Quilliam Outreach Officer Haras Rafiq is quoted in a Financial Times piece looking at how Ofsted’s investigation into Birmingham schools has refocused attention on UK counter terrorism strategy.
This week’s Ofsted report that is expected to warn of hardline Islamist teaching creeping into a handful of Birmingham schools will revive the debate on whether a much broader push is needed to combat extremism in the UK.
Since the London tube and bus bombings of 7/7 in 2005, the counterterror response has struggled to decide where the boundaries of its activities should lie.
The government’s broad policy, known as Contest, is divided into four areas: pursue, prepare, protect and prevent.
In recent years it has won considerable praise, as has Theresa May, home secretary, for her support for it. Arrests for terror offences have remained constant at about 250 annually, according to figures from the Home Office, which leads the effort through the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, headed by Charles Farr.
No major plot has come dangerously close to damaging British interests, and the London 2012 Olympics passed by without incident after extensive preparatory work by the Security Service – MI5 – in a process euphemistically known as “cleaning the slate”.
So effective has the UK’s containment policy been that Home Office officials have been in high demand across Europe. At a private meeting of ministers and counterterror chiefs from nine European countries in Brussels last Thursday, Britain’s antiterrorist model was held up as an example of what to do right.
However, some Whitehall officials candidly admit there is still a lack of direction in the “prevent” pillar of the Contest strategy – the soft power part aimed at winning hearts and minds.
Under Ms May, the Home Office has re-centralised control of Prevent funding – putting an end to poorly overseen projects by local councils that in the worst cases saw grants awarded to mosques for exterior decorations. But it has done noticeably little with it compared to its more obviously proactive measures under the other three areas of Contest.
Indeed, in some instances Prevent continues to fund organisations who eschew violence but whose views might, nevertheless, be regarded as deeply unpalatable in mainstream society – measures one former counterterror mandarin likened to “funding the BNP to fight Combat 18”.
“Unless you tackle the ideas, unless you stop the fomentation of extremist ideologies, you are just going to be firefighting,” says Haras Rafiq of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think-tank. “This is a mainstream problem.”
The war in Syria has laid clear the extent of it. While 450 Britons have gone to fight Bashar al-Assad, invariably with al-Qaeda-linked Mujahideen, thousands more back in the UK – friends, family and strangers – are sympathetic to the cause, as even the most cursory glance on social media reveals.
Extensive work is being done to fund “counter narratives” on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, though the campaigns are still in their early days, and getting them right will be a huge challenge.
“We have fundamentally revised our Prevent strategy to address both violent and non-violent extremism and we are successfully building on the work of the prime minister’s Extremism Task Force to ensure our response is as robust as possible,” says security and immigration minister James Brokenshire.
It is, nevertheless, still an uphill struggle, and occasionally, a clumsy one, critics say. Preventing extremism may ironically work only with a much softer approach.
Announcements at the beginning of this year, from the government and police, that a zero-tolerance policy towards those seeking to travel to Syria has backfired, for example – leading many young Muslims to assume the UK stands with Assad, rather than against him.
“It’s not the best message to be giving,” says Richard Barrett, former head of global counterterrorism operations at MI6, and now an analyst with the Soufan Group, a security consultancy. “They are not going to employ a whole lot of people to do this in the Security Service, so you have to turn to the communities themselves. You need to share ownership and the solution to the problem.”
In the final analysis, it might be that there is only so much an antiterrorism policy can set as its objectives. Changing society is probably not one of them.
“Tackling terrorism is a risk-management strategy,” says Charlie Edwards, director of national security studies at the Royal United Services Institute. “We are not trying to defeat it. I would not want to live in that country. It would be a police state.”
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