ON THE FRONTLINE: Is there any alternative to the Prevent counter terrorism policy?

ON THE FRONTLINE: Is there any alternative to the Prevent counter terrorism policy?

Narzanin Massoumi, David Miller and Tom Mills

This article draws on the newly published report Leaving the ‘war on terror’: a progressive alternative to counter-terrorism policy (Transnational Institute, 2019) authored by Ruth Blakeley, Ben Hayes, Nisha Kapoor, Arun Kundnani, Narzanin Massoumi, David Miller, Tom Mills, Rizwaan Sabir, Katy Sian and Waqas Tufail. Guided by three key principles – democracy, evidence and human rights – it launched in Parliament on 4th September with the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott – we outline below some of its key recommendations

Following mounting pressure the government was finally forced to announce an independent review of the Prevent counter-terrorism programme in January this year.

Whilst there has never been any clear evidence to show that Prevent has in fact prevented any act of ‘terrorism’, it has faced widespread criticism, in particular for discriminating against Muslims, intelligence and data gathering and, most recently, for the provision of covert funding to civil society groups. Since 2015, when the ‘Prevent duty’ was placed on a statutory footing in public institutions, an average of twelve people a day, overwhelmingly children and young adults including those as young as three, have been referred to the government’s de-radicalisation programme, ‘Channel’. The University and College Union (UCU) and National Union of Teachers (NUT, now NEU) have passed motions to boycott the policy until it is abolished. Both report the negative impacts of Prevent within the education system, from racial profiling of Muslim students to a chilling effect on classroom practice and the undermining of academic freedom.

While this review is long overdue, there are good reasons to be sceptical about its potential to deliver, given some of the people holding key policy positions. The new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has a reputation as a hard-line social conservative and is a supporter of Israel’s crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The new head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, Munira Mirza though hailing from the milieu spawned by a rather cultish Trotskyist group, transitioned via the neoconservative Policy Exchange into a conservative critic of multiculturalism, and believes that institutional racism is a ‘myth’. Sara Khan, the current Commissioner for Countering Extremism, was– previously co-founder and co-director of Inspire, an organisation which claimed to be independent but which led a campaign later revealed as a funded ‘product’ of the Research Information and Communication Unit (RICU), the covert propaganda arm of the Home Office.

We can add to the list the newly announced ‘independent’ reviewer of Prevent Lord Alex Carlile, the former ‘Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation’. Though a liberal-democrat peer, Carlile has consistently advocated for the extension of policing and surveillance powers, arguing in favour of control orders and against the ‘demonisation’ of the intelligence services. In 2015, he co-founded a business intelligence firm with the former head of MI6, John Scarlett. Carlile is also a patron of UK Lawyers for Israel a grouping that appears to work closely with the Israeli government in seeking to undermine pro-Palestinian activism in the UK, including by targeting charities such as War on Want, Medical Aid for Palestinians and Interpal. Since Prevent has been widely criticised for undermining Muslim civil society in particular, this is a conflict of interest that should make him unfit for the role.

This adds to a long list of conservative actors who have shaped the Prevent programme. Neoconservative think tanks, in particular, have been instrumental. The Centre for Social Cohesion (later incorporated into the Henry Jackson Society) and Policy Exchange were each at the forefront of pushing for revisions to Prevent, which in 2011 was expanded to focus on non-violent extremism. Evidence from the case of Butt vs Secretary of State, demonstrates that the Home Office’s Extremism Analysis Unit was collecting data on alleged extremists via regular briefings from Students Rights, a project of the Henry Jackson Society which was until 2014 headed by Raheem Kassam, who went on to work as a senior adviser to Nigel Farage.

Though conservative think tanks have been avidly promoting the idea that ‘terrorism’ is caused by ‘extremist ideology’, usually meaning a cultural separation from ‘British values’, there is no sound evidence base to support this claim. Rather, forms of political violence conventionally defined as ‘terrorism’ are closely related with other forms of violence, particularly violent state repression and international or civil war. The strongest relationship is with ongoing armed conflict and state violence, such as state-sanctioned killings, torture, disappearances and political imprisonment. Less than one per cent of terrorist incidents between 1989 and 2014 occurred in countries without either an ongoing conflict or some form of state terror.

These figures remind us that Prevent should not be treated in isolation from broader counter-terrorism policies.  The UK’s record of lawlessness, aggression, torture and widespread human rights abuses on its own account, and in alliance with the US and its other key allies, has encouraged anger abroad and at home, with a real impact in a form of ‘blowback’ in this country. But it is not merely UK violence overseas and racism at home that forms that acts as a driver of political violence in the UK. Officially the government is engaged in a ‘War on Terror’ with groups often described as ‘Islamist’ – a term we avoid because of the way it is invoked to discredit a diverse range of Muslim political organisations and groupings. However, it is also clear that the exigencies of the British foreign interest, as conceived by the cabal of spooks and securocrats who determine foreign policy, require in practice that those groups against whom we allegedly wage a ‘War on Terror’, become our allies when British ‘interests’ demand it. Thus the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi was facilitated by MI5 to join the ‘Jihad’ against Gaddafi’s Libya and was then evacuated by the Royal Navy, returning to the UK and later killing 22 civilians at a pop concert in Manchester. In Syria, the government provided military and public relations support to the ‘moderate armed opposition’ to Assad, but leaked government documents indicate that groups included in that rubric would not be regarded as ‘moderate’ in the UK. The collaboration of the security establishment with official enemies and the total lack of transparency around the use of spies and informers by the intelligence agencies is a key but unsung element of the ‘blowback’ effect.  If we want to see a reduction in ‘terrorist’ attacks in the UK, we need to stop invading and bombing foreign countries, stop providing support to proxy groups in regime change operations (as in Libya and Syria) and arms to allied repressive regimes such as Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and instead uphold international law.

