February 14, 2023

In 2020, I attended a meeting with various professionals and volunteers in Nairobi to discuss the recruitment of Kenyans by al-Shabaab, the formidable al-Qaeda affiliate across the border in Somalia. Midway through the presentations by assorted Europeans, the room began to grow restless. The Kenyan contingent made up of community workers and volunteers asked where, in all the models of radicalisation being discussed, was the individual agency of the terrorist?

Many of them had travelled to the capital from the coastal towns where al-Shabaab was most active, and where all the structural “push” factors one could imagine are present: poverty, boredom, marginalisation, corruption — and extrajudicial killings. Perhaps that’s what enabled them to diagnose one of the central shortcomings of the policies generally known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), of which Britain’s Prevent Strategy is a part. In his independent review of Prevent, published last week, William Shawcross came to the same conclusion: the overemphasis on vulnerability in the process of radicalisation strips individuals of their agency, obscures reality and sucks the politics out of political violence.

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This framing is inadvertently written into the policy from its birth in 2011: according to Prevent’s foreword, one of its core objectives is to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” (emphasis mine). In this model, the individual is a passive participant in their own descent into terrorism, sometimes manipulated by mysterious online recruiters or pushed by socioeconomic circumstances beyond their control. Over time, the strategy moved into more and more safeguarding settings, and this notion evolved further. As one practitioner told me: “radicalisation is just another form of grooming”.

Such thinking has seeped into broader counterterrorism discourse, but perhaps worst of all it has allowed now-stranded jihadists in Syria to play back Western tropes for domestic consumption. In their versions of events, they were groomed, manipulated or brainwashed into joining Isis, just as they were only ever cooks or engineers in the Caliphate. It’s “only following orders”, updated for the therapy era. The type of people Prevent interacts with has helped to crystallise this notion. No doubt many of those referred to Prevent have various sources of instability in their lives, but this should not be surprising for a policy which relies on local authority services such as mental healthcare as some of its main vectors of delivery. Drawing conclusions about radicalisation based on Prevent referrals and interventions tells us about the type of people referred to Prevent, not necessarily those joining terrorist movements.

Likewise for the increasing concern over the radicalisation risk to children and young people, particularly online. Of course children make up large numbers of referrals for a strategy which is a legal duty for schools. But the involvement of children in political violence is exceptionally rare: the majority of Isis recruits were in their 20s (many much older), and most terror attacks in Western countries to further a racist worldview are being perpetrated by, as Naama Kates puts it, “grown-ass men”.

Prevent may well be doing a fine job of diverting genuinely vulnerable people away from extremism, but it should be just one part of the strategy’s function. What of the people unlikely to appear on the radar of local services — those who are stable and confident enough in their convictions to justify violence? The man considering killing a human being for eternal reward or the survival of his race is not simply misled or a walking checklist of needs and vulnerabilities; he has never been more assured. It’s not clear Prevent has an answer.

Another concern identified by the review has proven the most controversial — and already the most mischaracterised. Shawcross found that there is a disproportionate focus on the far-Right, and that while Islamist extremism is defined so narrowly as to only take in the likes of Isis, far-Right extremism is defined so loosely as to sometimes include Brexit, populism and garden-variety conservatism. To explain this, it’s necessary to describe the Prevent sector as a whole, which extends well beyond the civil servants, local coordinators or police officers it employs. It includes Prevent-funded civil society organisations, academic centres, NGOs and think tanks (one of which I belong to). Not all of them have a formal connection to Prevent, but all of them help to shape and guide the discourse on extremism and terror. And where the discourse goes, policy praxis follows.

It’s easy for a headline to blame “woke civil servants” for not wanting to talk about Islamist extremism, but the reality is: delivery is bent out of shape by parts of the Prevent sector which have nothing to do with government at all. These are the institutions which churn out paper after paper on the video game-extremism nexus or the trauma of their own work, but which are deafeningly silent when a schoolteacher is decapitated across the Channel and another is forced into hiding closer to home. Some of the organisations which influence thinking are based in North America, which has an entirely different threat picture, but the online discourse flattens this distinction. The effect is clear in Shawcross’s observation that, inside Prevent, resources are distributed concerning organisations with no actual presence in Britain.

Those delivering Prevent are also subject to external pressures which help pull the strategy “out of kilter” with Britain’s counterterrorism apparatus, as one senior official put it. On one school visit, I was anxiously informed by the concerned headteacher that some of his students’ parents are Daily Mail readers. I have seen third-sector organisations show slides of Mail headlines immediately after Dabiq — Islamic State’s blood-soaked propaganda rag. Others I worked with had slides counted by audiences to ensure equal time was given to the EDL as to ISIS. This was in 2014-15 when hundreds of Brits were travelling to the Caliphate, and in parts of London with no far-Right presence whatsoever. These are the external pressures, but in other cases the call is coming from inside the house, such as the suspicion and accusations identified by Shawcross against those who focus or specialise on Islamism. I’ve seen this for myself, and it’s not clear the strategy can ever function properly while this persists.

Given these pressures, it is not hard to see why some will opt for the easy life or go along with the mantra that the far-Right and jihadists are simply two sides of the same coin. They are of course worthy of a response, but the street hooligans of Britain First or the EDL (let alone the Daily Mail) simply do not exist in the same tactical or moral universe as the present-day génocidaires of Isis — in that they are not orchestrating the mass killing of civilians or exterminating minorities in the Middle East. Since my own experiences some years ago, this trend of equivalence has accelerated and entirely new categories of extremism have come into the Prevent sector’s purview, in what one insider described as the “Andrew Tate-ification of counterterrorism”. Any strategy which concerns itself as much with the EDL as with Isis is probably suffering a lack of conceptual clarity, but any strategy which concerns itself as much with adolescents watching Andrew Tate’s videos as Anwar al-Awlaki’s is probably so broad as to be rendered meaningless.

It means, for instance, that in the past week, violent demonstrations in Knowsley have been used to discredit the Shawcross review and its alleged dismissal of the far-Right threat. Having slugged through all 188 pages, I can confirm no such dismissal is made. In fact, this narrative rather makes the review’s point: that there is a clear difference between unrest — even law-breaking and violent unrest — and the bombing of children at a pop concert or the assassination of an MP. After all, if there is no such distinction, then to remain ideologically fair, Prevent must consider the frequent law-breaking and unrest perpetrated by Left-wing environmentalists. But it largely doesn’t, and nor do I think it should.

While some of the findings of the review will be shocking to many on the outside, the actual demands made of those delivering Prevent are hardly earth-shattering. In fact, amid years of controversy, the review is potentially a lifeline. Shawcross’s only demand is that it returns to its core purpose: preventing the next Thomas Mair or Salman Abedi, not the next online shitposter or Andrew Tate.