Britain's flagship anti-terrorism programme is failing in the challenge to tackle “non-violent Islamist extremism” as the present approach seeks to treat radicalisation and not prioritise countering violent attacks.
A 188-page assessment of the Prevent programme found the scheme was “not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism” and had "a double standard when dealing with the extreme right-wing and Islamism”.
Four years since it was first announced, the examination of the programme that aims to stop people turning to terrorism, which was conducted by former Charity Commission chairman William Shawcross, contained widespread criticisms of the policy.
“All too often those who commit terrorist acts in this country have been previously referred to Prevent," it found. “Prevent apparently failed to understand the danger in these cases and this review demonstrates how such failures might be avoided in the future.”
The government said on Wednesday it would implement the findings within the next 12 months, including recommendations of a closer relationship between the security service MI5 and Prevent bosses to allow better consideration of the wider terrorism threat by those who run the scheme.
"Since this Independent Review of Prevent was commissioned in 2019, six terrorist attacks have blighted our nation," it said. "These took place at Fishmongers’ Hall (November 2019), Whitemoor Prison (January 2020), Streatham (February 2020), Reading (June 2020), Southend (October 2021), and Liverpool (November 2021). In addition, shortly before this report was completed, a British citizen held Jewish civilians hostage at a synagogue in Texas (January 2022). All these attacks were Islamist in nature. Prevent must address all extremist ideologies proportionately according to the threat each represents."
It referred to the case of Ali Harbi Ali who murdered Conservative MP David Amess in Southend in 2021 after Ali was referred to Prevent for accessing ISIS propaganda. Ali had described his experience with Prevent in the following way, as being let off the hook. “I just knew to nod my head and say yes and they would leave me alone afterwards, and they did," he said.
Mr Shawcross said there was a dual standard in Prevent that allowed cases to slip through. "My research shows that the present boundaries around what is termed by Prevent as extremist Islamist ideology are drawn too narrowly while the boundaries around the ideology of the extreme right-wing are too broad," he said. "This does not allow Prevent to reflect accurately, and deal effectively with, the lethal risks we actually face.
“Challenging extremist ideology should not be limited to proscribed organisations but should also cover domestic extremists operating below the terrorism threshold who can create an environment conducive to terrorism.”
Looking to the future, Mr Shawcross said that the Home Office should ensure the programme is given a new focus. "Prevent must return to its overarching objective: to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism," he said. "Prevent is a crucial pillar of the UK’s counter-terrorism architecture, yet it has increasingly come to be seen as synonymous with safeguarding ― ie, an emphasis on protecting those referred to Prevent from harm and addressing their personal vulnerabilities.
“Prevent takes an expansive approach to the extreme right-wing, capturing a variety of influences that, at times, has been so broad it has included mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, right-wing-leaning commentary that have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalisation.
“However, with Islamism, Prevent tends to take a much narrower approach centred around proscribed organisations, ignoring the contribution of non-violent Islamist narratives and networks to terrorism.
“Prevent must ensure a consistent and evidence-based approach to setting its threshold and criteria, and ensure it does not overlook key non-violent radicalising influences.”
The government has accepted all 34 recommendations made in the 188-page report, which would mean delivering "wholesale and rapid change” across the programme.
The Home Office said it would overhaul Prevent in the fight against radicalisation. “Prevent will now ensure it focuses on the key threat of Islamist terrorism," Home Secretary Suella Braverman said. “As part of this more proportionate approach, we will also remain vigilant on emerging threats, including on the extreme right.
“This independent review has identified areas where real reform is required. This includes a need for Prevent to better understand Islamist ideology, which underpins the predominant terrorist threat facing the UK."
Alan Mendoza of the Henry Jackson Society, a think tank that prioritises counter-extremism studies, said the obsessive focus on the far-right threat demonstrated the wrong priorities were being pursued. “This review is a devastating critique of a government programme that has taken a wrong turn in terms of the prime function of UK counter-extremism policy: to stop today’s non-violent extremists from becoming tomorrow’s violent terrorists," he said.