Prevent needs reforms – but they mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater | Usama Hasan | Opinion


Finally, a public servant who has the courage to defend a national strategy that has worked pretty well in keeping us all safe from indiscriminate terrorist attacks, and which is the envy of nations worldwide, many of whom are following the UK’s lead but remain years behind in practical experience.

I have been critical of the police recently, when they failed to stop the London Bridge terrorist ringleader, even after I and others had reported our serious concerns, almost a year before the atrocity. But Commander Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism command, is quite right to point out that much criticism of the government’s anti-radicalisation Prevent scheme is based on ignorance or comes from extremist Islamist groups, for whom it is obviously in their interest to try to discredit and remove Prevent, since it targets ideologies, like theirs, which directly and indirectly incite and justify terrorist violence.

Dozens of mass-casualty Islamist terrorist attacks have been averted in this country since 9/11. Far-right, neo-Nazi ideologies that directly inspired terrorist violence, such as the murder of Jo Cox MP now account for about a third of referrals to Channel, Prevent’s one-to-one mentoring programme by a nationwide network of “intervention providers”. If this trend of increasing far-right threats continues, I expect to see more criticism of Prevent from that side of the social and political spectrum, too.

Of the four Ps of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy (Contest), Prevent has always been the most difficult, since it deals with complex human terrain and communities. The other three strands (Protect, Prepare and Pursue) are more specific and relatively easier to accomplish.

Ministers and their aides have always been aware that Prevent must be subject to iterative improvements, as we learn from experience. Civil servants used to joke that the unspoken, fifth P of Contest in its early years was Provoke, given the reaction from some Muslim communities. But one of the key factors in building community resilience to terrorist ideology is for community leaders not to be in denial about the problems, as shown by a recent US Institute of Peace report, an issue that had already been highlighted way back after the 7/7 attacks by Britain’s most senior ethnic minority policeman at the time, Tarique Ghaffur.

We have moved on from disastrous errors such as the aborted attempt in 2010 to install CCTV, with counter-terrorism funding, in Muslim-majority areas of Birmingham. Hundreds of British men and women, mainly youths and some prisoners, have been mentored via Channel away from terrorism and towards more constructive avenues in life, with many having been stopped from travelling to join Islamic State abroad. This represents hundreds of British Muslim families who are very grateful for Prevent, with many of them having called the police to stop their sons or daughters from travelling to Syria.

Scene from The Angry Birds Movie.



‘If we cannot tell the difference between a real, angry terrorist and a child playing with Angry Birds, we have a problem.’ Photograph: Rovio Animation/AP

It is not just British Muslim families that are devastated by Islamist extremist ideology and violence: in wider society, there are the thousands of British family and friends of terror victims since 7/7, and the non-Muslim families of the dozens of converts to Islam who became terrorists. In the future, there will be a growing role for families and communities in increasing resilience and defeating terrorist violence, especially since the symbiotic “reciprocal radicalisation” between extremist Islamism and the far right threatens to plunge Britain into a cycle of violence having similarities with the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

A recent, detailed academic study of educators’ experiences with Prevent, ever since it became a statutory duty in July 2015, found that most engaged positively with it, especially since it has largely been subsumed under familiar structures of safeguarding.

However, as with any new complex duty, there have been teething problems as some teachers, either overexcited after receiving Prevent training or fearful of losing their job for missing a potential terrorist, have overreacted to situations, whether suspicious or innocuous. Professionals, whether faced with the Prevent duty or not, must not forget their common sense: most concerns in the classroom can usually be tackled by the school, in partnership with parents or guardians. A referral to Prevent must always be a last resort.

In a current case, so far unreported by media, a Muslim mother is considering legal action against her child’s nursery school to seek an apology and redress for an apparent Prevent overreaction. This allegedly involved getting the mum to sign some paperwork after her toddler played with toys from mainstream culture and exclaimed their familiar catchphrase as found on official T-shirts, “Bombs Away!” If we cannot tell the difference between a real, angry terrorist and a child playing with Angry Birds, we have a problem. But I’m confident that any such Prevent-related teething problems will dissipate with experience.

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