Is UK counterterrorism program doing more harm than good?
According to the British intelligence agency MI5, which is the highest body of domestic counterintelligence and security in the UK, the current level of threat from international terrorism is severe — in other words, an attack is highly likely. This is just one level below critical, which indicates that an attack is expected imminently.
Neil Basu, the UK’s most senior counterterrorism officer, revealed recently that, since the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attack that killed five people, 22 terrorist plots had been foiled in the UK. Bearing these figures in mind, it would be foolish to make light of the dangers emanating from politically motivated violence, both in the UK and across the world. However, there is no escape from questioning whether the British government’s centerpiece instrument for averting terrorist actions, the Prevent program — whose stated strategy “is to reduce the threat to the UK from terrorism by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism” and to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” — is having a serious detrimental impact on the country’s liberal democratic values.
There is a very thin line between legitimate efforts to identify those agitators of extremism who prey on individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorist-related projects and stopping would-be terrorists’ activity, which is the declared aim of Prevent, and curtailing freedom of speech. The discourse on radicalization and terrorism was transformed after the 9/11 series of coordinated attacks on the US, which were orchestrated by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s distorted version of Islam, with its horrendous devastation and enormous loss of life. In the subsequent years, similar attacks in different locations, such as London, Madrid, Paris and Moscow, and later the emergence of Daesh, have left us in no doubt of the magnitude of the challenge deriving from this form of extremism. Yet attacks by far-right, white terrorists on mosques and synagogues, or other targets they see as representing the establishment, illustrate another challenge of ideological extremism that societies are currently facing, although this is one that, erroneously, is not perceived as menacing.
Gathering intelligence on individuals and groups is an essential aspect of preventing and averting political violence, but it is imperative that this is not done in a wholesale manner, otherwise there is a risk of us ending up in a police state, where our security forces have more power than our elected bodies. And there is not only a moral-philosophical argument against that scenario, but also a practical one. It might be the case that the surveillance of increasingly large numbers of people would reduce terrorist attacks, but by then the democratic systems would have fallen apart, with privacy a thing of the past, false imprisonments, and no freedom of speech.
According to the Guardian newspaper, counterterrorism police across the UK have been running a secret database containing details of thousands of individuals as part of Prevent. This practice of collecting information, almost indiscriminately, about individuals without their knowledge and without allowing them access to it is usually associated with authoritarian regimes, not democracies. It opens the way not only to flagrant intrusions into people’s private lives, but also to ongoing victimization and miscarriages of justice. To compile a secret database with its concomitant eavesdropping on a person’s activities and communications, including with their friends and family, is clearly a violation of their basic right to privacy.
Prevent contributes, even if inadvertently, to the stigmatization of particular groups, especially Muslims
Moreover, as if it was not enough that the streets of the UK are saturated with CCTV cameras — there are an estimated half a million in London alone — Prevent also encourages and pressurizes work colleagues, NHS medics, students and lecturers, for instance, to inform on one another should they suspect someone they know of being radicalized or vulnerable to extremist influence. One can have some sympathy with the security forces’ lack of personnel and sometimes expertise to cope with the magnitude of the terrorist threat, but it is unacceptable to expect entire communities to turn into informers. This risks tearing apart communities and families, and achieving the opposite effect of pushing people, especially youth, into the hands of extremists in protest.
Intelligence gathering is only one aspect of a successful counterterrorist, counter-radicalization program. Understanding and addressing the root causes of the phenomenon is the long-term and sustainable approach to eradicating it. As strongly as one condemns all forms of political violence, one must also understand that they don’t take place in a social and political vacuum. Given particular social conditions and their impact on certain personality types, a small minority will be radicalized. A culture of mass surveillance won’t prevent this, but rather ruin the delicate social fabric of multicultural and multiethnic communities. It will destroy trust, which is the fundamental basis of all societies.
Prevent should have a strong strand of dealing with the alienation of young people from mainstream society — young people of all backgrounds. Instead, Prevent contributes, even if inadvertently, to the stigmatization of particular groups, especially Muslims. It has created a spurious, thorough and dangerous connection between Muslims practicing their religion — with the prayers, fasting and dress codes this entails — and the threat of terrorism. Legitimate and benign religious beliefs are being turned into objects of fear and surveillance. Even more worryingly, the rise of right-wing, white extremism is becoming acceptable in certain circles and presented as an understandable reaction to migration issues and terrorist attacks.
Nothing can hand a victory to anti-liberal and anti-democratic extremists better than a democracy that, in attempting to defend itself, does the opposite by compromising its own values and driving a wedge between different segments of society. Prevent — even if it is, to an extent, an understandable overreaction to radicalization in its lack of sensitivity and inability to distinguish between legitimate manifestations of diversity and an inclination to political violence — might be doing more harm than good.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg