U.K. Statutory Prevent Duty: The Creation and Consequences of a Police-State

Introduced by Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Prevent Duty seeks to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism by leveraging on the notion of “non-violent extremism.”

In July 2015, a new Prevent statutory duty was introduced, which compelled specified authorities to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”

Introduction

This duty was introduced by Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, and it seeks to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism by leveraging on the notion of “non-violent extremism.” The section represents a significant change to the Prevent strand of the overall counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, because it placed specific legal responsibility on a number of public bodies to tackle radicalization and extremism.

Over the years, Prevent attracted broad criticism for lacking empirical evidence in support of its main corollaries and for being based on the study, “Extremism Risk Guidance” (ERG22+), which however was never validated by the normal process of independent peer review and scientific scrutiny. As a result, in September 2016, over 140 experts and academics criticised Prevent in an open letter to the Government, in which they wrote:

“We are concerned with the implementation of “radicalization ” policies within the UK Prevent strategy, internationally referred to as countering violence extremism. Tools that purport to have a psychology evidence base are being developed and placed under statutory duty while their “science” has not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny or public critique.”

Prevent originates from the assumption that radicalization is a linear process towards terrorism, which some people are vulnerable to. It also assumes that it is possible to identify someone on a trajectory towards acts of terror, and that, consequently, this trajectory can be interrupted through a process of de-radicalization.

While a large volume of research has been conducted on this topic, statistics keep showing that Prevent is not fit for purpose; instead, it rests on a largely discriminatory interpretation of “radicalization” and “extremism.” Even the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) admitted that 80% of referrals to Channel are redundant, pointing out that there was, in fact, no risk of radicalization.

Further statistics from the Home Office, covering April 2015 to March 2016, show that in 2015/16, a total of 7,631 individuals were subject to a referral due to concerns that they were vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism, with most referrals (2,539 – accounting for 33%) coming from the education sector. Of the 7,631 individuals referred in 2015/16, 2,766 (36%) left the process requiring no further action, 3,793 (50%) were signposted to alternative services and 1,072 (14%) were deemed suitable, through preliminary assessment, to be discussed at a Channel panel. In 2015/16, 381 people received Channel support following a Channel panel. Of these, 365 (96%) have subsequently left the process.

Prevent casts a wide net seemingly disregarding the profound consequences that the process has on individuals who are mistakenly identified as subjects at risk. This trend was strongly amplified by the introduction of the statutory Prevent duty.

Towards a police state

The introduction of the statutory Prevent duty compelled the government to find models to train public sector workers to identify and prevent radicalization and extremism. However, the mandatory training is based on the assumptions underpinning the Government’s counter-extremism strategies and, as such, it is marred by the same flawed methodology at the base of the Prevent study. This research identifies four major problems with the legislation.

The first issue is that the Prevent strategy moves from a position of suspicion, that is, everyone is a potential suspect, and everyone can be deterred from committing acts of violent extremism. While the effort to prevent such acts is commendable, the making of the statutory Prevent duty co-opts public sector workers (teachers, nurses, counsellors etc.) into an intelligence tactical role that turns public bodies into sites of securitisation and would require a level of training far superior to that currently provided by the Prevent training course.

In short, not only does the Prevent duty create a climate of suspicion and mistrust between public workers and society, but also puts an enormous responsibility on people who do not necessarily have the background, skills, training, and overall in-depth understanding of radicalization, terrorism, insurgency and related issues. Individuals who have never been involved in the field of counter-extremism are suddenly expected, and in fact compelled, to refer people who they think might be on the path to violent extremism.

The second issue concerns the fact that the Prevent training is shaped upon the faulty assumptions underpinning the Government’s counter-extremism strategies, as well as its understanding of radicalization and extremism. According to the 2011 revised Prevent strategy, the Government has defined extremism as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” This definition, however, poses a number of issues:

  1. British values remains a nebulous concept when used to identify individuals at risk of radicalization. Indeed, democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs are arguably universal and human values and do not necessarily reflect the ‘level of Britishness’ of an individual. When such values as transposed into a purely British context, one could then wonder if, for example, criticism of the UK government or of the monarchy could be seen as a sign of un-Britishness and consequently of extremism.
  2. The rhetoric of Britishness and British values provides a fertile environment for the festering of far-right ideas and the myth of ‘non-integration’ by Muslim communities. The nearly two decades of constant negative depictions of Islam has resulted in a widespread demonization of British Muslims for their diversities and complexities, which are perceived and portrayed as characterizing various degrees of ‘un-Britishness.’ Such perception can have a profound impact on the way Prevent referrals are made.
  3. British values are often defined in opposition to others. For example, David Cameron’s 2011 speech in which he declared “we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so”, suggests that non-Christians inherently do not belong in Britain. This contributes to creating a climate in which diversity – or more specifically non-Christianity – might be perceived as an indicator of un-Britishness and therefore extremism.
  4. Finally, public sector workers such as teachers are required to promote British values as a crucial step to undertake in an effort to prevent radical ideologies. This can result in increasing censorship of dissenting voices, even when these are fully legitimate. It can also result in a profound sense of alienation for all individuals who legitimately disagree with canonical rules or with what is subjectively (and the confusion over British values inherently requires a certain degree of subjective interpretation) perceived as being ‘British values’.

