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What will a counter-extremism policy look like? The view from inside government

by Paul Goodman

Enough of what I or anyone else think a counter-terror policy should look like.  What's Westminster and Whitehall's view?  And after the Prime Minister's Munich speech, what happens next?  I've been making some enquiries, and reach the following conclusions -

  • The debate over policy's usually presented as a choice.  As I've framed it, government works either to tackle the symptoms of violent extremism, in other words terror attacks themselves and the Al Qaeda operatives who lauch them, or the causes - including the Islamist ideology behind them, which spreads far wider than Al Qaeda.
  • It's not always seen like that inside government.  Some sources point out that one of the aims of the last Government's Prevent programme was to "challenge ideology".  So, they argue, it shared this one's objective of dealing with causes.  Another one of its aims was to "support interventions" - in other words, trying to prevent vulnerable people from being recruited for terror.  My take on this is that, under the last Government, non-violent Islamists were sometimes used to prevent violent ones from being thus recruited.  At worst, therefore, my analysis in the paragraph above is correct and, at best, policy was conflicted.  Certainly, one source referred to a "balance of advantage" in delivering these policy aims, which suggests a tension between them.
  • Since the change of government last May, the commitment to challenging ideology has apparently "broadened and deepened".  There are tougher banning criteria, a sharper approach to interventions, a more aggressive approach to the internet.  However, one senior source told me, "we haven't yet landed a policy that delivers", adding that "ideology is the hardest part to do".
  • The long-awaited Prevent review is due to be published in just over a month's time.  It will look "backwards and forwards", examining how successful the policy's been to date and establishing a framework for the future.
  • This leads, inevitably, to the effect of the Prime Minister's Munich speech on policy.  I wrote at the time that it announced nothing new - and was, in effect, a blunt message to government not to use non-violent Islamists to try and counter violent ones .  It's already had an effect.  Some projects are having money withdrawn.  I was told that "two or three" projects in one department that delivered projects need "scrutiny".
  • A key question is: how does government decide which organisations and people are extreme?  Must there not be consistent tests and, if so, what should they be?  To the extent that there've been tests  under this Government, they've been, so to speak, negative: those who want access to Ministers, or to share platforms with them, or enter the country, or receive taxpayers' money mustn't support attacks on our troops, or on civilians, or incite hatred and violence.
  • One senior source told me that government is now considering how to implement positive tests, along the lines of those set out in the Munich speech, perhaps to run alongside the negative ones.  Cameron said -

So we should properly judge these organisations: do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths?  Do they believe in equality of all before the law?  Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government?  Do they encourage integration or separation?

  • I was told: "We need a far wider knowledge base."  I took this to mean that government needs to be able to check whether assurances given by organisations and people are reliable, which is especially difficult in relation to one-to-one interventions.  Such checks can't be delivered without resources, and I read the sentiment as in part a plea for more Treasury cash.
  • Two key locations are Universities and prisons.  In Universities, stress is placed on the role of student unions in challenging extremists, and on the role of the authorities to know who's coming to speak on campus, and make sure views are opposed.  The institutional challenges in prisons are huge.  The National Offender Management Service has a programme for imams, but prisonsers will sometimes choose their own imams.  There are perhaps 100 Al Qaeda-linked prisoners, and some 8000 Muslim prisoners overall.  Some will be vulnerable to Islamist extremism...as will others who aren't Muslims at all.  (Many who claim terror in the name of Islam have no background in the religion at all.)  Prison officers are often not well versed in the issues.
  • The Whitehall consensus is that there's no single source of terror, but that there are three key components - the "ideological factor", vulnerable individuals and "interpersonal messages", sometimes delivered by charismatic exploiters (as opposed to the internet).  (Mohammed Sidique Khan, the 7/7 bomber, falls into this latter category.  Omar Bakri Mohammed, the terror leader formerly based in London, referred to targetting people for recruitment after their parents died.

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