‘Prevent is not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism’

13 February 2023

Tim Dieppe comments on a new report on the government’s terrorist watchdog, Prevent.

Prevent is part of the government’s counter terrorism strategy and it aims to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. The long-awaited Independent Review of Prevent was recently published. A key conclusion is the words quoted in the title of this article which are highlighted in bold in the report. Prevent has lost its focus and lost its way. It has become unbalanced, focusing far too much on far-right extremism and not enough on Islamist extremism. It has, in the words of the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, in her response to the report, “become overly focused on addressing vulnerabilities rather than protecting the public from those who willingly support extremism.” This needs to change.

Islamist terrorism is our primary threat

As the Home Secretary states: “Islamist terrorism remains our primary and deadliest threat.” In fact, Islamist terrorism accounts for 80% of the Counter Terrorism Police network’s live investigations. Only 10% are extreme right-wing. The government’s response to the report discloses that since the start of 2017, MI5 and the police have together disrupted 37 late-stage attack plots! Eight of these attack plots were in the last year. We should all be grateful for the incredible work these agencies do and their success which is literally saving lives.

In spite of this valuable work, since 2019 there have been six deadly terrorist attacks in the UK. All of them were Islamist. These include the brutal murder of Sir David Amess MP in October 2021, and the Liverpool suicide bomber in November 2021. Islamist motivated attacks are therefore far more numerous and more deadly than those of any other motive. Yet only 22% of Prevent referrals for the year 2020 to 2021 concerned Islamism.

Reticence to tackle Islamism

The report states that: “Prevent has a double-standard when dealing with the Extreme Right-Wing and Islamism.” Extreme Right-Wing is treated aggressively, sometimes too aggressively, including commentary that has no connection to terrorism or radicalisation. This actually included mainstream political commentators such as Rod Liddle, Melanie Phillips, and Douglas Murray! Meanwhile, there is a reticence to deal with Islamism nearly aggressively enough.

There is also a “wariness about using the term ‘Islamism’.” This is a result of criticisms by organisations such as the National Association of Muslim Police which objects to term, alleging that it “fuels Islamophobia.” There is even evidence suggesting that: “[m]any practitioners who wish to focus on the principal terror threat to this country [Islamism] find themselves viewed with suspicion even by colleagues.” The Report’s author, William Shawcross, rightly notes that: “use of the term ‘Islamist’ is essential within Prevent”. We must be able to use the right language to describe the ideology of our enemies. If we can’t even name the ideology, what hope do we have of defeating it?

Funding extremism

Incredibly, Prevent has been funding some groups that have actually promoted terrorism or been strongly linked with extremists. In one case, the leader of a Prevent funded organisation had publicly made statements sympathetic to the Taliban and referred to proscribed military organisations as “so-called ‘terrorists’.” The report even questions whether Prevent was “knowingly taking this approach” and if not, whether there was any robust due diligence of such organisations.

Not dealing with ‘blasphemy’

The report notes several incidents of violence and intimidation associated with charges of ‘blasphemy’ by Islamists. These include the attack on Christian evangelist Hatun Tash who was brutally stabbed at Speakers’ Corner in July 2021. Also the threats against a school teacher at Batley Grammar School in March 2021. The effect of attacks and intimidations like this is to enforce a de-facto Islamic blasphemy law whereby no-one dares to mock Muhammad or Islam. As the report notes, “it is crucial not to accept the rule of the mob.” It argues that there should have been a much more robust response to the situation at Batley Grammar School in defence of free speech.

Failure to stop people travelling to Islamic State

Nearly 900 people travelled from Britain to join Islamic State. This is a massive failure of Prevent which is meant to stop people joining such groups. In the Report, Shawcross warns:

“I am concerned that the rise of a new Islamist militant group, similar to Islamic State, could attract the same numbers of youth [from Cardiff] to travel abroad as went to Islamic State. This is a concern I hold for the UK as a whole.”

In other words, there has been no decline in Islamic extremism amongst the youth in the UK since 2013. Yet, there has been a steep decline in referrals to Prevent since 2016. Clearly the system is not working.

Lack of understanding of Islam

The report states that there is a “lack of training” on how to deal with Islamism in particular. And “a culture of timidity … when it comes to tackling Islamism.” There are “several examples of Islamist ideology being misinterpreted, misunderstood, or even overlooked by Prevent staff.” Given the reticence around Islam generally, and the obvious questions around funding organisations linked with extremism, one wonders if some of this misunderstanding or overlooking is deliberate.

The report is right to note that, “Prevent lets the vast majority of Muslims in this country down when it gives legitimacy and influence to those which promote Islamist narratives.” It is shocking to read that “Muslims working in Prevent have suffered intimidation and even death threats.” This is absolutely unacceptable. The government needs to stand up and defend Prevent and defend the need to tackle Islamism as the largest threat to this country’s security.

Radical change needed

The report contains 34 recommendations, and the government has welcomed the report and committed to fully implementing all of the recommendations. The report’s criticisms are so severe that I would suggest that key leaders in Prevent should resign or be replaced. There needs to be a wholesale refocus and re-education of staff in Prevent. In terms of training, I’d be tempted to recommend my article Is Islam a Religion of Peace? which has been read by many thousands of people around the world.

More importantly, the culture of fear around tackling Islam must end. This is a fear of being labelled ‘Islamophobic’ or ‘racist’ for speaking the truth about Islam. Fortunately, the government decided not to formally adopt an expansive definition of Islamophobia in 2019. Had it done so, Shawcross would not have been able to write this report, and we would be in a much worse situation.

As it is, people are acting as if they are not allowed to criticise Islam, and this is costing lives in terms of preventing people from stopping terrorist attacks. The Labour and Lib Dem parties both formally adopted the definition of ‘Islamophobia’ and this even led to former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, being suspended from the Labour Party for alleged ‘Islamophobia’. This is an alarming situation and actually a threat to democracy.

Tackling enemies always requires courage – not ‘reticence’. It also requires knowledge and understanding of the enemy’s ideology – not ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘misinterpreting’. Those working in Prevent need to be alert and knowledgeable about Islam. Islamist terrorism is our greatest threat. Avoiding tackling it properly will be deadly.

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