UK’s ‘weak’ counter-extremism strategy set for overhaul

Shake-up reflects shift towards tackling hateful extremism that can lead to violence

GR8WXG Sara Khan, the British Muslim human rights activist and the director of Inspire, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Edinburgh, Scotland.
28th August 2016. GARY DOAK / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK is set to shake up its counter-extremism strategy after an adviser criticised the system as “weak, disjointed, and behind the curve” in dealing with terrorist radicalisation.

A counter-extremist unit set up in 2015 within the Home Office is in line to be scrapped, although the ministry said no decision had been taken, the Financial Times reported.

The possible changes appeared to reflect the views of Sara Khan, the country’s independent counter-extremism adviser.

She called for a shift in strategy to focus on hateful extremism that fell short of terrorism but created divisions in society and for some provided a moral justification for violence.

The changes could result in a programme focused on hateful extremism while incorporating the work of its predecessor, a source told the newspaper.

The Extremism Analysis Unit was established in 2015 under Conservative prime minister David Cameron to support government and public bodies to “deal with extremists appropriately”.

It was set up partly in response to concerns that Muslim extremists had tried to take control of schools in Birmingham, Britain’s second biggest city.

The unit cherry-picked Whitehall staff but has done little in the past few years to justify its existence, insiders said.

Mr Cameron’s broader strategy sought to stop extremists infiltrating public institutions by paying for groups to work in communities where people were at risk of radicalisation.

The Counter Extremism Group, a London-based think tank, said in a report in July that too many projects were focused on promoting integration than challenging extremist ideology.

It said by trying to engage with all sides, the government had been advised on its strategy by individuals who had links to extremism.

“None of this work is easy, but feel-good integration projects are ‘easy’ to take on compared with some of the really tough work to focus attention on an individual key radicaliser who has a malign influence on societies,” director Robin Simcox said.

Ms Khan published a report last year that described the current response to extremism as inadequate and unfocused and called for an overhaul of the system.

“Counter-extremism has not been a priority for the government,” said a spokesman for the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank. “It’s not before time that the government gives it the renewed focus that it deserves.”

It was not immediately clear how significant the changes would be, with the government’s flagship programme Prevent awaiting an overhaul.

Prevent is one-part of a four-pronged strategy and is designed to stop people being drawn into terrorism.

In January 2019, the government announced a review of the programme after some Muslim leaders claimed they were being unfairly targeted, although no one has yet been appointed to lead that inquiry.

The lawyer initially chosen, Lord Carlile, was dropped from Prevent following a legal challenge over his previous strong support for the scheme.

The Home Office said it was focussed on disrupting the activities of the "most dangerous extremists" and protecting the vulnerable from being drawn into terrorism.

“We keep our counter-extremism strategy under constant review to ensure it is best placed to tackle the evolving threat,” it said.