The revelation that the key suspect in the killing of Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP who was stabbed to death during a meeting of local residents, had previously been referred to a deradicalisation programme has raised concerns about its effectiveness.
The suspect, 25-year-old Ali Harbi Ali, is said to have previously been referred to Prevent, the British government’s flagship counter-extremism programme.
While details of Mr Ali’s referral are as yet unclear, reports suggest he was in contact with officials working for Prevent as a 17-year-old, but fell out of touch with them soon afterwards.
It appears he was not considered a serious threat and after leaving the programme was no longer deemed a person of interest by Britain’s security services, so he did not feature on the UK’s counterterrorism watch list.
So the fact that Ali has been charged with the murder of Amess, who was stabbed to death as he conducted his weekly constituency meeting at a church hall, has inevitably led to concerns about Britain’s ability to tackle the threat posed by extremists in the country.
Successive British governments have been accused of adopting a confused approach in their dealings with extremists. On one level, Britain has been at the forefront of the international campaign against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. But in terms of domestic policy, authorities have demonstrated a more tolerant approach, allowing extremist activists linked to organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood to operate freely.
It is now being suggested that the British authorities’ laissez-faire attitude towards these extremists may explain why Prevent, in common with other government-funded deradicalisation programmes, is failing to deal effectively with young British Muslims at risk of being radicalised.
Prevent’s recent history certainly does not make for happy reading. Time after time in recent years, it has transpired that individuals who have carried out deadly acts of terror in the UK have previously had contact with Prevent, only to go on to commit heinous crimes.
This was the case with Khairi Saadallah, who last year “executed” three men on a summer’s evening in a Reading park with single knife strikes to the head. Saadallah, 27, was given a whole-life jail sentence for his crimes when he pleaded guilty earlier this year.
Arguably the most chilling example of Prevent’s failure is the case of Usman Khan, who in 2019 strapped blades to his wrists before killing two Cambridge University students at an event in London Bridge that had been arranged to celebrate the success of deradicalisation efforts.
According to A Preventable Tragedy, a report by Peter Clarke, the former head of the anti-terrorist branch at Scotland Yard, the Khan case exposed “extraordinary systemic failings that had unspeakably tragic consequences” as prison, probation, police and security services failed to share information effectively, or at all.
Prevent was initially created two decades ago in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as part of the UK’s wider counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest. While other departments focused on tracking and disrupting Islamist terror cells, Prevent was given the task of identifying and helping British Muslims considered to be susceptible to radicalisation. Consequently, the organisation relies heavily on a wide network of police, teachers, religious leaders or concerned family members to flag up students, worshippers or relatives who may be at risk of radicalisation.
And, as the latest figures relating to recent referrals to Prevent indicate, the organisation continues to bear a heavy workload. In the year to March 2020, 6,287 referrals were made, roughly 20 a day, with 88 per cent being men and 54 per cent under the age of 20. One of the most notable occurred in 2017, when a nine-year-old boy was referred to Prevent after declaring his support for ISIS in class. He was one of 108 under-15s reported that year. It later turned out he had been watching the group’s grisly execution videos online.
One of the big criticisms of Prevent, though, is that participation in its deradicalisation programmes is voluntary, with the result that many referrals simply end their association with the organisation. If Prevent continues to have serious concerns about an individual, then they can be referred to organisations like MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, which has ultimate responsibility for preventing terror attacks on British soil. At any one time, MI5 could be looking at up to 3,000 cases, an enormous task that strains its resources to the limit.
Moreover, British counterterrorism officials say the task of monitoring potential extremists has made much more difficult by the pandemic, with fears that an army of “bedroom radicals” has been created with extremists who spent lockdown in their homes, being radicalised online by accessing a hidden network of sites on the dark web.
Consequently, the focus now in Britain is on taking measures to improve the performance of groups like Prevent to improve their ability to prevent further attacks by so-called “lone wolf” extremists. One suggestion being given serious consideration in British government circles is to give MI5 and counterterrorism police a greater say on whether people at risk of radicalisation are placed in anti-extremism programmes. That would at least be a move in the right direction, if security services are to prevent further acts of extremist bloodshed on the streets of Britain.