In addition to the terrorist attacks in Spain last week, Europe has seen a number of similar attacks in the last 12 months ranging from Nice in July 2016, Berlin at Christmas 2016, four attacks in the UK, one in Stockholm, Sweden and in Finland last week. Apart from the bombing of the Manchester Arena in May 2017, all of these attacks had a similar method, that of driving vehicles into crowds and using sharply bladed instruments to stab victims.
Islamic State (Daesh) have claimed responsibility for all of these attacks, although it is questionable whether these attacks were carried out from direct orders from the group. It appears that Islamic State have learnt the lessons Al Qaeda faced when they were losing their strongholds in the likes of Afghanistan. Although Islamic State are losing control of the territory they have held since 2013 in Syria/Iraq, have lost the territory it held in Libya in 2016 and some of their cells have been seriously degraded, their narrative lives on. It is a narrative with a powerful ideology that is influencing individuals to carry out attacks. In addition to this, as with other states, Europe is also facing the prospect of some of their citizens who went to join IS in their self-proclaimed caliphate as foreign fighters are returning to their home state experienced in small arms fire and explosives. The question is how this narrative can be defeated.
The answer is it will be extremely difficult. In the UK the extreme far right group, National Action, was proscribed (that is classed as a terrorist group) and they follow the national socialist narrative from 1920’s Germany. Combatting a narrative is not a hopeless task and this is where the Prevent programme can help.
In essence Prevent is part of the UK’s CONTEST anti-terrorism policy. Its main aim is to help disenchanted and disaffected individuals who are vulnerable to being drawn to the extremist narrative that then influences them to carry out terrorist attacks. It is a pre-criminal stage where a number of agencies assist an individual showing them they do have a place in society and are valued. Where needed they are giving training, help with housing and they are supported with a mentor.
Prevent has many criticisms and in its original format Prevent was flawed as it only focused on violent extreme Islamism. As a result it alienated many Muslims who were seen as the suspect community and groups like Islamic State took advantage of this in their propaganda against western states. In 2011 the UK changed the approach of Prevent to include all forms of extremism and I found in my role with Merseyside Police’s Prevent team and with the current regional project I am involved with in the northwest of England (1002 nights), many individuals have been helped through Prevent. I agree with the UK’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd that safeguarding people from becoming radicalised, either by the extreme right wing or Islamist extremists should not be a controversial aim and that Prevent has made a significant impact in preventing people being drawn into terrorism. It is to be welcomed that following the 2017 terrorist incidents in the UK the number of referrals to Prevent has doubled leading to Simon Cole, who leads Prevent in the National Police Chief’s Council, to say it was “encouraging” more people were contacting police about potential radicalisation adding:
‘But if we are to successfully stop vulnerable people from being drawn into violent extremism, then family members, friends and community leaders must trust us sooner with their concerns. Not only will that possibly stop another lethal terrorist attack from taking place, but it will also potentially prevent vulnerable people from being drawn into criminal activity from which there is no coming back.’
Prevent is not perfect, but no effective alternative has been suggested and Prevent is the best we have in the UK to help those being drawn towards terrorism. For a more comprehensive coverage, see my articles on Prevent in The New Jurist and Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.