UK must improve its programme to fight radicalisation
The killing of American journalist James Foley by forces of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq sent chills throughout the Western world. While thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians have met equally horrific fates at the hands of these kinds of radical groups, it was the first time a westerner’s summary execution in the latest phase of this conflict was carried out, filmed and distributed around the world.
The shock was deepened by the realisation that the murderer himself was also a westerner – one who had been converted to the ISIL cause and had come from London. Questions have arisen in the UK and the West more widely: what is to be done about this phenomenon of western radicals flocking to groups of this nature, and, just as critically, what is not to be done?
It has been more than nine years since the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, when British-born extremists targeted the capital’s transport system, resulting in 52 deaths. In its aftermath, the state’s counter-radicalisation programme, the Prevent strategy, was called into question, leading to years of controversies over which direction the strategy, as well as the broader counter-terrorism policy, should head.
As deputy convener of the state’s working group on tackling radicalisation and extremism, I have engaged with various parts of the British state since 2005. Nine years on, many of the same questions remain – and have yet to be appropriately addressed.
The killing of Foley adds a new dimension to this – westerners engaged in radical Islamist violence not at home, but overseas. This has prompted something of a knee-jerk response, even though it has been known since 2011 that westerners were travelling to conflict zones to participate in some fashion. Two proposals in particular stand out. The first is the suggestion that westerners who have travelled to battle zones like Syria or Iraq ought to be stripped of their nationality. The second is that those who later return to the West ought to be considered criminals until it is proven otherwise.
The first suggestion has been receiving increasing amounts of attention. The current UK government has attempted to table a law that would allow the removal of nationality, even if it meant the individual would be stateless. Norway and the Netherlands, as well as other European countries, are also investigating ways to remove citizenship. The second suggestion is more recent, suggested through a populist call by the London mayor, Boris Johnson – but it resonates across the West.
Removing citizenship strikes at the very notion of the modern nation-state, which is built on the notion of the citizen. Mass murderers aren’t deprived of their right to their passports in the West, even if they are sentenced to death. Moreover, the suggestions being tabled would practically place huge obstacles in front of even appealing the process, and it would not follow a transparent investigation with representatives of all parties.
The first suggestion follows, however, from the implication of the second – that all those who travel to these conflict zones are automatically criminals and terrorists. Even if that were true, due process remains a hard-won prize of most western countries. Some studies, however, indicate that it is not a foregone conclusion that radicals who travel to these countries automatically become terrorists or criminals. Many are idealists who support a radical mindset but travel to assist in humanitarian activities. Others may have travelled to fight, and then realised that it was not quite as they thought it would be. If they are automatically criminalised in their countries of origin, will they seek to return? Or will they stay in these conflict zones where they may be further exposed to radicalisation?
In the months after the 2005 bombings, it was clear that the Prevent strategy could not be effective if the Muslim community it sought to engage viewed it with suspicion. That community was the UK’s first line of defence. For while radical extremists could not find institutional support from Britain’s Muslim organisations, they would still come into contact with Muslim communities. In many instances, it was the community itself that first identified suspected extremists. Police investigations into those extremist elements benefited from the indispensable engagement of Muslim British communities.
But the UK’s strategy faltered when the Muslim community at large felt that they were viewed with suspicion, even when they were not involved in radical activity. Their cooperation suffered as a result.
The Prevent strategy was stunted in the first few years after the July 7 attacks by becoming subject to partisan community politics; it then suffered tremendously by huge budgetary cuts. In both cases, it often conflated social-integration policies with counter-terrorism ones. An overhaul of Prevent needs to take stock of all of these challenges. No counter-radicalisation strategy can be held hostage by internecine community politics, nor promoting social integration through the lens of security. Policies should be carried out on the basis of effectiveness and expertise.
Western counter-radicalisation will work best when it adheres to the best of Western values – the rule of law, and promoting an inclusive, transparent relationship between government and society. Jumping to knee-jerk reactions will only cause the problem to fester further – and failing to put right what went wrong will likewise only handicap counter-radicalisation efforts. There should be no doubt; this is a long-term problem and the time to begin tackling it effectively is now.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer
Published: August 28, 2014 04:00 AM