‘Political correctness’ meant Islamist extremism was downplayed by Prevent

Britain’s “politically correct” deradicalisation programme focused on Right-wing extremism while failing to tackle Islamist terror, the Home Secretary has said.

William Shawcross, the review’s author, said Prevent had failed to do enough to counter the dangers from “non-violent Islamist extremism” and had instead broadened the definition of Right-wing extremism to include even mainstream politicians.

He said terrorist attacks had “too often” been committed by Islamist extremists previously referred to the programme because Prevent officials had “failed to understand the danger” they posed and had not dealt “effectively with the lethal risks we actually face”.

Announcing “major reform” of the programme, Suella Braverman told MPs that Prevent had shown “cultural timidity and an institutional hesitancy to tackle Islamism, for fear of the charge of Islamophobia”.

She said the Government would accept all 34 of the review’s recommendations to refocus it on its “core mission” of protecting the public. “Prevents focus must solely be on security, not political correctness,” she said.

‘Role of ideology minimised’

“Prevent is a security service, not a social service. Too often, the role of ideology in terrorism is minimised with violence attributed instead to vulnerabilities such as mental health or poverty.”

MI5 and counter-terror police are to be given a bigger role in Prevent through joint committees and shared intelligence as well as the introduction of a “security threat check” to underpin Prevent decisions.

Mr Shawcross said it was “particularly disappointing” that mistakes continued to be made in assessing the risk from Islamic extremists and warned of further terror attacks unless Prevent was overhauled to end the “culture of timidity.” 

“If left as it is, potentially fatal blind sports will emerge and grow,” he said.

Seven of the 13 terror attacks in the past six years, including the murder of MP David Amess, the stabbing of three friends in a Reading park, and the bombing of Liverpool women’s hospital have been carried out by Islamist extremists who had been referred to Prevent.

“Prevent has a double standard when dealing with the extreme Right-wing and Islamism,” said Mr Shawcross, a former chairman of the Charity Commission.

“Prevent takes an expansive approach to the extreme Right-wing, capturing a variety of influences that, at times, has been so broad it has included mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, Right-wing leaning commentary that have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalisation.”

One document prepared by Prevent’s research unit listed a prominent Conservative politician and former member of the Government as being among figures “associated with far-Right sympathetic audiences and Brexit”.

By contrast, Mr Shawcross said: “With Islamism, Prevent tends to take a much narrower approach centred around proscribed organisations, ignoring the contribution of non-violent Islamist narratives and networks to terrorism.”

It meant Prevent was “out of kilter” with the rest of the counter-terrorism system where 80 per cent of live police investigations involved Islamist plots and just 10 per cent were extreme Right-wing. By contrast only 22 per cent of referrals to Prevent concerned Islamism which suggested a “loss of focus and failure to identify warning signs.”

“The failure by frontline Prevent practitioners to understand fully the nature of ideology as the primary driver in Islamist radicalisation risks several potentially serious consequences,” he said. “Recent attacks, inquests and inquiries have highlighted the dreadful dangers of underestimating the motivating force of ideology.

“Treating terrorism as a mental illness, or a social deficiency that can be placated by social services, might make acts of extreme violence seem more intelligible to some – yet ultimately this approach fails to grasp the inherently ideological nature of radicalisation and terrorism.

Mr Shawcross blamed the low number of Islamist referrals to Prevent on officials’ “fear of being accused of being racist, anti-Muslim or culturally-insensitive” and “anti-Prevent advocacy” by domestic Islamist groups.

“There is a concerted campaign by some, including a number of Islamist groups, to undermine and delegitimise Prevent through the spread of disinformation, misinformation and half-truths,” he said.

“I was particularly concerned to learn that Muslims working in Prevent have suffered intimidation and even death threats. The Government must do more to recognise and tackle the disinformation and demonisation around Prevent, and to protect front-line staff against intimidation.

“It is unacceptable to allow Prevent staff to suffer this, and not to counter rigorously those making such attacks. It is my view that Prevent is not doing enough to support these practitioners.”

Despite the criticism, Mr Shawcross said the Government should be proud of Prevent’s positive impact in preventing individuals from potentially carrying out acts of terrorism and diverting them from extremism. He said Prevent’s architecture was sophisticated and impressive.

He recommended the Prevent duty should be extended to immigration, asylum and job centre staff and improve universities compliance with their legal responsibilities to prevent pupils from being drawn into terrorism.

He said there was still “unambiguous evidence” that extremist organisations targeted universities and colleges for the purpose of radicalisation and recruitment. He also recommended a major revamp of Prevent training which he said was “insufficient” in delivery and content.

Missed opportunities have made extremism worse

By Dame Sara Khan

Politicians often talk tough about extremism but as the Prevent Review shows, the Home Office have failed not only to counter extremist ideology sufficiently but also extremist groups whose activity sits just below the terrorism threshold. Depressingly, this is not a new finding and was evidenced in the 2011 Prevent Review and in the reports I published when I was counter-extremism commissioner.

The lack of accountability and failure to address this problem has resulted in a decade of missed opportunities which has seen extremism worsen. Hateful Islamist, neo-fascist and neo-Nazi so-called “non-violent” extremist groups continue to attempt to subvert, infiltrate and replace our democratic institutions and freedoms yet such activity is shockingly lawful.

Take Patriotic Alternative who claim to have 15,000 members and a network of physical training camps. Or Combat 18 whose founding aims include “shipping all non-whites back to Africa, Asia, Arabia, whether alive or in body bags.” The British National Socialist Movement encouraged Telegram users to deliberately infect Muslims and Jews during the pandemic. UK Islamists preach hatred against democratic values, glorify jihadists and rally Muslims to establish a theocratic caliphate.

I’ve seen hateful extremist organisations radicalise and recruit youngsters to their anti-democratic cause, who promote the same ideology, grievances and conspiracy theories as terrorists including on social media platforms. This ‘”egal but harmful” extremist material is being viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, including children.

In my 2021 report “Operating with Impunity” co-authored with Sir Mark Rowley, now Metropolitan Police Commissioner, he explained such extremism legitimised violence, creating an ever-bigger pool for terrorists to recruit from, increasing hate crime and undermining cohesion.

Yet little has been done to address this serious threat. The growth of this corrosive activity wholly antithetical to our democratic values, requires an immediate and effective strategy outside of tackling terrorism. Having independently reviewed the Government’s 2015 Counter-Extremism strategy I called for a complete overhaul and demonstrated how extremists are cynically exploiting our lack of legal, non-legal and operational infrastructure.

Yet for reasons known only to the Home Office, they have not responded to any of my reports based on the largest evidential fieldwork of its kind and which provided clarity on how to practically counter this dangerous activity.

Ever since the 2005 London bombings successive Labour and Conservative governments have been unable to demonstrate how our liberal democracy can counter extremist activity which sits below terrorism – and to do so without undermining civil liberties including free speech. I made this my mission and showed in my reports how it was possible to square this extremism circle. Other liberal democracies have demonstrated intellectual prowess and innovation on this issue. Sadly, in contrast Britain has fallen behind the curve. Ministers if they choose, can make today a reset moment.

Dame Sara Khan was counter-extremism commissioner 2018-2021

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