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The Government's counter-terror strategy: Quite a bit done, a lot more to do

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-03-26 at 07.38.45Almost eight years ago, 52 innocents were murdered and hundreds injured by Islamist terrorists on 7/7.  Two years ago, David Cameron made a speech about the causes of that terror in Berlin - his so-called "Munich Speech".  In the years between the two events, debate raged both about policy responses to Al Qaeda terror - dividing politicians, civil servants, the security services, the police and academics into two main camps.

The last Government's CONTEST counter-terror strategy was divided into four strands (and remains so under this one) - Prepare, Protect, Pursue and Prevent.  It was this last that proved the most contentious.

One school of thought held that government could use the bad against the worst - in other words, non-violent extremists against the violent extremists of Al Qaeda.  Individuals and groups aligned with such Islamist movements as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat e-Islami had, it was argued, "credibility" with young British Muslims, and could help turn them against AQ - thus helping to prevent terror attacks.

Others disagreed, arguing that it would be disastrous for the state to fund or patronise movements that were ambiguous, to say the least, about liberal democracy, and held ideas about, for example, the place of women in society that were antithetical to it.  In Munich, David Cameron threw his weight decisively on the side of the second school, and against not only those who committed violent acts, but against those who supported the ideology that helped to underpin them.

There was resistance to his view among politicians - the Liberal Democrats didn't like his approach - and, more significantly, among parts of the civil service and security apparatus.  Making the right judgement call was one of the Prime Minister's best decisions, and forcing it through Whitehall saw him at most decisive and determined.

Two years on, then, the Government publishes today its annual report into CONTEST.  It covers the period from 2011 until the end of last year, and is thus the first report to cover the period of the new, post-Munich strategy.  I've read it, spoken to Home Office sources, and make the following points:

  • With Al Qaeda active in Africa (in Mali, for example) and Syria - which last year saw 600 AQ-linked attacks - it might be assumed that the focus of the threat to Britain from abroad has shifted decisively from Pakistan.  This isn't so.  Al Qaeda, I was told, is "depleted, but still a threat".  Terror training still takes place in parts of Pakistan.  Two men who received such training were convicted last month of planning mass bomb attacks.  My sources described recent plots as being "as grave as any we have seen since 9/11".
  • None the less, the continuing upheaval in Middle East - the so-called "Arab Spring" - has had consequences for the terror threat.  There are apparently "hundreds" of Jihadi fighters in Syria.  AQ groups and affiliates have raised some $60 million in ransom payments worldwide as a consequence of kidnappings - "an increasingly common terrorist tactic".  The number of British Muslims who have returned from fighting with terror groups abroad is estimated to be in the "high" hundreds.
  • Downing Street and Theresa May are evidently determined to put the new policy into effect, and officials clearly have a strong sense of what's expected of them.  The Home Office claims more convictions (at the violent extremism end of the spectrum) and more exclusions from Britain (at the non-violent end).  It told me that there are very few legal challenges to the latter.  Support for the Charity Commission's work against the diversion of funds to terrorist and extremist groups has "significantly increased".
  • Never underestimate what government simply doesn't know.  Extremist networks have now been mapped, including fascist and neo-nazi ones.  But this has only taken place since the last election.  Labour seems to have run its anti-terror policy for the five years between 9/11 and 2010 with only the most rudimentary sense of some of the problems that it was addressing.  The Government judges that "the terrorist threat to the UK from far right extremism is low in comparison to the threat from international terrorism".
  • Extremists continue to target prisons and Universities.  The report says that a "network of co-ordinators" is being put in place "to advise Higher and Further Education institutions about countering extremism".  That's a bit of a start.  I'm far from convinced that occasional OFSTED inspections in schools that teach in languages other than English are cracking the problem there.  Over 4000 URLs which breach terror legislation have been taken down.
  • Labour delivered much of its Prevent strategy through CLG.  The Government is sceptical of much of that programme, and in any event money is very tight.  But some local projects remain, now Home Office-funded and, following in the footsteps of the "Channel" programme, they tend to concentrate on at-risk individuals.  The Government's integration policy is very localist in flavour - Labour would have called much of it cohesion policy - and there are thus very few means of measuring what works and what doesn't.


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