This week Undercover Research published an important exposé on how the Government’s ‘PREVENT’ programme, aimed largely, but not exclusively, at the Muslim community, is actually Special Branch rebranded. This expose is timely, given that there is an ongoing debate about the clumsy way Government has been dealing with jihadi tendencies, and another debate about the effectiveness – or otherwise – of limiting discussion on jihad and related issues in the wider community, particularly in schools and universities. It also coincides with the rejection of PREVENT by a former Chief Prosecutor (see below). The choices are stark: we either go down the road of leaving this ‘rehabilitation’ process to the state, with all the dangers associated with that process; or we encourage a far greater involvement in this process from all sections and at all levels of society.
A. The real nature of Prevent
According to Undercover Research the NCSB (National Coordintor Special Branch) was active from 2004 to 2008 and was still operational up to 2011, ” but it has not vanished. These days it has an outward focused ‘community tensions team’ tacked on, and been renamed the National Co-ordinator PREVENT. Prevent is better known as part of the government counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST.” According to Powerbase, Assistant Chief Constable John Wright joined ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) as the National Co-ordinator for Special Branch in April 2007 and “remained in that role when it was converted to National Co-ordinator PREVENT” as part of the 2008 re-organisation of counter-terrorism strategy.” Powerbase also explains how the Government’s Prevent programme was developed and led by Rob Beckley.
Special Branch, of course, was the UK’s political police and has a long history of liaising with MI5, identifying and keeping files on troublemakers and ‘subversives’, blacklisting troublemakers and ‘subversives’ (and trade union activists), etc. The NCSB was an intelligence coordinating unit and included within its remit the policing of ports, monitoring domestic extremism, liaising with immigration officers, etc. The NCSB was also responsible for “helping to “coordinate police counter-terrorism efforts, along with the RICs and the National Co-ordinator of Terrorist Investigations.” Special Branch RICS (‘Regional Intelligence Cells’ or undercover police) were later subsumed into the Counter-Terrorism Unit.
Prevent is run by the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, part of the Home Office. It is widely regarded in Whitehall as being an intelligence agency. The OSCT is headed by Charles Farr, a long-time former senior intelligence officer who worked for MI6 and MI5 and with expertise in covert work.
B. Former prosecutor rejects Prevent programme
Former North-West of England chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal, in an article published today, was damning of PREVENT and its constituent programmes. In particular Mr Afzal said: “The government programmes to counter radicalism, such as Channel and PREVENT, are stale… The problem is that these programmes are seen as government-led rather than community-led; they are top-down rather than bottom-up. As such suspicions arise as to their motive… they are perceived as a policing tool”. He added: “We need to have challenging conversations within the community too.”
And when a top-down approach is taken to dissuading would-be jihadists from furthering their ambitions the phrase ‘doomed to failure’ springs to mind. But when that approach, as exemplified by the UK Government’s ‘PREVENT’ programme, is spearheaded by former Special Branch (police intelligence) personnel, whose clear aim has been to gather intelligence, then it is doubly doomed. Add into this toxic mix a Government policy that forbids debate in schools and universities on jihadism and everything that encourages and the likely result is the exact opposite to what the Government intends.
C. An alternative approach
The alternative to this approach – and one that is much more likely to succeed in the longer-term – requires a complete u-turn in Government policy. Such a u-turn, however, is unlikely. Instead it requires whole sectors of society to take the initiative. In brief, it is about reclaiming what used to be called the ‘open society’ – but not just on the level of debate, but in a far more radical way in which we engage with each other.
This more radical way would see not only debates about jihad talked openly in schools and universities and community forums, but also the factors that influence jihadism: these would range from foreign policy, military intervention, warfare through to ethnic and sectarian differences, religious differences, racism, integration of communities in society, media stereotypes, cultural identities, etc. Currently either people are too scared to debate these issues, or when they do they are forced to limit themselves to soundbites or cliché.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that jihadism in the longer term becomes far less attractive to those who are its targets – i.e. are groomed – when those targets are involved in a meaningful and direct way in the society they inhabit – a society that accepts and celebrates cultural differences. But in the last decade the emphasis has all been on the blame game. There can be no excuse or apology for jihadism, but to ignore the factors that encourage it is equally inexcusable.
Governments of all kinds dislike the ‘open society’ approach because they cannot control it; also Government by its nature distrusts the people it purports to represent. But a young potential jihadist, like any other young person, is not necessarily going to listen to the advice of their parents, or imam, or their school or university teacher. And in a world where open debate is seen as dangerous the inevitable medium to seek views is going to be the internet. The Government would prefer to apply censorship to internet-driven debate, though this is a near-impossibility. Thus, by limiting meaningful debate in society as a whole the would-be jihadist is driven directly by the Government to the pro-jihadist channels.
The Government’s Prevent programme, in conjunction with its other anti-jihadist programmes, will achieve only superficial success unless society changes tack and examines values – not just ‘British values ‘, but global values common to all.
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