Counter-extremism chief warns UK policy is not working

Sara Khan says that economic crisis is likely to fuel resentment and division – with the British government ill-prepared to cope

Watford, England – July 22 2011 – Sara Khan, director of muslim women's consultancy group Inspire, pictured at her home in Hertfordshire. (Matt Crossick / The National)
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Economic upheaval in Britain caused by the Covid-19 pandemic will be exploited by extremists with the government’s current strategy ill-suited to deal with the growing threat, the country’s independent counter-extremism adviser warned on Wednesday.

Sara Khan said that the government had still not responded to a report she published last October which criticised the current response to extremism as “inadequate” and “unfocused” and demanded an overhaul of the system.

The UK is already seeing increased violence and soaring cases of hate crime and Ms Khan warned of increasing problems with rising unemployment rates and anticipated huge cuts to essential public services because of the pandemic.

“The question we have to ask is do we have the resources and the strategy to deal with that because we know it’s coming down the pipeline,” she told MPs on the Home Affairs select committee.

Ms Khan said the current strategy was “weak, disjointed and behind the curve” and that the system had to fundamentally change if the country was “going to deal with this huge growing problem of extremism”.

Appointed in 2018, Ms Khan’s work has focused on behaviour she has coined ‘hateful extremism’ that falls short of being prosecuted for terrorism but creates divisions in society and attempts to provide a moral justification for violence. Police fear that such attitudes will develop into promoting terrorist acts.

Ms Khan launched a legal review this year over concerns that there were gaps in the law that allowed extremists to push their agenda without punishment. It is being headed by a former senior counter-terrorist police officer.

She cited supporters of an extreme right-wing group who advocated online infecting Jews and Muslims with Covid-19. Ms Khan said there was “clearly a gap” in the law in acting against extremists who incited action against groups rather than individuals. “The law is not dealing with this effectively,” she said.

Mainstream social media companies have acted to remove some of the material but other sites – that often promoted themselves as champions of free speech – refused to engage with police but had avoided prosecution, the committee heard.

The government has published plans for a new law to punish social media companies for failing to remove harmful content but it has fallen down the political agenda as the UK grapples with Covid-19 and Brexit.

Ms Khan, who heads the independent Commission for Countering Extremism, told MPs that extremists had harassed people working on counter-terrorist initiatives until they gave up their jobs. They had also become more professional in targeting vulnerable youngsters, had “intellectualised” their hate and were skilled at using language that stopped short of being prosecuted for inciting violence, she said.

In its report published last year, she cited comments by a senior official at the controversial advocacy group Cage who told the same committee in 2015 that suicide bombings were a “price worth paying”.

“The current approach is not working,” said Ms Khan. “It’s not responding to this challenge.”

She has urged that the Home Secretary Priti Patel leads a taskforce to address the problem of extremism but she said nothing had yet been set up.

The committee heard of a growing threat from an increasingly young cadre of extremists inspired by the far-right but with no particular ideology of their own.

Neil Basu, the head of counter-terrorism policing at London’s Metropolitan police, said that he had seen a “troubling” trajectory, with children as young as 13 talking online about committing terrorist acts. He said they remained a very small part of the group of men aged below 30 who typically turned to terrorism.

“The amplification of extremism and ability to incite a vulnerable part of the population to terrorism is my greatest single fear,” he said.

Ms Khan said she had heard of the problem repeatedly from teachers who said that “more and more young people are promoting and holding racist, extremist, anti-women views”.

“I’m not sure whether the current system in place is dealing with that effectively,” she said. “It’s a growing problem.”