British Parliament, we are able to see ‘where’ these words are applied. Fortunately, from the perspective of the researcher, ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ are so rare in the Parliamentary record before 2005 that it is possible to read all occurrences in a single sitting. ‘Radicalisation’ for example only appears 14 times in the UK’s parliamentary record between 1803 and 2005. In the following decade it appears 1,355 times. By reading all occurrences of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ from before 2005, we can see that these words are originally applied to political opposition to colonialism during the break-up of the British Empire in the early 20th Century, initially attributed to independence movements across Africa, then through the Middle East, before there are extensive discussions of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s. As the language crept closer to home, the next place for it to be applied was on the British mainland and Parliament next discusses the so-called ‘radicalisation’ of British Muslims, rhetoric that arguably led to the aforementioned racist allocation of Prevent funding by geographical region. Years before these dramatic events that led to debates in parliament and in the Press, the ‘where’ was vital to the early adoption of Prevent as funding was allocated on a per capita basis for the number of Muslims living in an area. Thus, looking at ‘where’ the funding was allocated leads us to the conclusion that Prevent, in its earliest manifestation, was a racist strategy. The question of whether this earlier racist agenda has been shaken off remains unanswered, but the geographical focus has been broadened to now include all teachers and medical staff.

In his book The Insurgent Archipelago, James Mackinlay mirrors these geographical shifts in the focus of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ as he explores how strategies that started as counter-insurgency policies in the furthest reaches of the British Empire have been progressively adopted to control the British population at home. He describes the creation of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) and the Prevent Strategy that this new department supports as the latest manifestation of this process of importing oppressive policy from the recently withered British Empire. Mackinlay points out that the formation of OSCT marked a migration of counter-terrorism from the military and into the civil service and this might explain why the lessons learned in Northern Ireland by the British Military during their efforts to counter-terrorism during the Troubles have not been heeded, and why the strategy that runs counter to these lessons learned is not imposed on Northern Ireland.

Tackling extremism at ‘home’ has taken on various formats across a range of geographical scales, from the macro to the micro. The online space has been crucial to this, with platforms such as YouTube and Google warned to remove extremist content from their browsers and search engines. A number of counter-extremism organisations have embarked on projects to produce and disseminate ‘counter narratives’ in the online space, in an effort to redirect the conversation and change preconceived perceptions which would otherwise go unchallenged. Algorithms on Twitter for example were used during the heightened anxieties around travelling to Syria to join ISIS, to detect potential offenders. One such campaign called ‘Open Your Eyes’, appeared on several Twitter profiles as ‘targeted ads’ but the methodology used to target certain profiles suggests that web searches are stored to identify the ‘vulnerable young Muslim’ type. In this issue, Gareth Thompson explores the Twitter feed of a regional police force in the Midlands, in particular looking at the how advertising works in the online space to create a ‘robust’ counter narrative. Furthermore, his article examines how urban, metropolitan ‘risks’ are used to justify precaution and preventative action in rural areas. The linking of geography when it comes to Prevent is done so strategically to bolster support for counter-extremism and counter-terrorism measures and through his article, it is evident that the imagined boundaries of the pre-crime space is now being pushed into borderless scapes.

The corresponding change to the language of Prevent has blurred the lines of ‘where’; earlier versions of the strategy having made a distinction between both ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ and ‘violence’, yet the most recent strategy and government discourse since 2005 have made both words progressively more synonymous with violence. Whereas the earlier language allowed us the space to question if the state ought to be intervening in views perceived to be ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’, making these words synonymous with violence means that we all carry the frontline of Prevent with us wherever we go; it is after all common sense that we ought to challenge violence and this means that we now take Prevent everywhere.  A few months ago, the new Police commissioner Neil Basu claimed that in order to embolden counter-extremism approaches, what was needed was ‘counter-terrorism citizens’. Counter-terrorism citizens according to Basu would rely on their ‘nervous’ feelings and gut instincts to report suspicious behaviours to intelligence officers. The fact that such feelings may be predicated upon racialised biases is not at all considered. Gut feelings and instincts about individuals are produced through racialised understandings of risk and vulnerability, and in an age of terrorism, these risks take the form of Muslim-looking individuals. This was clearly the case in the  Project Champion operation in 2010, where over 200 CCTV cameras were installed in two Muslim predominated areas in Birmingham, under the rubric of counter-terrorism. Imagined geographies of risk continue to shape the way in which people are interacted with and treated. Prevent training recognizes the ambiguity in risk factors leading to terrorism; there just simply isn’t a single profile of risk factors towards terrorism.

How should the public go about recognizing signs of radicalisation, if it’s not a cognitive exercise – not an object of reason or research? Where, in our bodies, should Prevent occupy its space, if not the mind? It’s located below – in the gut. Prevent trainers always encourage everyone to trust their gut. “It’s not an exact science”, they say, “it’s about saving lives.” So, when that gut feeling arises, report it – “better safe than sorry”. If the Prevent strategy was born outside the realm of research, whatever evidence it produces is necessarily biased to reify its raison d’etre. It’s not evidence-based policy; it’s policy-based evidence. It’s a policy established on gut feelings, driven by a moral imperative to ‘do something’, culminating in a social reality which favours suspicion over trust. So, unable to sustain itself empirically, Prevent is now attempting to justify its framework by pivoting around the logic of an established field of research: mental health. However, as Charlotte Heath-Kelly argues in her piece in this special issue, there is little evidence that justifies this relationship.