In short, tackling extremism on the basis of an ambiguous definition of ‘British values’ is as dangerous as it is counterproductive. Such a paradigm inevitably frames race relations in light of the Government’s security agenda, while having a profound impact on freedom of expression, diversity, legitimate dissent, and overall multiculturalism.

The third problem is that the Prevent training is based on the presumption that there are clear, identifiable signs that an individual is drifting towards violent extremism.  This conveyor-belt theory, however, is based upon a number of studies conducted on individuals who had in fact committed acts of terror. For instance, the authors of “Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K” identified six signs of radicalization 1] by analyzing the behavior of “terrorists known to have participated in an attack or an attempted attack.” However, there was no control-study of those who were not terrorists to compare/contrast these signs with, which means that all the identifiers led to terrorism not because there is a linear pattern but because of the selected case studies.

Likewise, the government-funded ERG22+ research conducted by Dean and Lloyd suffers from the same limitations caused by the omission of control-studies. Even the MI5 confirmed in its report “Behavioural Science Unit Operation Briefing Note: Understanding radicalization and violent extremism in the UK,” that the several hundred terrorists it analyzed “had taken strikingly different journeys to violent extremist activity.”

There are two consequent problems with this. First, a public worker is not necessarily equipped to understand the nuances of religiosity, theology, political activism, and to differentiate between them and a potentially real ongoing radicalization process. Indeed, as pointed out by Paul Thomas, Professor of Youth and Policy at the University of Huddersfield, questions should be asked as to whether a one-hour-long course can equip a public worker (for example, a teacher) to discern between extremism and conservativism, particularly when this distinction applies to individuals belonging to communities already considered ‘at risk’, such as the Muslim one. A second issue concerns the fact that Prevent identifies a number of extremely loose and generic behaviors that might indicate radicalization. These include:

  1. Isolating themselves from family and friend
  2. Talking as if from a scripted speech, unwillingness or inability to discuss their views
  3. A sudden disrespectful attitude towards others
  4. increased levels of anger
  5. Increased secretiveness, especially around internet use.

These identifiers are however extremely ambiguous, especially for a teacher dealing with teenagers in the midst of adolescence. As such, it can be contended that a teacher, or any other public worker for that matter, might be inclined to look for other factors to fulfill his/her Prevent duty, such as the level of an individual’s religiosity.

Finally, it is unclear what the duty seeks to tackle, and more specifically, at what point of the presumed radicalization process is Prevent attempting to intervene. If the public worker is expected to intervene to forestall a violent act of extremism, then s/he is effectively pre-empting a terrorist attack – an enormous responsibility to put on the shoulders of a non-expert with merely a one-hour-long training. If the public worker is expected to intervene to forestall acts of non-violent extremism – thus “ideas that are also part of a terrorist ideology” –then s/he is challenging and stopping ideas from being expressed. This has potentially disastrous consequences for freedom of speech, particularly within the Education Sector, where debate is key for the advancement and development of pupils and students.

Neoliberalism and Muslim Identity

The statutory Prevent duty has created a profound fracture among Muslim communities and between the Muslim and non-Muslim community because it adds a bottom-up level to the traditional top-down securitization process. This, in turn, adds to the jurisprudential transition towards – and effectively establishment of – a legal system based on pre-crime, in which individuals are not prosecuted for committing a crime, but for fear that they might.

As such, while Britain’s pre-crime-based legal system has created a nation of potential suspects, the introduction of the statutory Prevent duty has also created a nation of potential police officers, effectively crystallizing societal divisions based on suspicion. In turn, difficulties in defining radicalization, terrorism, extremism and ‘British values,’ creates a climate of profound legal, social, and political uncertainty, in which other, and certainly more subjective, factors come into play.

An individual’s level of religiosity appears to be a predominant factor in the determination of subjects considered at risk of radicalization. An increasing number of studies is pointing at an inherent, and seemingly irreconcilable, distinction between British and Muslim identities, with the former being built primarily in opposition to the latter – a trend further evidenced by the Brexit vote.

