Rethinking Prevent: Adapting strategies from the German model

Rethinking Prevent: Adapting strategies from the German model

Necla Acik

The UK Prevent duty has dominated preventive counter-terrorism measures in the UK, reducing the role of civil society actors in the field.  A radical paradigm shift is needed to support a multiple of preventive strategies based on supporting communities and providing youth and social work, in close collaboration with a support of a wide network of local and reginal civil society and governmental organisations. The German model offers some alternative measures to the UK model, and has proved to be more successful in building trust between security agencies and local communities.

The UK counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST was introduced to tackle the problem of home grown terrorism following the 9/11 terrorist attack, and is one of the most comprehensive counter-terrorism policies in the EU. The Government regards its related Prevent strategy, which was developed after the July 2005 bombing in London, as an exemplary model to be adopted by other countries. The strategy aims to identify tendencies towards violent extremism and radicalisation, particularly among young and vulnerable young people, so acting as a preventive measure against terrorism.

Yet, this top-down and centralised approach has led to numerous criticisms, principally from within Muslim communities in the UK, human rights and civil liberty organisations, the National Student Union, and a significant number of academics, politicians and practitioners. Various empirical research has indicated that Prevent stigmatises and marginalises Muslim communities, and contributes to the institutionalisation of misrecognition of young Muslims as Hilary Pilkington and I have argued in a recent article.

Notwithstanding these concerns, Prevent has now been upscaled, and there now exists a statutory duty to implement its measures at schools, further and higher education establishments, NHS trusts and other specified public bodies. The Government insists that Prevent is no different to any other safeguarding policy. It is argued that, with sufficient training for front line practitioners and public bodies who are required to implement it, the strategy can win hearts and minds within communities, and so be the most effective and comprehensive means for preventing vulnerable people from developing extremist views and attitudes conducive to terrorism.

Yet, other European countries have faced similar problems, and have developed contrasting preventive counter-terrorism policies that have been successful in terms of supporting young people and vulnerable individuals who are at risk of being drawn to violent extremism. The Danish Aarhus model has been widely cited in the media. However, I want to focus upon another alternative approach to Prevent, namely the German model.

Globally, Germany has the broadest and most comprehensive strategy for combating far-right extremism. This approach is based on cooperation between civil society organisations and federal and national government agencies, and focuses on providing educational and logistic resources to support services and professionals who are in regular contact with young people. Teachers, youth workers, social workers, family liaising officer, counsellors and psychologists, whether they are working in public or private service organisation, community or third sector organisations, are given significant guidance on how to improve the understanding of extremist youth culture, and to learn and develop strategies to engage with those at risk.

This educational approach has also been widely adopted in the development of strategies designed to combat and prevent religiously motivated political extremism by Muslims. The expansion of the application of the policy for countering violent extremism to Islamist extremism was a response to the increasing number of German citizens leaving for the Syrian conflict region in 2012. Although Germany joined most European countries much later in addressing this threat, it adopted a similar approach to them by considering counter-radicalisation and prevention measures as a mostly a local, grassroots effort, allowing programmes to be tailored to the specific regional and national contexts, and to be administered by those who best know their communities. This approach aims to combat violent extremism at its roots, and primarily provides a strong social work and family support strategy, although police and intelligence services still play their role in combating violent extremism.

One such example is the BAMF Advice Centre on Radicalisation set up in 2011 by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.  It functions as a first point of entry for the relatives and people who have concerns about the social environment of radicalised individuals, and provides them with advice and support. Since the hotline came to life in 2012 it received over 4,100 phone calls, with an average of 40-50 phone calls per month, and dealt with 1100 cases. The BAMF Advice Centre works in collaboration with local civil-society partners who specialise in providing support and counselling. To ensure a low entry and effective counselling, these civil-society partners are distinct from state institutions, and are locally based and networked. Any matters involving security risks that arise in the course of counselling are referred back by the civil-society partner to the applicable contact and coordinating agency at the BAMF Advice Centre, which arranges case reviews by the appropriate security agency.

Examples of civil society agents undertaking the actual preventive work include the Violence Prevention Network (VPN) in Bavaria and Hessen, the “Kitab” project in Bremen run by VAJA (Association to Promote Acceptance Based Youth Work), the “Hayat” project in Berlin run by ZDK (Centre for Democratic Culture); and “Legato” in Hamburg, run by Ambulante Maßnahmen Altona and the Pestalozzi Foundation. These projects, which play a vital role in Germany’s prevention approach, are mostly run by social workers or people with field experience in working with vulnerable youths. The government relies on the capabilities of the partner NGOs to make accurate risk assessments and follow the protocols that determine when and which governmental partner needs to be brought in. Civil society organisations providing support and advice about individuals at risk of radicalisation therefore have flexibility in how they approach a case, and are able to deal with cases in which the relatives or clients do not wish to work closely or directly with security agencies. This increases the level of trust for members of the community, and lowers the threshold in contacting and seeking support from these providers.

The Prevent strategy in the UK was initially rooted in working with communities and voluntary organisations, but after widespread criticism of surveillance and intelligence gathering, the Government restructured Prevent in 2011. This was followed by the introduction of the Prevent duty in 2015, in which it became primarily a safeguarding issue at schools, further and higher education establishments, public health institutions etc. This approach differs fundamentally from the German model described above, which relies on building a wide and diverse network of civil society organisations, so providing services and support to those effected and concerned by individuals at risk of radicalisation and extremism.

Preventive measures at German schools include trained in-house social workers, who work in collaboration with these civil society organisations. By contrast, in the UK routine Prevent referrals invoke the immediate involvement of Prevent co-ordinating officers, along with the police and local authority Prevent panels.  While collaboration with security agencies and government organisations are important for cases that require their involvement and support, the design of the Prevent duty does not give safeguarding officers and other front-line staff any significant flexibility in handling cases that are brought to their attention. Safeguarding policies also work on the assumption that the families might be a contributing factor in the problem, and consequently are not always consulted when a Prevent referral of a minor is made, and this has contributed to a growing sense of alienation within affected communities.

Prevent continues to be a controversial policy in the UK. It dictates which preventive measures to adopt in combating violent extremism, effectively marginalising alternative approaches, and tilts us towards a securitisation of society, particularly within education. A paradigm shift in prevention work in the UK is needed so as to develop the capacity of civil society organisations, along with the building of strong partnerships at the local and regional level between communities and public body agencies.


Necla Acik was until recently lecturer in the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Manchester.