Prevent strategy: Is it failing to stop radicalisation?

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

Image source, AFP

Teenage schoolgirls from East London absconding to join Islamic State in Syria, 3,000-plus Europeans already in their ranks, and an endless stream of persuasive, slickly-produced online videos pouring into young people's computers and smartphones.

There are ample grounds for thinking that, in the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of young Muslims, governments are failing to stop their message getting through.

It is a programme aimed at stopping more people getting drawn towards violent extremism. But given the current trends listed above, is it failing?

"Of course it is failing," says Aminul Hoque, a lecturer and author on British Islamic identity at the University of London.

"As a strategy, as a government policy document, it has not worked. The irony is that it has become counter-productive.

"If the idea was to understand the roots of extremism, the roots of radicalisation, by putting a magnifying glass across the Muslim communities of Great Britain, what has happened is that has widened the schism between the 'Muslim' us and the British 'other'."

The Home Office, not surprisingly, disputes this view.

"We made sure Prevent would tackle all forms of terrorism, not just Islamist-related terrorism," their spokesman told me, adding that the programme was given a major overhaul in 2011.

The problem is that regardless of best intentions, if the programme is widely perceived as being discriminatory then it inevitably runs the risk of failure.

Strategy strands

With an annual budget of £40m, the Prevent programme is one of four strands of CONTEST, the acronym given to the government's multi-pronged counter-terrorism strategy.

The other strands are Pursue, Prepare and Protect.

Of these four strands it is the most controversial and arguably the least successful. Its stated aim is to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

Yet in the 12 years since its inception, the number of UK suspects coming to the attention of the police and security service has ballooned into the thousands.

Unlike Pursue, where success can be measured to some degree by the number of arrests and convictions, Prevent is a less clearly defined area that overlaps into sensitive areas like community cohesion.

The Home Office says there are now Prevent programmes in place in all key sectors, including local government, health, education, prisons, immigration and charities.

Image source, Albaraka News
Image caption,
Several people in the UK have been prevented from going to Syria, where Islamic State militants are active

Vulnerable people

Since 2011, a team dedicated to removing extremist material from the internet has taken down over 75,000 pieces of "unlawful terrorist material".

The government says it has worked with over 250 mosques and 50 faith groups, distributing over 200,000 leaflets and posters in five languages warning people not to travel to Syria.

It also refers people to the "Channel programme", a de-radicalisation process that uses psychologists, social workers and religious experts to help counsel thousands of people considered vulnerable to extremist ideas.

Some have been stopped literally as they were about to board a plane heading to Syria.

Hannah Stuart, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a right-wing think-tank in London, says Prevent has had its successes but they are hard to quantify.

"There have been more incidents recently with community centres reporting their concerns to the police and agencies. We have seen potential incidents of terrorism stopped," she says.

"It is the messages we need to challenge... whether that is online or on the streets... we need to be equipping our young people with the critical thinking to assess those messages to be able to challenge them."

Unhealthy gap

Dr Matthew Wilkinson, director of the think-tank Curriculum for Cohesion and an expert on Islamic ideology, believes part of the solution lies in better religious education.

"A very unhealthy gap has developed between the quality and status of religious education in schools because it is often a marginal subject.

"So for example, you get a statistic where 89% of British Muslim youngsters see Islam as their main identifier but RE is the least popular subject. So that speaks of a huge gap which RE is not filling in to create a proper place for young people."

Dr Wilkinson, whose expertise in Islamic theology has been used in 11 recent legal cases, is of the same view as the author Aminul Hoque when it comes to the success or failure of Prevent.

The government's counter-terrorism strategy has been remarkably successful at the level of security and the basic protection of British citizens, he says, with any number of plots foiled and people brought to justice.

But at the level of affecting hearts and minds for the better? "Prevent," he says, "has been largely unsuccessful."

You can follow Frank Gardner on Twitter: @FrankRGardner

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