According to M. S. Elshimi, a Research Analyst at the Royal United Services Institute specialising in Countering Violent Extremism, the fracture is not caused by an alleged inability of Muslims to subscribe to the set of British values encompassed in the government’s Prevent definition (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs) – which are in fact largely shared by British Muslims. Instead, it is provoked by the construction of a British identity according to the model of neoliberal nation-states, and which appears incompatible with some of the more prominent traits of Islam.

Materialism, secularism, modernity, and individualism – just some of the most defining characteristics of a neoliberal state –are inherently at odds with Islam, but their rejection, or a lesser degree of acceptance of them, cannot and should not be seen as a sign of radicalization. The age of globalism, however, has led to a question of reconciliation of multitude identities beyond normative universal values. As such, normality is ascribed to consumerism, secularism, individualism and a general de-politicisation, which constitute an acceptable level of conduct in a neoliberal state. Too much religiosity, consequently, is abnormal and challenged as a sign of radicalization.

In short, it is the Muslim identity that is being problematized and challenged in the current counter-extremism legislation, not terrorism. The difficulty in defining British values makes it impossible to define what a threat to British values is, and in turn, this leads to a more subjective and arguably over-conjectural categorization of individuals at risk.

Conclusion

The introduction of the statutory Prevent duty has severely altered the fabric of British society by extending the scope of the current pre-crime system to dangerous new levels. As noted above, while a preventative legal system turns everyone into potential suspects, the bottom-up securitization introduced by the statutory Prevent duty turns non-experts into overly zealous officers.

The problems outlined above revolve around the major issue of not knowing what terrorism and radicalization mean, and consequently of being unable to address it satisfactorily. Furthermore, the government’s attempt to frame extremism in opposition to British values has created ulterior confusion due to the difficulty of defining what ‘British values’ actually means. The issue of British identity – or lack thereof – coupled with nearly two decades of anti-Islam rhetoric, has led to an inevitable clash between neoliberal and Islamic values, with the former being formulated in opposition to the latter.

Religiosity, and even more so religious conservativism, seemingly remains a problem in British society. On the one hand, the secularism and modernity embedded in neoliberal states make religion a suspicious presence in the country; while on the other, the rejection of diversity (perfectly illustrated by the Brexit vote) has led to a societal embracement of cultural isolationism.

Muslims are disproportionally impacted by the framework within which Prevent operates. Statistics presented by the Government’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) show that a Muslim is almost 80 times more likely to be referred by Prevent for Channel de-radicalization since 2012. Of the 7,361 individuals referred to Prevent in 2015/16, 4,997 were referred for “Islamist extremism”, but only 5% went on to receiving Channel support. This shows that, while Muslims are the prime suspects, there is still very little understanding of what ‘Islamist extremism’ actually means, and what the identifiers of radicalization are.

The widespread belief among Muslims that the Government’s strategies are aimed at enforcing a political, religious and moral revisionism, contributes to the polarization of communities and in reducing the chances of bridging the gap between them. With the statutory Prevent duty co-opting public workers into the process of securitization, this fracture is amplified on every level of society. This also contributes to perpetuating the Huntingtonian paradigm that there is an “us” and a “them” and that the two are very distinct and irreconcilable. The ambiguities resulting from this model cause widespread misunderstandings, which often result in nothing short of a witch-hunt against Muslims. Marginalisation, stigmatization, and resentment thus become embedded in the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Prevent duty casts a long shadow of fear and suspicion while demanding idealistic results from public workers with no experience in the field of radicalization and counter-extremism. As argued by Professor Richard English, an authority in the field of terrorism, what really matters is not that we deal with violent extremism but how we do so. Encroaching civil liberties in the name of security legitimizes terrorism because it leads to a dramatic overturn of our societal values and its defining features, while simultaneously eradicating the very ethics we are attempting to protect.


[1] The signs identified in the study are: 1) The Adopting a Legalistic Interpretation of Islam; 2) Trusting Only Select Religious Authorities; 3) Perceived Schism Between Islam and the West; 4) Low Tolerance for Perceived Theological Deviance; 5) Attempts to Impose Religious Beliefs on Others; 6) Political Radicalization.

Dr. Antonio Perra is a senior policy analyst at MEND, a community funded organisation that seeks to tackle Islamophobia and encourage British Muslims to become more actively involved in British media and politics. Dr. Perra has authored several papers on Middle Eastern affairs, as well as a book titled “Kennedy and the Middle East: The Cold War, Israel and Saudi Arabia”, (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017).

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