Why does the UK lack research on Islamist extremism and terrorism?

21 December 2023

Public Policy Researcher Dr Carys Moseley writes on the lack of research on Islamist extremism and why Christians are being referred to Prevent

A report published last week warns that the UK lacks sufficient research on Islamist extremism. The report was commissioned by the Commission for Countering Extremism, and authored by Daniel Allington, an academic based at King’s College London. Allington found that there was not very much research on Islamist extremist movements of any kind that are operating in the UK today.

Research funded by major public funders is skewed

Allington looked into three major public funders of research: UK Research and Innovation (the umbrella group including nine research councils funding university research), the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST) and the Commission for Countering Extremism.

He found that work funded by these bodies taken together were skewed towards both general studies of ‘extremism’ and studies of far-right movements. However, the range of projects funded by the CCE was more balanced.

Home Office accused of not prioritising research on extremism

Allington interviewed researchers including a Home Office staffer. This person complained that both the management and the financing of research on security and extremism issues were under-funded. Worse, it was alleged that these were ‘often not a priority’.

“The research base is often not well-funded. It’s often not a priority. I mean, certainly, if you’re looking at Homeland Security, more operational activity is necessarily a higher priority. It’s more urgent, and the consequences are more serious. So things like . . . longer-term research, that might support and be fundamental to policy development [are] naturally not going to be in [the] top three items in anybody’s list. [T]here isn’t the resource to put the effort in.”

[Daniel Allington, The national research environment for the study of extremism in the UK. p. 33]

Lack of data means major questions cannot be answered

The Home Office staffer also complained that the Home Office did not enable data-sharing between researchers. The result is the inability to obtain another researcher’s independent opinion on work done. Finally, Allington quotes another researcher’s illustration of the consequences:

“One of the most senior academic interviewees even opined that, when it comes to the radicalisation process, ‘almost all the questions  [in which] the public and the politicians are [most] interested cannot be answered’ because of difficulties in collecting or accessing relevant data.” [p. 38]

Home Office accused of being obstructive

One of the other interviewees had approached the Home Office to request access to Islamist prisoners in order to interview them. The Home Office gave an unconvincing excuse for its refusal:

“I approached the Home Office, the Prison Service. And they … cited a whole bunch of reasons … They said ‘If you wrote, it would risk re-traumatising victims, if you then write an article on — on a particular offender and he refers to his crime’, whatever … Yeah, so I thought that was odd … I guess, if you talk about their crimes maybe and you write about their life story, maybe victims, family members of people they … hurt, they would … think that you were excusing their behaviour or whatever. I didn’t really understand it, but they’re just very cautious about letting outsiders into prison to actually speak to these people. But in many cases, they don’t have direct victims, because it’s people who’ve attempted to go to Syria, or have come back and don’t have any immediate victims in the UK who would then be traumatised by any academic report that’s written on them. I found that very odd. So I just think the Prison Service is incredibly risk-averse and protective and … doesn’t want outsiders sniffing around, I guess. [So] I haven’t been able to get any kind of access.” [p. 40]

Researchers face legal and physical threats

Academics wishing to research and publish on extremist movements face both legal and physical threats. They faced intimidation online, threats to their physical safety and at times to that of their relatives.

Researchers also said they faced strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). Islamists are notorious for threatening authors who expose them with libel cases, even though in most instances these would have no chance of winning in court. The purpose is to make authors spend a lot of money on legal costs in order to intimidate them into self-censoring.

Risk of being labelled ‘racist and Islamophobic’ – by other researchers

The most troubling of Allington’s findings was that researchers investigating Islamist jihadism risked being labelled ‘racist or Islamophobic’ by fellow researchers.

“Several interviewees expressed the view that simply studying Jihadism can result in a researcher’s being labelled as racist or Islamophobic by others in the field, with one of the most senior suggesting that this had caused university-based researchers to avoid researching the topic.” [p. 28]

This is unsurprising given that most academics stayed silent in the face of the vicious Islamist students’ attack on terrorism researcher Professor Steven Greer at Bristol University, accusing him of racism and Islamophobia.

Researchers admit false moral equivalence between jihadism and far-right extremism

Related to this Allington found pressure to pretend that Islamist jihadism and far-right extremism are similar:

“Two interviewees complained of an obligation among extremism researchers to create a false equivalence between Jihadism and right-wing extremism, with one scholar of right-wing extremism arguing that the appearance of equivalence is buttressed through ‘number acrobatics’, for example by counting incidents rather than fatalities.” [p. 29]

Insufficient research on Islamist terrorism given the terror threat

The consequences of this culture of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice is clear. Islamist terrorism poses by far the greatest terror threat to the UK, yet the proportion of research on it compared to other types of extremism such as the far-right does not match this. This is how a high-flying researcher put it:

“It’d be hard to sit here and say that there isn’t enough research or focus on Islamist terrorism and extremism. There is a lot of research. But I think [that], proportionate to the threat that it poses in this country from both a terrorism and extremism perspective, possibly there isn’t enough.” [p. 29]

Waiting until the next Islamist terror attack?

