Bruce Newsome is Lecturer in International Relations, at the University of California, Berkeley.
Ahead of the general election on 8th June, the Conservative Party manifesto’s only mention of “counter-terrorism strategy” was a promise to “maintain and develop” it, even though most of “it” has gone unchanged since the rash of innovations under the Labour government of Tony Blair – up to 16 years ago.
Following the killings of seven people by three men driving a van and wielding knives around London Bridge on 3rd June, Prime Minister Theresa May stated that “enough is enough” of “Islamist-inspired terrorism,” and vowed to review counter-terrorism strategy. But she offered no new policy, except to retrench her long-standing commitment to countering extremism in “cyberspace” (a proposal criticised this week by the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation), even though cyberspace was neither sufficient nor necessary to any of the three deadly attacks this year.
Meanwhile, the other parties have plenty of criticisms but practically no alternative counter-terrorist policies. Jeremy Corbyn blamed the London Bridge attack on austerity; a couple of weeks earlier, after the suicide bombing in Manchester, he had blamed terrorism on foreign policy. Tim Farron seconded Corbyn’s call (and Caroline Lucas recently joined the chorus) for the release of an official report into foreign government funding of British extremism, on which they are right (we already have a private report proving foreign-funded Islamist extremism in the UK), but their focus on abroad is a convenient diversion from their own histories of voting down increased counter-terrorist powers at home. Their manifestos had committed to watering down legacy programs in favour of vague “community” approaches, because of supposed discrimination against Muslims particularly.
The real discrimination is against secular Muslims. The Government engages British Muslims as a whole through self-appointed leaders of politicised religious groups that are convenient to Government but are not representative of most British Muslims, who rightly treat religion as a private, not political, affair, and may not even identify with the sect that inevitably is over-represented in one of these groups or another. These leaders are known, misleadingly, in official justifications and news releases as “faith leaders” or “community leaders.” As noted by Nazir Afzal (the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England), the Muslim Council of Britain’s most recent annual meeting (2016) did not table any discussion of extremism, while “men with long beards sermonising in mosques are no more representative of the community these days than Mickey Mouse is.” Treating British Muslims as homogenous because they are Muslims only helps the extremists’ claim that they should never integrate because they are Muslims.
The Government counters extremists initially through the Prevent programme, but referrals are voluntary, most referrals are not treated as potential terrorists, and even the admitted extremists are subject to little more than verbal warnings or talk therapy, while some eventual terrorists escape the programme. Salman Abedi, who blew himself up in Manchester on 22nd May, was not in the Prevent programme, despite allegedly extremist family members, being reported to police for extremism, engaging in crime, travelling to fight in a failed state (Libya), and meeting in Libya with the same Islamic State terrorists involved in the killings in Paris in November 2015. Various people have claimed to have reported him to the Prevent programme, but officials deny receiving any such reports, although he was known for other criminal behaviour.
Similarly, the three London Bridge killers were known extremists but were not in Prevent. A friend claimed to have telephoned the anti-terror hotline after Khuram Butt talked about his views of ISIS-inspired terror attacks and watched videos of the American extremist Ahmad Musa Jibril. Another neighbour claimed she had contacted police after he tried to convert her children to Islam. Earlier, he was filmed for a documentary with a group of other British Muslims praying in front of a Jihadi flag in a London park, and confronting police; some of these men reportedly travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State. Notes carried by a detective leaving a suspect’s home, captured by a photographer, show that he was questioned last year for his extremist views, and his passport was confiscated, but none of that prevented him from attacking at home.
Criticisms of Prevent have tended to prejudices: that all officials are either incompetent or racist – either they ignore the public’s legitimate warnings or they pursue illegitimate biases against Muslims. These prejudices are stoked by those who invent narratives or pretend to be moderates working against extremism, helped by journalists who celebrate anybody who claims to have countered extremism or been the victim of Government. For instance, the Manchester bomber worshipped at Didsbury Mosque, where principals were falling over each other to claim that they had reported him to officials, but the mosque later confirmed that nobody there had reported him. This was the same mosque where a member of the audience on the BBC’s Question Time claimed to have been handed a leaflet condemning western lifestyles (this was disputed by a different member of the audience who claimed to have worshipped there for years without seeing anything but moderation – David Dimbleby angered the original claimant by saying “we don’t know who handed it to you…we don’t know where that leaflet came from”).
Here is a list of eight principles that should guide the Government’s next counter-terrorism policy:
- The Government should stop prioritising cyberspace for counter-extremism. This is the space in which investigators go looking for intelligence, so the Government should seek more co-operation from social media in gathering that intelligence. However, no expert on either cyberspace or terrorism thinks that we can stop extremism in an essentially ungovernable space. To think otherwise leads to useless waste of resources, legislating “hate crimes” that become ever vaguer, and persecuting free speech.
- The Government should stop relying on voluntary referrals or the anti-scientific claim that there is no predictable path to terrorism, and should start profiling the behaviours that together indicate risk, so that officials could be alerted to intervene without a public referral.
- The Government should stop treating extremism as a difference of values that can be talked out without confrontation, and should emphasise the rule of law. Usually extremism manifests as crimes short of terrorism, some of which routinely go unpunished, such as incitement to violence, disrupting traffic, or fraudulently claiming benefits that are bankrolling extremism. These are opportunities for official disincentivisation. Extremism-without-consequences encourages more extremism and undermines the rule of law.
- The Government should stop engaging self-appointed politicised religious intermediaries and start communicating with British Muslims directly through regular media, as it communicates with all Britons.
- If the Government needs to engage a particular local community, it should promote secular champions, not “faith leaders.”
- The Government should stop funding faith groups and religious schools. Why is a Conservative government promoting the religious separation that started under Tony Blair?
- The Government should stop extremist foreign governments from funding extremist forms of Islam in the guise of charity or aid. Resourcing for one form of Islam alone is discriminatory at least, and destabilising at worst.
- Governments and apologists should stop urging society to carry on as normal, show resilience, unite, show defiance, or organise a vigil. Terrorism is unacceptable – stop treating it as normal.