Countering the Radical Right

Preventing violent extremism: a response

For many people affected by the Prevent programme to counter violent extremism, enough is not being done.

Natalie James
28 February 2020
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In a recent piece by CARR Policy and Practitioner Fellow William Baldet, who is a CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) practitioner in his day to day job, he argues that ‘all individuals who are at risk should be supported’ from being drawn into terrorism. His reference to Kieron’s story, a 15-year-old boy for whom Prevent intervention was too late, indeed suggests that not enough is being done. I agree – but not about the same thing.

In positioning myself as a critical scholar of Prevent, I do not see my role as one who should critique and vilify the agenda, but one who should challenge the norms and narratives that underpin it. This, for some anti-Prevent activists is simply not enough. For others, more pro-Prevent if you like, this critical lens is counter-productive and will never see the good in Prevent. I suggest that, instead, a critical lens enables us to do exactly what William advocates for in his piece – to understand ‘our responsibilities in relation to the Terrorism Act’ and Prevent.

These responsibilities, I argue, are not only towards those who find themselves subject, or vulnerable, to an ever-widening net of Prevent-related concerns, but also those who are at the centre, or the first point of call, in establishing who that net is for and those who end up caught up in it. I respond to William’s piece then, in arguing that his notion of ‘oversimplifying’ risk as ideology and the subsequent broadening of Prevent’s scope that this entails, might well work in preventing the Kieron’s of the world from ‘the shadow of a criminal conviction’ in theory, but in practice, for some, ‘interventions and support to all individuals’ simply doesn’t exist.

In demonstrating my case within this debate, I similarly draw on real life stories which have been taken from my forthcoming doctoral thesis to ground my response to William’s piece in the voices of those who are experiencing Prevent on the ground. They explore two very different ways in which this extension of Prevent to all individuals ceases to be felt; for them, not enough is being done.

A safeguarding officer

For Rebecca*, Prevent became a central part of her role following the Counter Terrorism and Security Act in 2015 which mandated all public sector workers, including education institutions like hers, to take ‘due regard’ in the need to prevent individuals from becoming engaged in terrorism. Though she had already been engaged with the agenda, the 2015 legislation now made it a requirement that she do so and thus the Prevent duty, as it is known, became embedded through a safeguarding framework, ensuring all staff within her institution knew what their Prevent duty was and how to spot signs that one of their students, or fellow staff members, might be becoming radicalised or have the potential to.

This also meant putting in place a system that meant once staff spotted vulnerabilities that might lead to these processes of radicalisation, like those listed in the below table 1., otherwise known as the ERG22+ risk factors used by the UK government to determine someone’s risk to becoming engaged in terrorism or extremism, they would know what to do.

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Table 1. ERG22+ Risk Factors

The process, replicable across all of the institutions I engaged with and in fact the generic process for most education and public sector workers, was that once someone felt that they had a concern, they would refer it onto their safeguarding team. This team, or individual, would then investigate the concern further, establishing its merits for being passed onto Channel, the multi-agency safeguarding hub William refers to in his piece. It is at this point that Rebecca’s story demonstrates where this apparent extension to support ‘all individuals’ requires problematising.

There was a young man that was identified by the teachers [events and behaviours] raised alarm bells for us, it was like ‘these are all the classic signs, this boy is being groomed’ so erm contacted Channel officers […] they reassured us everything was absolutely fine, there was nothing, and he went to university and then a short while after that he was [found to be engaged in terrorism]. That one really upset us because, we had identified it, and we felt that we had passed it to the right people, we felt reassured that there was nothing. (some information between brackets has been removed or altered to avoid identification)

It is assumed, since this case never made it to a Channel board, that the Channel officers referred to by Rebecca are counter-terrorism officers. Though an ideology had been present in this case, it was not felt by the Channel officers, that this ideology was of an extreme nature and warranted intervention.

As such, whilst this case did not highlight an ‘oversimplification’ of risk to ideology, it also missed the ‘less obvious, but no less relevant or urgent, vulnerabilities’ that William discusses. Unfortunately, cases are missed, and Prevent practitioners and officers are human beings who sometimes though thankfully, rarely, make mistakes.

Rebecca was not supported by the agenda she was responsible for

And, as earlier mentioned, I do not see my role to vilify the agenda, but unfortunately, this case was not unique to my data. Rather than use it to say simply “Prevent failed here”, I draw on the story to demonstrate the gap that exists between the presentation in William’s article that Prevent is moving away from this ‘oversimplified’ approach to understanding risk, and to the perception on the ground that this more holistic approach to risk is not manifesting.