So what is the alternative?
The Prevent duty in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 should be repealed and the Prevent policy ended. We have still not seen convincing evidence for its necessity. Public institutions have existing safeguarding frameworks to help deal with a range of potential harms to their service users – these mechanisms have been under strain as a result of a decade of cuts and austerity. Instead of collapsing these mechanisms into counter-terrorism objectives, these longstanding safeguarding services and procedures should be strengthened, protected from counter-terrorism policy actors and given the resources needed for effective delivery.

Considered as a whole, Britain’s counter-terrorism policies over the last two decades have been a catastrophic failure. Quite simply, if the aim of those policies was to reduce the number of civilian lives lost to political violence, then they have made the problem many times worse.

We have been part of a collective project of ten experts who have developed a report on a democratic alternative to counter-terrorism policy, one which is guided by three key principles: of democracy, evidence and human rights. Below we outline some of key recommendations emerging from the report:

Our approach begins with the view that counter-terrorism policy-making can no longer be a one-way communication from policy elites to citizens; instead, there must be substantial public involvement in identifying its aims, its methods and the kind of research necessary to support it. Central to any transformation process is the need for policy-making to move away from the security state’s assumptions about the national interest, rooting policy instead in the security needs of ordinary people. Security should be defined not merely as the absence of risk, but as the presence of healthy social and ecological relationships. This implies a holistic view in which policy is informed by a broader conception of social well-being.

To develop such a security programme, a national audit of security needs, with genuine local community involvement across the UK, should be conducted to provide a comprehensive view of the expressed concerns of citizens. This audit of security needs should provide the basis for defining the goals and methods of UK security policy, how resources are to be allocated and the priorities for future publicly-funded research on security.

A much wider process of transparency and accountability will be needed to open up the police and intelligence agencies to democratic scrutiny. Accountability processes need to be spread from the executive and from parliament to the judiciary and the public.

An independent commission on the nature and causes of political violence should be established with the involvement of a broad range of academics, other experts and communities. The aim should be to provide a body of knowledge that can reliably inform policy-making and public debate.

Public debate on ‘terrorism’ needs to be informed by accurate data from official sources. This requires a return to the public interest conceptions of government communications that were effectively abolished by New Labour in the Phillis Review in 2004. ‘Strategic communications’ units within government that have misled the public on the extent and nature of ‘terrorism’ should be closed.

Peace and human rights
The military actions of the War on Terror have had disastrous consequences for the regions affected and for Britain. The UK should commit to ending involvement in any unilateral military interventions.

The strengthening of efforts to resolve conflicts justly and peacefully is an important component of an effective, progressive programme of reducing political violence globally. To the extent that the proscription of armed groups under the Terrorism Act hinders peace processes by preventing communication and engagement with armed factions, it should be repealed.

In many areas of foreign and counter-terrorism policy, there is a need to deal with the damaging legacy of the failed policies of the past. This means practical action to dismantle structures of institutional discrimination and repression, as well as investigations and inquiries that might bring to the surface what has been suppressed by secrecy, misinformation and a lack of accountability. This should be done in three ways:

  1. A judge-led public inquiry with wide terms of reference to fully investigate Britain’s role in human rights abuses in the War on Terror;
  2. Reparations, including significant material compensation but also steps to regulate activities by the state in the light of the failures of the past;
  3. Prosecution of individuals criminally complicit with torture, military aggression and other serious human rights abuses.

The upsurge in political violence in recent years is in part the legacy of decades of harmful policies, and it would be naive to think that a change in policy will see a sudden reduction in levels of violence, or that the threat to the UK public will immediately subside. But if we act carefully and decisively, the risks can be significantly reduced, the damage that has been done can be redressed and the cycle of violence can be ended.


Narzanin Massoumi is Lecturer and a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on racism, social movements and counter terrorism. David Miller is Professor of Political Sociology in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Tom Mills is Lecturer in Sociology and Politics at the University of Aston. This article draws on the newly published report Leaving the ‘war on terror’: a progressive alternative to counter-terrorism policy (Transnational Institute, 2019) authored by Ruth Blakeley, Ben Hayes, Nisha Kapoor, Arun Kundnani, Narzanin Massoumi, David Miller, Tom Mills, Rizwaan Sabir, Katy Sian and Waqas Tufail. Guided by three key principles – democracy, evidence and human rights – it launched in Parliament on 4th September with the Shadow Home Secretary, Dianne Abbott).