The launch of CONTEST 3.0 is a milestone in the UK’s evolving counter terrorism strategy, it also coincides with my own 10th anniversary working in the prevention of violent extremism. With a new Home Secretary at the helm and CONTEST now relaunched, it seems a fitting occasion to look back at the evolution of the Prevent strand of counter terrorism.
As the dust from the 2005 terrorist attacks settled, it quickly became clear that prior to the attacks, all four of the terrorists had exhibited behaviours which signposted trouble was looming. A neighbour, a teacher, a youth worker — people worried about the journey they were on but worried too, that if they were mistaken, what sharing those concerns with the Police or Local Council might mean for these four members of their community.
At that time, the Government already had a Prevent strategy that could not only accommodate these concerns but one that would also divert people away from the brink of criminality, but since its initial inception in 2003 it had been largely overlooked while resources were (understandably) channeled to the investigative arm of counter terrorism. Just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks in London the strategy was revisited and revamped.
As the country questioned what reasons lay behind the horrific murders of 7th July 2005 — social inequality, foreign policy, a sophisticated international terrorist network, or all of the above — one inalienable fact remained, all four killers justified their crimes in martyrdom videos with references to their faith and their insistence that Islam was at war with the rest of the world.
Subsequently, a series of working groups were established to build an effective preventative strategy under the banner of Preventing Extremism Together. In the ominous shadow of Al Qaeda and its goal of a global Islamic State, the religious justification given by the London terrorists could not be ignored and so the working groups specifically engaged Muslim communities to ensure that whatever policy emerged did so from a broad consultation, effectively building the Prevent strategy from the bottom up.
The rationale was clear: Al-Qaeda are targeting Muslim communities, so we need to be working alongside those communities to deter AQ. But this gave rise to accusations of creating a suspect community; it’s a challenging position that countries across the world are still wrangling with. In a risk-based strategy, how do you work with communities where that risk is most prevalent without somehow inferring that the communities themselves are a risk? We have the same challenges addressing far-right extremism in traditionally white, working class housing estates, or tackling inner city gang violence in London. It will never be easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent terrorism. It does mean that we should do it sensitively and in consultation with our communities.
Tackling terrorist recruiters was left largely to the police who had the money and resources to push ahead with this new area of safeguarding, but this then led to accusations of spying when some groups in receipt of funding were asked to alert the relevant authorities if someone was in fact radicalising. It’s a strange accusation that wouldn’t be pertinent if a drugs prevention programme identified someone dealing drugs to participants; then it would be seen as conscientious civic duty, how curious that when the issue is radicalisation this was labelled spying.
The next big milestone for Prevent came in 2011, when it broadened its remit to include all forms of extremism, but with particular attention to the extreme far-right. It also, and perhaps most controversially, included mention of non-violent extremism.
The mere suggestion of tackling non-violent extremism created an interesting dichotomy; those who embraced efforts to tackle far-right groups like the English Defence League for fear they could fuel anti-Muslim violence, seemed affronted by the suggestion that some UK groups might be so sympathetic to Al Qaeda or their affiliates that they too generated a permissive environment for fueling violence and terrorism. But we have seen on both sides of this equation individuals immersed in a hatred of others commit the most horrific terrorist attacks, most recently with Darren Osborne (Finsbury Park) and Khurram Butt (London Bridge).
Now in 2018, the UK Prevent strategy has evolved once again. CONTEST 3.0 has further built on Prevent’s aims to support those being drawn into terrorism and build resilience across society against terrorist recruitment. In addition, it now enables the appropriate support to be given to those already radicalised to disengage from terrorism and violence with the inclusion of a Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP).
Prevent now offers a holistic package of support that runs from early intervention (so vital with the increasing speed of radicalisation to violence) to disengagement, but explicitly tackles the causes such as the social, psychological and personal vulnerabilities that lead to radicalisation. Building on its core, grass-roots foundations is a layer of multi-agency working that delivers tailored safeguarding programmes to those who are vulnerable to exploitation. And now we have an increasingly urgent top tier of support for those who need effective reintegration back into society.
In a week when I’m hosting colleagues from Finland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and Bulgaria to show how our UK Prevent programmes empower and embolden communities and young people, I look back on my last ten years in Prevent with pride. Of course, depending on your perspective that means I have spent a decade as either a fascist profiteer of oppression criminalising innocent citizens, or a leftist race-traitor facilitating the Islamification of Britain. Or just someone who does safeguarding.
While Prevent has changed over the years the emphasis on safeguarding has always been integral, from the young man I supported in 2008 who was drawn into neo-Nazism, to my work this year with Street Vibe’s augmented reality workshop Real Talk to tackle far-right extremism, I have no doubt we now have one of the most comprehensive, prosocial counter terrorism policies in the world.