Allington advises that ‘stakeholders’, i.e. government departments and other interested parties, should provide funding for research on Islamist extremism, given that the academic trend has been to switch focus away from it towards the far-right.

“Thus, if stakeholders were (for example) to agree with interviewees who suggested that the research literature on Islamist extremism was becoming out-of-date as a result of recent focus on the far right, they might be better advised to stimulate such research through targeted funding than to assume that the research ‘market’ will correct itself naturally. The alternative effectively amounts to a strategy of waiting for the next terrorist incident and then commissioning research reactively.” [p. 48. Emphasis mine]

The need to reform the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats

Daniel Allington proposes numerous steps that could be taken to resolve or mitigate these problems. These tend to involve technical and institutional changes to the research environment. In particular he thinks legislation against SLAPPs involving publication on extremism is needed. Whilst all this is fine, tackling the ideological bias head-on is necessary.

Daniel Allington’s report spends a lot of time on the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), based in the Psychology Department of Lancaster University. He found that its funding of research was heavily biased towards the far-right. He says it also has a direct line to the government.

“[CREST] effectively provides an infrastructure for the direct communication of research findings to stakeholders in government.”

Given this privileged access to the highest levels of government, more needs to be said about CREST.

The handling of Christianity at CREST

Matthew Francis, a psychology lecturer at Lancaster University, is the director of CREST. Between 2015 and 2020, Kim Knott was deputy director of CREST. She is professor emerita of Religious Studies at Lancaster University. She is an expert in Hinduism. The fact that CREST has not been headed by an expert on Islamist extremism says a lot. Matthew Francis also edits Radicalisation Research, an organisation that provides ‘high-quality research’ on ‘radicalisation, fundamentalism and extremism’, and purports to be ‘non-partisan’. Last year, Radicalisation Research included the VERE (Violent Extremism Research and Evidence) repository’. VERE was developed by NATO and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

The Radicalisation Research hosts an article characterising leaving evangelicalism as de-radicalisation. This is unsurprising given that the chair of Radicalisation Research is Professor Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion who is a member of CREST and used to lecture at Lancaster’s Religious Studies department. Woodhead published an article on the CREST website in 2016 which laid the intellectual foundations for saying that Christians who believe Christianity to be the only true religion are extremists.

CREST denies anti-Christian article used in Prevent training

I asked CREST under Freedom of Information whether they had evidence that this article was ever used in Prevent Duty training in England and Wales. The response was that they had not.

Nevertheless, this highly questionable article remains on the CREST website. One has to ask why it’s there and what they hope to achieve with its publication.

CREST omits evidence of Islamist and neo-nazi attacks on Christians from its website

Daniel Allington noted that CREST has only funded one project on Islamism, in 2020. Given this it is perhaps not surprising that CREST has nothing on its website on the Islamist attempts on the life of ex-Muslim evangelist Hatun Tash. There is also a problem with CREST’s ‘Timeline: Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism in the UK’, published in March 2023. The entry on Austin Ross, a neo-nazi sentenced for terrorism in August 2018, says he tried to burn down a Masonic lodge. What the timeline does not say is that he also targeted Bethel Community Church in Newport, South Wales.

In light of all this, it is very welcome that Allington’s report for the Commission for Countering Extremism suggests that the government could ask CREST to change how it works.

Christians maliciously treated as extremists

Despite CREST’s denials that the particular article referred to above was used in Prevent training, the fact is that numerous Christians with clearly no terrorist intent have been referred to Prevent as extremists since 2015. The idea that evangelical Christians are extremists has not come out of nowhere. These have included numerous street preachers. Indeed Lord Evans, the former head of MI5, warned back then that the Counter-Extremism Strategy could be abused to catch ‘harmless evangelical street preachers’.

There is also the case of Rev. Paul Song, who though not referred to Prevent, was deemed an extremist by the Islamist imam of HMP Brixton.

Have Christians been made scapegoats for Islamist terrorism?

In his report, Daniel Allington referred to the suspicion that the dramatic rise in far-right Prevent referrals since 2015 was ‘predetermined’. He cited Sir William Shawcross’ review of Prevent. The relevant words there were these:

“While part of the increased concern about the Extreme Right-Wing is justified by the data showing a rise in the Extreme Right-Wing terror threat,83 I was told by a former counterterrorism police chief that increased focus on Extreme Right-Wing constituted “a degree of appeasement to maintain some groups’ involvement with Prevent”. The clear inference here being that a focus on the Extreme Right-Wing, above and beyond the actual threat it posed, was occurring to try and fend off accusations of stigmatising minority communities.” [William Shawcross, Independent Review of Prevent, pp. 50-51]

To what extent can it be said that referral of Christians to Prevent has been a useful scapegoat for the relevant authorities being too afraid of lawsuits for Islamophobia?

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