Senior British Counter-Terrorism Officer Admits Policing Alone Cannot Beat Extremism: The Prevent Strategy

Neil Basu

Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, made some interesting points last night on terrorism and extremism. During the interview he disclosed a number of issues related to the UK’s Prevent strategy.

He sees Prevent as the most important ‘plank of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy’, but admitted that so far it has struggled to be widely accepted due to being ‘badly handled’.
Basu would like to see more policies introduced that go towards greater social cohesion, more social mobility and more education. In his opinion, rather than simply using the police and security service apparatus, such policies are more likely to drive down violence.

Accepting that terrorists come from a variety of backgrounds, including middle class families who seemingly wanted for nothing, Basu added some people were more ‘malleable’ than others to terrorist recruitment. Factors behind this can include a person’s high anxiety to lack of confidence, lack of education and events they suffered including bullying, racism, bigotry and lack of opportunity.

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Prevent was introduced in 2005 as a pre-criminal strategy to help those vulnerable to being drawn towards violent Islamist terrorism. In 2011 this changed when Prevent was re-drafted to help those exposed to all forms of extremism. As Basu recognised in his interview, extremist narratives that are attracting individuals is not just the Islamist narrative, it includes the far-right. He missed other examples. For example the extremist narrative of dissident Irish republicans and loyalists are also attractive to many, especially in the North of Ireland where the terrorist threat is severe due to dissident Irish republican terrorist groups’ activities. Section 1 Terrorism Act 2000 states that an act of terrorism can be carried out under any political, religious, ideological or racist cause. As such, any ideological cause that promotes or glorifies violence can be classed as extremist thought under Prevent. For example there can be environmentalist terrorists who carry out violence to promote their cause.

Basu was correct when he said Prevent was initially mishandled and, unfortunately, those mistakes have led to a mistrust of the strategy that has not gone away making Prevent a toxic brand in the eyes of many. I agree with Basu when he says Prevent needs better communication, more transparency and not have the ability to create a vacuum for people to attack it. He is right when he says Prevent needs re-marketing and in doing so I suggest the many positive experiences and results related to those who have been referred to the strategy be emphasised how successful Prevent has been to date in helping those who are vulnerable to being drawn towards terrorist activity. In addition, it is important in the application of Prevent that many initiatives in driving it forward to become more effective should be community led, with change coming from the bottom-up via community groups.

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Basu did state he wanted ‘good academic, good sociologists, good criminologists’ to be telling people and officials exactly why many in our society are being drawn towards various extremist causes. He could start by attending the Prevent symposium being held by Leeds Law School at Leeds Beckett University on the 19th September 2019 titled ‘Prevent Strategy: Helping Vulnerable People Drawn Towards Terrorism or Another Layer of State Surveillance?’ where presentations will be given by a wide variety of academics and practitioners. One of the key aims of the symposium is to reduce the disparity between academia and practice in relation to application of Prevent. If you are interested in attending then you can register your interest with this link.

My terrorism book cover

You can read in more details issues related to Prevent in the chapter on the subject in my book ‘Terrorism: Law and Policy’ published by Routledge