Secondly, and the crux of my argument, Rebecca’s story demonstrates that the individuals William refers to in his piece that need to be supported in this more holistic approach to risk, actually misses the bigger picture of who is impacted by Prevent.

Rebecca, who was ‘really upset’ was also impacted. In this sense, Rebecca was not supported by the agenda she was responsible for; her concerns were not acted upon and her responsibility to protect ‘all individuals’ undermined in someone else’s decision that they simply weren’t risky enough. This lack of intervention and support saw these concerns come to fruition and the student became engaged in terrorist or extremist organisations.

Enough was not done for this student, and enough was not done for Rebecca, firstly at the point of referring her concerns, and secondly at the point of supporting her where her concerns had been raised but not acted upon.

Sara

Sara’s* story offers an alternative perspective to the work of Prevent – not about those engaged in its implementation, but those who became caught up in its implementation through the narratives of prejudice which have surrounded it.

It has been widely evidenced that Prevent, in its early days, placed its primary focus on Muslims, believing those of Islamic faith would be those most likely to become radicalised by Islamist-inspired ideologies, those understood as the biggest terrorist threat. The programme, which started off by targeting populations with more than a 5% Muslim population has indeed come a long way since. Advocates and practitioners have worked to dispel the so-called ‘myths’that Prevent maintains this disproportionate, and problematic, focus.

The programme remains foregrounded by an agenda which sought to identify the “good Muslim” from the “bad Muslim”

Indeed, as some have pointed out, the recent Prevent referral statistics evidence that there has been a shift to recognise the multiple ideologies which can be understood through the lens of a terrorist threat in the rise of far-right referrals. Further, William’s piece suggests that those enacting Prevent then are working even harder to ensure that it is not just ideologies – and particularly those which currently appear most “popular” - which are understood within these spaces of risk.

However, such efforts for the policy become lost, or perhaps even hollow to some, when the programme remains foregrounded by an agenda which sought to identify the “good Muslim” from the “bad Muslim”. Moreover, it is even harder to recognise a shift away from this when the narratives which remain purported by the mainstream media designate terrorism, overwhelmingly, with Islam. A mainstreaming of far-right, anti-Muslim rhetoric serves only to further the perception that it is Muslims who are the ones who need preventing. A brief insight into Sara’s personal experience, highlights how Prevent’s extension beyond this problematic narrative isn’t being felt by all.

Especially me being Muslim, you think about it [terrorism and extremism] a lot, like you get paranoid when you’re on like public transport and stuff like that, if someone’s treated you differently is it because you’re of a certain race or is it because of your religion?

Related story

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When it comes to preventing people being drawn into terrorism, our responsibility is to offer interventions and support to all individuals who are at risk.

Related story

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For many of those who are aware, Muslim communities included, Prevent is a common sense, social care approach to an ever-growing global phenomenon.

Sara’s visible markers of difference, became hyper-visible because of the narratives which she felt placed her at the centre of a net deemed to catch those she had no link, relation or commonality to. This prejudice meant that perceptions of Sara’s race and religion resulted in Prevent leaving people – like her – requiring support after being caught in a net that was supposed to be meant for safety, not for scrutiny and stigmatisation.

Where Sara’s identity would always be placed under a lens of suspicion within wider public discourses which surround terrorism and extremism, programmes like Prevent would always be seen to be more likely to need to target her in combatting such threats. So, whilst Sara did not require, nor experience, intervention by Prevent, it did not do enough to support her, and those like her, who were and are placed under a societal gaze. Such a gaze, I argue, is Prevent’s failure to translate a shift in focus to all individuals who are at risk from one on some, namely Muslim, individuals who could be at risk.

It is not my argument that these stories are generalisable, nor that changes have not occurred since they were retold to me during my fieldwork in 2018. What I do argue, however, is that these stories still exist and remain to shape current understandings of Prevent. Moreover, I argue that when they emerge, the suggestion that not enough is being done to support all individuals, goes further than Kieron and those like him.

If Prevent really is about supporting all individuals, it needs to: firstly, address its past and work on proving ideology, and specifically Islamist-inspired ideology is not at the centre of its concerns; secondly, listen to those who do spot those that don’t fall into those ‘simple’ categories of risk and explain when these concerns aren’t enough, why they aren’t; and thirdly, make Prevent about supporting all individuals – those casting out the net, those being supported by the net, and those many appear to forget in this process who have their lives impacted when they get caught up in the net. Until Prevent reaches this point, enough is not being done.

* Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

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