So where exactly is Prevent?
The ‘where’ of anti-radicalisation is not unknown. The government admits that, for Prevent “to be effective, [its] work must take place overseas as well as in the UK.” Wherever there is room for suspicion, ‘there’ is Prevent. But Prevent is also nowhere. There is no single profile of a ‘radical’. Its ubiquity colours benign thoughts and behaviours as potential risk factors, and drowns legitimate concerns – such as ‘Vocal concern for Palestine’– in a sea of false-positive referrals. Unlike the sea however, Prevent is hot and contentious. Nobody seems to want to touch it, though it can be felt in every setting, uncovering underlying racial and political tensions, which hitherto have persisted, undisturbed. With the inclusion of the Far-Right in Prevent’s remit, questions should be raised about the effectiveness of Prevent in dealing with such longstanding racist ideologies whilst simultaneously exacerbating other forms of discrimination and inequality through the stigmatisation of Muslim individuals. Hilary Aked’s piece in this special issue looks at the ways in which counter-extremism measures in the UK, Germany and France contribute to rising anti-Muslim climates.

Much of this ambiguity in the ‘where’ can be traced back to the government’s employment of ‘pre-criminal space’. Though the government only makes mention of this in NHS England’s Prevent training, the reach of the pre-criminal space is limitless. By reverse-engineering a criminal or terrorist’s life, arguably all spaces can be securitised within a preventative framework. The custodians of these pre-criminal spaces are then held directly responsible for the individual’s radicalisation, or indirectly for having insufficiently ‘safeguarded’ the pre-criminal from their potential criminality. The logic of ‘pre-criminal space’ thus extends itself beyond the boundaries of police work, casting its shadow upon all potential public and private spheres.

The ‘where’ of Prevent is even more interesting should one chronicle the history of terrorism studies. Terrorism, as a field, is a ‘science’ contingent on events. As Lisa Stampnitzky begins in her book, the Munich hostage situation was one of the sparks that marked the transformation of insurgency studies into that of terrorism. Thus, the field terrorism studies as research subject is necessarily linked with events constricted within particular times and spaces – particular whens and wheres. ‘Terrorism/extremism experts’ then judge and dissect these events with moral evaluations and ‘scientific’ models, but remain confined within the time and space of what was deemed a ‘terrorist event’ as their platform. This is particularly evident in Prevent’s training. Prevent training always begins with an account of a known terrorist event – a specific ‘where’ trapped in space and time. But then, it deconstructs this picture into thousands of fragments – radicalisation risk-factors – spread across all spaces and times in all directions.

Given limited resources, Prevent hopes (and trains) the public to have ‘due regard’ in identifying and reporting individuals they suspect are vulnerable to radicalisation. But how should the public prioritise its search for radicalisation, given the elusiveness of its risk factors? The public must rely necessarily on its collective consciousness, its common sense, its ‘gut feelings’. Prevent can thus also be found ‘where’ our preconceived understanding of a terrorist lies – and today’s ‘terrorist’ archetype is associated with Muslims. Where is a pre-radical thus to be found? Among British Muslims, first and foremost; especially those who have not yet demonstrated their integration of British values. The push towards national values is not new, and indeed this discourse can be found in many Western countries in the throes of moral panic vis-a-vis immigrants. With its empirically-dubious insistence on British values as a deterrent to political violence, Prevent has thus securitised a long-standing national debate regarding integration and multiculturalism within the narrative of counter-terrorism. It is thus no surprise that Prevent is seen as unavoidably Muslim-centric, and so the government takes great measures in countering this image. But as much as it raises examples of far-right extremists, Prevent will always persist ‘where’ the phantoms of our moral panic take form: the foreign, vicious ‘other’. It could be said then that Prevent made moral panic a policy.

These are just some of the issues which complexify Prevent’s presence. More collaboration is needed across disciplines to unveil the various modes and locations in which Prevent operates. This special issue marks the beginning of an ongoing conversation on the ‘where’ of Prevent.


Shereen Fernandez (@shereenfdz) is a PhD researcher at Queen Mary University of London, in the School of Geography. Her research looks at the ways in which schools, teachers and Muslim parents understand and implement the Prevent Duty. Rob Faure Walker (@RobFaureWalker) is a PhD student at UCL Institute of Education where he is investigating the impact of counter-terrorism discourses in educational settings and on the democratic process. He has also worked as a secondary teacher in London since 2005. He also manages Prevent Digest, a monthly newsletter related to Prevent (@PREVENTdigest). Tarek Younis (@Tarek_Younis_) is Newton International Postdoctoral Fellow based at UCL, in the Division of Psychiatry. His research fellowship, awarded by the British Academy, seeks to explore the impact of the Prevent Duty on NHS healthcare professionals.