Should Britain work with 'extremists' to prevent terrorism? Where do we draw the line?

The controversial 'Prevent' strategy, that aims to stop terrorism before it occurs by working with Muslim communities, is now under review. The government have signaled that 'Prevent' will no longer work with 'non-violent extremists', but who will they place under that category, and how will we know where the line is drawn?

This article is part of a series on the government's 'Prevent' counter-terrorism strategy.

Very shortly the government will release its review of ‘Prevent’. This is the controversial strand of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy that aims to stop terrorism before it occurs.  Prevent is based on the idea that Muslim communities themselves can be very effective in helping ‘stem the tide’ of potential recruits, by confronting and challenging extremism, building resilience to al-Qaeda's message among young Muslims, and working with local authorities or police when they see signs of such violent radicalisation.

Since 2005, this type of work has been central to the UK's CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy, and in 2008/9 as much as £140m was spent on it.  Although it has been much criticised and perhaps maligned for both its philosophy and its implementation, the Coalition is committed to continuing Prevent

However, the review has been delayed – it is now three months late – because inside government there is disagreement about whom within the Muslim community the government should work with to carry it forward. David Cameron's and Nick Clegg's quite different speeches on extremism illustrate this tension. It is not unique to them; the Labour government was also dogged by this problem.

Simply put, some groups or individuals that hold illiberal, even harmful views, can deliver benefits to Prevent. These are the so-called ‘non-violent extremists’. They can sometimes be good at identifying and working with individuals that are vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, and they are sometimes an important source of information. Not always of course. But when it comes to stopping terrorism, 'sometimes' is incredibly important.  The effectiveness of such groups is because they are awkward bedfellows for liberals. And yet by funding, or working with, such groups, taxpayers’ money may, in effect, subsidise and even legitimise groups that hold views which the government may rightly believe have no place in British society, even if they are free to hold them.  

David Cameron’s Munich multiculturalism speech hinted at the Coalition's take on this dilemma.  He renounced the Labour experiment of working with 'non-violent extremists', and he pledged that taxpayers’ money would not be spent on groups that expound radical or extreme views: those that are anti-democratic, anti-human rights, and anti-integration. The day after Cameron’s speech it was leaked that the Coalition has cut funding for the controversial but effective counter-extremism STREET project, run by a well-known conservative Salafi, Abdul Haqq-Baker. 

There are a number of problems once you accept the premise that public money should be spent on this kind of anti-terrorism strategy. I’m just going to focus on two related ones. First, who should the government now consider as beyond the pale? Second, how will we know? 

From Cameron's speech, it appears 'extremists' will be now be off limits. But as anyone who has studied the subject knows, that word is heavily loaded, and difficult to define in a workable way.  The aim of Prevent is to directly contribute to national security. Its decisions must surely be based on what any partnership is trying to achieve, and this will need to be informed by tactical policing decisions, not political grandstanding.  The police will sometimes need to work with non-violent extremists if they think it can help achieve public safety – especially if they are providing valuable information. The Brixton Salafis who ran the STREET project I have just mentioned have been fighting Jihadists for years – long before 9/11 – and with considerable success. Cutting funding to effective projects like theirs because of their ideology could be self-defeating. But how does the government work with successful projects like the STREET initiative, without this involvement extending to tacit or explicit support of the ideologies of the groups involved? 

Beyond this, where Prevent work is more about the long-term resilience of communities, the Coalition should draw up some clear, relatively minimal, rules of engagement. I am not going to propose a detailed version. But a line should be drawn at groups that oppose or undermine the democratic and human rights of British citizens, even if they are using perfectly peaceful, liberal means to achieve it.  (That is not to say that such groups should be banned but that the government ought not to fund nor partner with such groups as a matter of general principle).

This sort of minimal cut-off point - rather than something indefinable like 'extremism' - aims to ensure the public does not financially support ideologies that deny everyone’s right to peacefully, constitutionally and democratically pursue their own beliefs.  And although Prevent will still be primarily focused on al-Qaeda inspired terrorism (purely based on the size and extent of the threat) this approach would be equally applicable to other groups.

In respect of the second question, a sound method on which to identify who falls inside these lines is needed. Since 2005, Prevent spending has played out in very public arguments between think-tankers, journalists, and politicians. Sections of the media dig up an excerpt from a speech of a leader or member of a group, and hold it aloft as proof of extremist views. Denial follows counter-claim, but like the curate’s egg, even the accusation of extremism, rather than any carefully considered evidence, has been enough to force government u-turns. This is not a satisfactory way of dealing with issues of such importance: where political pressure leans on tactical decisions of national security. In this new counter-revolutionary fervour of ‘muscular liberalism’, there is a danger that this pressure will worsen.

Instead, decisions about whether or not to form a partnership should be based on carefully considering a group’s ideology and actions holistically rather than through the selective and politically motivated presentation of fragmented scraps. The relative importance of governing documents, official statements, websites, speeches, and pronouncements must be carefully weighed. These statements must be understood in the context of many others including those that deny, contradict, nuance and explain. The pronouncement of a dissenting firebrand should be distinguished from an undisputed leader. Painting an accurate picture of a group – which often consists of many shades of grey – is a complex task. I am not saying it will be easy. I am saying that there has to be a balanced and rigorous assessment of groups that are to be publically supported. 

Finally, the Coalition must always leave the door open for groups to reform. Liberals believe that people and groups can and do change over time. Yesterday's extremist is sometimes today's elected representative. Public money can be a useful lever. Having a clear set of criteria and a consistent procedure could serve to strengthen internal voices for reform in extremist groups and bolster support for constitutionalism, democracy and human rights, without forcing it down people's throats. 

Counter-terrorism work is only one of the ways in which the government engages with Muslim groups. I have argued elsewhere that it should not be the primary one. In fact, there is a strong case to scale back Prevent considerably, and invest more resources into dealing with the social and economic difficulties that many Muslim communities face, which have nothing to do with terrorism or extremism at all.

However, some form of Prevent will remain. Given this, central and local governments will face an awkward dilemma: that trying to stop violent radicalisation might sometimes mean funding or working with groups that others think are part of the problem. As we have argued above, much depends on the purpose of an intervention. A clear definition about which groups are beyond the pale will help, but this should be consistent with a wider set of liberal values that protect civil and political rights, as well as the liberal system as a whole. It must also allow for the (very liberal) world-view that groups and people can change. This means overcoming the vapours of the London press, not surrendering to them.

About the authors

Jamie Bartlett is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. He tweets @JamieJBartlett.

Carl Miller (@carljackmiller) is an Associate at Demos and a Researcher at the International Centre for Security Analysis (ICSA), King's College London.