This essay, on Britain’s “Prevent” policy, was my Observer column this week. It was published 12 February 2023, under the headline “Prevent doesn’t stop radicalisation, and the Shawcross plan will just make it worse”.

Which poses the greater threat: Islamist or far-right terror? That has become the focus of much of the debate around William Shawcross’s Review of Britain’s Prevent anti-terror strategy published last week.

Most people with knowledge of the issue accept that while far-right terror is the fastest growing threat, Islamist terrorism remains the biggest problem. The danger in posing the issue in this fashion, however, is both that it can turn into a zero-sum game in which one threat is played off against the other and that the underlying issues with Prevent become obscured.

The problem with Prevent is that too often it fails to prevent that which should be prevented while attempting to prevent that which should be permissible. So, Usman Khan, the perpetrator of the Fishmongers’ Hall attack in London in 2019, in which Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were murdered, had completed two counter-terrorism programmes while in prison and was being monitored under Prevent. A 2018 Home Office evaluation suggested that 95% of deradicalisation programmes were ineffective.

At the same time, there are too many cases referred to Prevent, such as the four-year-old boy whose nursery school teacher misheard “cucumber” as “cooker bomb” or the eight-year-old taken to a pro-Palestinian rally by his parents.

The Shawcross Review has had a rocky journey. Lord Carlile, assigned to conduct the review after Theresa May announced it in 2019, had to step down after a legal challenge over his independence. In January 2021, Boris Johnson appointed Shawcross in his stead, an even more controversial choice given his hardline views on Islam and terror, including support for Guantánamo and waterboarding. The Review was boycotted by 17 human rights and community groups that objected to its lack of “objectivity” and “impartiality”.

To understand the problems with the Shawcross Review, we need to understand the problems with Prevent itself. Launched in 2003 as a part of Contest, Britain’s counter-terror strategy, the aim of Prevent is to divert people away from radicalisation.

In the wake of 9/11, the notion of “radicalisation” helped provide a relatively simple narrative about jihadism and its cause. It suggested that people became terrorists because they acquired certain, usually religiously informed, extremist ideas; that there was a “conveyor belt” leading from grievance to religiosity to the adoption of radical beliefs to terrorism; and that there were certain tell-tale signs that allowed the authorities to determine who might be in danger of radicalisation.

Over the past two decades, considerable evidence has built up to suggest that much of this is false. Studies show, for instance, perhaps counterintuitively, that those drawn to jihadist groups are not necessarily attracted by fundamentalist religious ideas. There is little evidence for the existence of a “conveyer belt”. Nor are there convincing signs of propensity to radicalisation.

While some of this research has fed into the work of security agencies, many counter-terror programmes, including Prevent, are too often still chasing the ghosts of the old radicalisation thesis. It’s a failure exacerbated by the second major problem with Prevent: the continual expansion of its remit.

In 2011, a new Prevent strategy expanded the programme to include measures against non-violent extremism and against those “who oppose our values of human rights, equality before the law [and] democracy”. Four years later, the government imposed a statutory duty on schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and other providers of public services in England and Wales to identify individuals at risk of radicalisation. As a result, large sections of civil society have become drawn into the formal state counter-terror programme, in much the same way as the “hostile environment” policy has turned doctors, teachers and landlords into surrogate immigration officers.

This dual role is made particularly fraught by the supposed signs of radicalisation being so vague and ambiguous. They include, for instance, someone changing their “style of dress or personal appearance or being “disrespectful or angry towards family and peers”. What in a different context might be seen as experimentation or obnoxiousness becomes regarded in the context of Prevent as a marker of terrorist sympathy, especially if one is Muslim. The wrong kind of political interest, such as curiosity about Palestine, is also a warning light. And so misheard toddlers or eight-year-olds whose parents attended a protest become drawn into counter-terror programmes.

All this feeds into the third fundamental problem with Prevent: the creation of an intrusive system not just of surveillance but of censorship too. In the parliamentary debate over the Shawcross Review, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, insisted it was “vital” to “ensure that there is no platform for these campaigns [against Prevent] within universities and that misrepresentations of Prevent are deterred”. The government, in other words, wants to censor opponents of Prevent, tarring them as potential terrorists. And this from an administration that has threatened to sanction universities and student unions that “no-platform” speakers.

Prevent guidelines have long constrained academic freedom. In 2018, the University of Reading flagged up as “security sensitive” an essay on the ethics of socialist revolution by the late Marxist academic Norman Geras. Students were told to read it only in a secure setting and not to leave copies lying around where they might be read by those not on the course. Elsewhere, tutors have been warned against introducing students to historically significant Muslim books in case they “encourage radicalisation”. One criminology lecturer had her reading list vetted by the police to ensure it was Prevent-safe.

The Shawcross Review, far from addressing these problems, only exacerbates them. It seeks to enlarge even further the scope of Prevent, drawing in jobcentres and immigration hostels. Shawcross decries criticism of the strategy as “an insult”, describing many of those who seek to “delegitimise” it as themselves “radicalising influences” who should be silenced. He demands that Prevent “should feed a strong pro-free speech narrative” while failing to recognise that Prevent itself chills free speech.

What we need is a complete reassessment of counter-terror strategy to create a process that embodies a more nuanced understanding of radicalisation, develops systems that can better target would-be terrorists, does not blur the line between state activities and those of civil society and steps back from imposing indiscriminate surveillance and censorship. For that, we need not an “independent” review, the starting point of which is the need to entrench current policy, but one that is willing to question its very framework.

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