UKREN blog

Wednesday 13 January 2016

PREVENT: A Multi-Tentacled Kraken


‘Prevent’ is a  set of guidance embedded in the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. More specifically, Prevent guidance assists key authorities in their newly legally-bound ‘duty’ to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. These authorities include Local Authorities; schools, colleges and universities; the health sector; prisons and probation, and the police. Authorities are encouraged to refer people who might be ‘vulnerable to radicalisation’ to Channel, the government’s anti-radicalisation scheme which runs alongside Prevent. Homa Khaleeli reports in The Guardian a few months ago that: “Since 2012, more than 4,000 people have been referred [to Channel], half of them under-18s – with the youngest a three-year-old from London”.

When the updated duty was announced last year, 280 academics and public figures signed an open letter criticising Prevent’s “unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism”, and stating that instead “ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology”. The letter stated that Prevent encouraged a “prejudiced worldview” which only served to divide communities and to stoke a climate of Islamophobia. As I’ll explore a little later, the letter could not have been more prescient.

The origins of Prevent runs a little further back than the 2011 update which was brought into the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. Prevent was set up in 2005 after the 7/7 London bombings, and the programme was emphasised in the government’s ‘CONTEST’ strategy, details of which were first published in July 2006. CONTEST is concerned with ‘countering international terrorism’. From a strictly logistical perspective, the Prevent strategy from the very start of its operations very healthily funded and very hastily planned, as well as bizarrely delivered and poorly evaluated.

In 2009, Maria W. Norris reported in an excellent piece on Public Spirit that Bromley Borough Council had used Prevent funds to buy CCTV cameras. Similarly, in June 2010 security cameras were installed in predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham- Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook- including 72 ‘covert’ cameras concealed in walls and trees. To give a sense of the disproportion of this measure, Paul Lewis writing for The Guardian in June 2010 notes that “Birmingham city centre is covered by just 50 ANPR cameras. Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook have been given an additional 60 standard CCTV cameras”. Councillors from these wards were told that the initiative was specifically aimed at “combating drug-dealing, anti-social behaviour and crime, and that their areas had been chosen because they had high crime rate”. In contradiction to this stated aim, the cameras were later revealed to have been financed to the tune of £3m from the Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) fund, which draws down Home Office money.

These kinds of shenanigans, along with what Norris refers to as the ‘demographic criteria’- the stipulation that “any Local Authority with a Muslim population of at least 5% was automatically given Prevent funding” were tipped to be brought into check with the 2011 revision of Prevent. In June of that year, the government produced a paper outlining a refreshed version of the strategy. Interestingly, translations are immediately downloadable only in English, Arabic and Urdu. Prevent 2011 has a stated aim to “stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

The 2011 document states that “Prevent will address all forms of terrorism, including the extreme right wing”, but emphasises that focus will be trained on forms of terrorism that “pose the greatest risk to our national security”- more specifically, “Al Qa’ida, its affiliates and like-minded groups”. Khaleeli reports that a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request breaking down the Prevent referral figures up to 2013 shows that 14% were due to far-right extremism, while 57.4% of those referred were Muslims. It is useful to bear in mind that the percentage of self-identified Muslims in the population of the UK is just 5%. Extremism meanwhile is defined by the UK government 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. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas”.

This definition feels more than a little shaky to me. It leads me to wonder, not for this first time, what this baggy term ‘British values’ really means, and I am unpleasantly reminded of Sajid Javid’s (current Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills) relentless fog-horning about “the freedoms of western life” and the need for migrant, black and asian communities to ‘assimilate’ with and ‘integrate’ into the ‘British’ way of life.

Yahya Birt writes on his blog that these so-called British values are “not parochially British nor are they unsubstantiated in the Islamic interpretive traditions or unpractised throughout the long and rich history of a world religion with 1.6 billion adherents. More importantly such values do not resolve conflicts in themselves. Rather, they define the very ground upon which we agree and disagree as to their meaning, application and commensurability”. For herein lies the rub- Prevent is desperately keen to paint a rosy patriotic vista of the people who live in the UK in homogenous brush-strokes, but this tableau both threatens the lives and liberty of the ethno-religious communities it targets, and also continues to erode the right for people who live in the UK to express political dissent; the right for schoolchildren and university students to question the Euro-centric rhetoric of their teachers without being hauled over hot coals.

