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Is Prevent producing terrorists?

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

January 29, 2019   4 mins

Last Tuesday, the UK Government announced an independent review of its flagship counter-radicalisation programme, Prevent. Security Minister Ben Wallace took the opportunity to call out the programme’s detractors: “This review should expect those critics of Prevent, who often use distortions and spin, to produce solid evidence of their allegations.” That’s fighting talk. But the Minister should prepare himself: a true examination of the strategy may well prove it is making things worse rather than better – though not for the reasons some critics suggest.

Prevent aims to “confront [the] extremist ideology” at the heart of terrorism. It is based on the idea that “radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence” and it explicitly makes a causal link between ideology, extremist thought, and extremist actions. Ipso facto if you solve the problem of extremist ideology, be it jihadi or far-Right, you reduce the levels of terrorist violence.

The Government’s approach relies upon identifying people at risk of being radicalised and countering the narrative of extremism. Those at risk of radicalisation, or who already have been radicalised, are identified through state institutions, like schools and healthcare providers, who have a statutory duty to report those, often minors, who they think display extremist thought. Remember the young child infamously referred to Prevent for talking about eco-terrorism in class, or the four-year-old who was referred for talking about a ‘cucumber’, misheard by the teacher as ‘cooker-bomber’?

Prevent has long had its critics. Charities – such as Amnesty – were concerned about human rights implications. Muslim groups – such as the Muslim Council of Britain – reported that Muslim communities felt targeted by the scheme. And scholars have questioned the efficacy of the radicalisation narrative: that ideology creates extremist thought which leads to extremist action, meaning people need ‘protecting’ from extremist ideology if they are at risk of being ‘radicalised’.

But there is a deeper, philosophical problem with Prevent. The language of the entire strategy – and the comments by Ben Wallace – reflect the implicit assumption that ideology is like a sickness that infects people and causes them to do wrong. In fact, the initial 2003 Prevent programme drew upon the policy work that the government had done to protect vulnerable young people from paedophiles. These assumptions still pervade the programme, as demonstrated by Wallace’s recent reference to “grooming and exploitation by terrorists”.

This approach sees ‘radicalisation’ as something that comes from without, rather than something that is sought from within.

But can a collection of ideas, an ideology, really cause someone to blow themselves up? The answer to this disarmingly simple question – and the broader question of the role of ideas in all types of violence propagation – lies in cognitive science. Violence, after all, is a behaviour, like any other social behaviour.

For sometime, psychologists and cognitive scientists have understood that decisions are made by the (faster) subconscious and emotional brain, rather than the (slower) conscious brain. The subconscious brain tends to work on evolutionarily-designed rules of thumb that get to the right answer most of the time (but not all of the time). The role of the conscious brain is to then justify those already-made decisions to other people – often rearranging ‘facts’ around the already-adopted position.

This is not obscure science: the initial ideas in this field led to a Nobel Prize for Daniel Kahneman, the brilliant psychologist who discovered them. And they have since revolutionised other fields such as economics, where they inspired the creation of behavioural economics, leading to other Nobel Prizes, notably for Richard Thaler in 2017. These ideas have also been applied elsewhere in the British government: the Behavioural Insights Team (previously the Nudge Unit) have driven improvements in social challenges ranging from organ donation through taxation to getting people back to work.

Applying this concept to violence, and specifically suicide terrorism, calls in to question the Government’s long-standing approach.

If correct, it means that violence must be caused by a subconscious, emotional decision that is later justified: that is, the ideology merely justifies a drive towards violence that already exists. This flies in the face of government narratives around radicalisation that treat ideology as a cause of violence. And it means that preventative action should be focusing less on the ideology, and more on the sub-conscious, emotional drives of those who might commit group violence.

This sounds like an impossible task. But an increasing amount of evidence is identifying these emotional drives and highlighting the role of belonging in driving intergroup violence – including terrorism. That is, people are driven to commit these types of violent acts (as opposed to, say, murder or rape) in order to fulfill their evolutionary need to belong to a social group.

This understanding of the role of belonging should be considered alongside the facts that an overwhelming majority of those with extremist thoughts, far more than 99%, do not commit violent actions. What’s more, extremist thought, even were it adequately definable in a society that values free speech, is a very poor predictor of violent action. Defining extremism in this way lumps the supposed thinkers of extremism together with those targeted by the government for their criminal activity – actors of extremism.

This is why Prevent might be making things worse rather than better. By seeking to find and punish those who harbour extremist thought, the actions of the government cause people to question their place in British society, when they might not have done so before. In short, it creates or exacerbates a crisis of belonging, even where one might not have existed.

This is even recognised by senior officials working on the programme, who are privately very critical. A Home Office official working directly on Prevent told me that the best way to reduce terrorism was to fund local sports clubs and community centres – which foster belonging – rather than “criminalising an entire community”.

Terrorism reflects the world that we live in. Globalisation, and particularly immigration, has detached people from the groups they once belonged to: their families, their ethnicities, and their nations. The modern world can be a profoundly lonely place. If individuals feel that they don’t belong, they are more likely to reach out for extreme ideas that will fill that vacuum, offering them a sense of identity. Rather than making digs at Prevent’s critics, the Government should take the opportunity of an independent review to fix this fundamental flaw.

Mike Martin is a former British army officer and War Studies Visiting Fellow at King’s College London. His latest book is Why We Fight.


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