Prevention must mean more than the detection of people at risk of radicalised behaviour, it should rely on the adoption of a healthy lifestyle.
Deradicalisation programmes have developed around the world as a relatively new strategy, with community and societal response kept at the forefront rather than traditional counterterror opertaions. Deradicalising terrorists in custody requires not only identifying how they became radicalised, but also determining whether the process can be reversed and how government-led initiatives can help ensure that committed terrorists will avoid criminal activity after they are out of custody.
A number of countries are using diverse forms of deradicalisation policies, but some of these have also arguably taken repressive strategies of containment. They have made religious minorities move away from the mainstream society which has often resulted in deprivation of universal rights. It should be emphasised that becoming radicalised does not automatically mean that a person is engaging, or will engage, in violent or dangerous behaviour. One of the main reasons that Muslims are often seen as potential extremists from the standpoint of the deradicalisation policies is due to the lack of understanding of the practice of Islam and an increased suspicion of Muslims to the point that their normal religious practices are enough to spark fear and distrust.
The United Kingdom has faced the most persistent and serious threat from jihadist terrorism. Around 2003, British authorities had become increasingly concerned about the rise in violence due to domestic radicalisation. Hence, the counter-radicalisation policy known as Prevent was launched. Prevent is one of the four P’s of government’s counterterrorism strategy along with Pursue, Protect and Prepare. This project intends to safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation and to stop them from engaging in or supporting terrorism. In the UK dimension of the ‘global war on terror’ — the prevent strategy occupies a central role
This project made the British government — the first one in Europe — to explicitly attempt to develop and implement a comprehensive domestic counter-radicalisation strategy to tackle Islamist radicalisation. The UK also runs the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP) to deradicalise those who have already carried out terrorist attacks. Both schemes are often accused of racial profiling and crossing boundries of privacy surveillance.
Under the Prevent scheme, public sector workers are legally obligated to report people they deem to be at risk of radicalisation to the Home Office. Prevent was also introduced at schools where local authorities and school teachers are asked to report concerns about people who may be at risk of turning to extremism or terrorism. The project has often been criticised for making radicalisation worse in way of increased social polarisation and tensions.
The total number of referrals to Prevent by March 2019 were 5,738, down 21% from the previous year, when there were 7,318 referrals, statistics released from the Home Office show. Of the 5,738 referrals, 4,407 (77%) were deemed not suitable for specialist support aimed at people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism — with most of these referrals (64%) signposted to other services such as the education sector.
For instance, an eight-year-old was being questioned under the Prevent programme after his teacher mistook his t-shirt slogan to be Islamist propaganda. Prevent, as a policy to combat violent extremism, has also come under scrutiny for stigmatising children and has aggravated tensions between Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups. Schools in the UK have been trying to train Muslim pupils to spy on each other. By taking such adverse actions of isolating radicals, prevent will obstruct extremists from participating in counter-radicalisation programming and may radicalise them even further.
A document submitted by the Muslim Council of Britain appears to show that teachers were trained to find out the views of young children and their parents by making them do presentation on sensitive topics such as the Syrian conflict. There have been cases where young children were referred to social services because of signs of radicalisation after they were specifically asked to write a piece on British foreign policy, and a student mentioned the history of the Caliphate. They cite referrals for students using terms such as Alhamdullilah — praise to be God — and quote a teacher who requested to refer a Muslim Boy to Channel, which is also a part of Prevent programme and aims to provide support at an early age to individuals who are vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism, after he asked how to build a bomb during a class on nuclear fission. When a non-Muslim student asked the same question, no concerns were raised.
There have been many cases where people who were enrolled in these schemes have actively participated to commit terror attacks. Usman Khan who was involved in London Bridge attack which took place in November 2019 was one such incident. He took part in Desistence and Disengagement Programme (DDP) and was out on license from prison when he killed two people and injured three others in the stabbing attack. Ahmed Hassan, who was responsible for the 2017 Parson’s Green attack, was also part of the Prevent programme. Hassan signalled a level of concern that required further work with him. There were systematic failures in the Prevent the programme to tackle a teenager who was on the verge of becoming radicalised. This has also led to cases where offenders often simply fake progress to their counsellors.
Former British Home Secretary Amber Rudd stated at the House of Commons that suicide bomber Salman Abedi who was involved in the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing was also under investigation at the time of the attack. British security authorities could have stopped the Manchester attack “had the cards fallen differently,” the then home secretary said.
In 2019, it was revealed that the National Police Prevent Case Management (PCM) across the UK have been running a secret centralised database containing the details of thousands of individuals who have been referred to Prevent. many of them, on the government’s own terms, were unworthy of referral but fell victim to an increasing climate of suspicion. It raises concern that potentially thousands of people, including children, are on a secret government database because of what they’re perceived to think or believe. This incident throws light on the fact that Prevent has in many cases turned out to be an authoritarian tool rather than a deradicalisation programme. A vast majority of those referred, who are found to have no terrorism link, will still be perceived as potential risks by the state and this will unreasonably affect particular minority groups.
Students in universities are also negatively affected by the Prevent duty as they avoid engaging in topics such as human rights and counterterrorism. For instance, due to the increased Prevent legislation in educational institutions, in 2017, Cambridge University Palestine Society was restricted from including Dr. Ruba Saliah in an event entitled BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel) and the globalised struggle for Palestinian rights, and instead urged them to accept a more ‘neutral chair’.
The programme has created a stigma amongst the young people that they will be treated differently due to their faith. The programme initiatives are predominantly aimed at the Islamic community, rather than tackling underlying issues. This is producing a sense of victimisation among Muslims. Although it was introduced with a seemingly positive goal of preventing radicalisation that leads to terrorism in the UK, it arguably only targets Muslims in general, in many cases even when there is no history of violence or criminal activity.
The Prevent strategy is often criticised for normalising and spreading Islamophobia by inscribing its assumption and prejudices into the regular operation of the society. Such measures will also lead to isolating radicals which will further prevent extremists from participating in counter-radicalisation programming and may only radicalise them even further. The government’s emphasis on combating radicalisation — a more unpredictable enemy than terrorism — has pushed the strategy to a point where simply expressing beliefs that conflict with “British values” would be enough to attract attention.
The argument here is that the behaviour of an individual can be changed by helping him overcome his/her dogma that motivates that behaviour. It should include the creation of opportunities to understand the roots of extremism. Prevention must mean more than the detection of people at risk of radicalised behaviour, it should rely on the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. Another example is that of France, where the deradicalisation programme is failing to provide better opportunities for disenfranchised youth, for them to better integrate into French society.
Decades of security and heavy policies have not reduced the political violence, nor addresses the root cause of it. In its strategy, the problem of extremism and terrorism is closely tied to Muslims and Islam, hence in the UK, the terror threat is regarded as an Islamic threat. Mounting the terror threat in this manner means that the infrastructure and emphasis of deradicalisation policies are overwhelmingly directed towards a single direction.
The debate around deradicalisation programmes is only beginning, with such initiatives being relatively new to national security infrastructures. However, a wholesome approach towards such programmes is yet to be ascertained.
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