Despite Prevent 2011’s supposed intention to tidy up the more murky aspects of its operations (the 2011 strategy itself states that “the monitoring and evaluation of Prevent projects has not been robust enough to justify the sums of public money spent on them”), Norris notes that information on the strategy’s application is now more difficult to access than ever. Between 2008 and 2009, Norris made over 20 successful FOI requests to local authorities within ‘key demographic’ areas, requesting information on Prevent funding and implementation. The same 20+ FOIs made again post the 2011 review were unanimously denied.

The sprawl of the 2011 strategy’s tentacles are alarmingly far-reaching. On Page 94 of the hefty 113-page strategy document, it stipulates that the Charity Commission has compliance and enforcement responsibilities, and that groups including student societies which might organise a debate or forum that “excludes people and is only open to members of a particularly exclusive group” could be judged to be in breach of charity law requirements, and referred to law enforcement agencies.

Last year British Prime Minister David Cameron ‘named and shamed’ four London-based Universities who had given a platform to ‘extremists’. Professor Simon Gaskell, Principal of Queen Mary’s- one of the ‘named’ Universities- said he would “welcome sight of [the extremism analysis unit’s] definitions for ‘hate or extremist speakers’”, nodding towards a widely-shared assertion that Prevent’s definition of who or what does or does not signify a ‘threat to British values’ is particularly nebulous.

Universities are now under legal obligation from updated Prevent duty guidance which came into force on 21st September 2015. The guidance is purportedly designed to “stop extremists radicalising students” and to “tackle gender segregation at events”, and includes recommendations for increased vetting of event speakers and heightened surveillance within University IT systems. More on this later.

A speight of recent news stories exposing Prevent’s thinly-veiled racial profiling is a marker of things to come. In September 2015 parents of a 14-year-old student began legal action after their child raised the topic of ‘eco-terrorism’ in a French lesson (a concept he had learnt about in the school debating society). The student was removed from the lesson, taken to an ‘inclusion centre’, and asked whether he was affiliated with ISIS.

In another incident, a number of primary schools participating in the so-named ‘BRIT’ project ('Building Resilience through Integration and Trust') were revealed to have been circulating ‘counter terrorism’ surveys to students. The surveys included questions which, Ananya Rao-Middleton (@ananya_RM) reports on Media Diversified were, “aimed at discerning the religious, ethical and even patriotic beliefs of the children taking part”. The survey asked students to say how far they agreed or disagreed with statements such as: “religious books are to be understood word for word” and “If a student was making fun of my race or religion, I would try to make them stop- even if it required hurting them”.

Of course, behind every new racist government initiative is a private company waiting to fill its already-bulging pockets. Rao-Middleton reveals that “One of several counter-terrorism software packages available on the market, ‘Impero’ (ironically translating to ‘Empire’ in Italian) is being marketed as a unique keyword-detection tool that teachers can install on school computers to monitor pupils for potential ‘extremist online activity’”.

The plot thickens: Impero designed its software in consultation with the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation arguably most well-known for its high-profile relationship with the ex-leader of the extreme right, Islamophobic fascist group the English Defence League. In 2010 the Quilliam Foundation sent a list of Muslim groups, politicians, a television channel and a Scotland Yard unit to a British security official, accusing them of sharing the ‘ideology of terrorists’. Impero, whose Twitter header photo in an not-so-non-sequitus non sequitur proudly flies the Union Jack, has created software which flags up users who have searched or typed terms such as ‘jihadi bride’ and ‘YODO’ (“You Only Die Once”). In addition, the software also has a 'confide' function, which encourages students to submit anonymous reports about their classmates. Other pieces of Impero software are already being used in 40% of schools in the UK, and Impero has so far been rolling out trials of the counter-terrorism package as a ‘free extra’.

The trend here seems to be the use of Prevent to stoke Islamophic fires, to crank up surveillance and break down trust within communities and workplaces, and to police both Islamic religiosity, and political dissent in many forms (including crackdowns on environmental and pro-Palestinian campaigners). Oh, and private companies making cash off racist government policy.

So, business as usual then.


By Leah Cowan


Additional resources:

Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) report on Prevent:

CAGE report on Prevent:

Institute of Race Relations (IRR) report on Prevent:

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