Cllr Paul Mercer is councillor in Loughborough. 

The ‘Prevent’ programme was launched publicly after the 2005 London bombings as part of a new counter-terrorism strategy to help identify individuals being radicalised by extremists in mosques and universities. One part of its approach was to encourage reports of suspicious activity at a local level to be passed to the police. This has probably helped thwart many terrorist attacks. In order to work it was important for those who come into contact with members of the public to be aware of the Prevent strategy which is why councillors are periodically given the appropriate training.

In Charnwood, our Prevent activities are coordinated by Leicestershire Police who train our ‘community safety’ officers and they provide training to councillors who are regarded as ‘community leaders’. Leicestershire, in turn, is covered by the police’s East Midlands Special Operations Unit (EMSOU) which provides leadership on how best to address these issues.

Having gone through one of these training courses and seen the latest guidance to be produced by EMSOU there appeared to be a desire to broaden the definition of terrorism to include non-violent protest groups. It was also hard not to conclude at the end of the session that looking for evidence of Islamist extremism was just one small part of the objective and instead we should closely monitor anyone who has remotely ‘radical’ views.

Leicestershire Police recently circulated advice from EMSOU about the “specific signs to look out for as part of a campaign to tackle terrorism and domestic extremism”. Remarkably, there was not one single reference to Islamist terrorism.

The note reported that “national statistics suggest anxiety about terrorism is high at 83 per cent” but failed to provide a source. When I questioned the Leicestershire Prevent team, EMSOU sent me a pdf – the national pack for the ‘Action Counters Terrorism’ public awareness campaign – which revealed “in January 2018, Wavemaker conducted an online study with over a thousand UK adults across the country”.

Wavemaker UK is described by WPP as its new “billion dollar-revenue next generation agency that sits at the intersection of media, content and technology” and this appears to be the only reference to its involvement in ‘Action Counters Terrorism’.

Wavemaker UK’s ‘online study’ may be accurate but without seeing the question or any comparison over a period of time it is unlikely that this one-off survey can indicate that anxiety is any higher or lower than has been in the past. Moreover, if the Wavemaker UK online survey is accurate, it suggests that despite spending over £15 billion a year fighting terrorism, the public has little confidence in the Government’s ability to respond to the threat.

A more recent and probably more authoritative IposMORI poll, carried out in February, indicated that only 33 per cent of those questioned were concerned about terrorism and 21 per cent about a ‘rise of extremism’. There was far more concern expressed about domestic issues. In the United States, Gallup has been carrying out poll of the public’s anxiety about terrorism for two decades and even immediately after 9/11 it only reached 58 per cent.

Using briefing notes provided by EMSOU, Charnwood’s ‘community safety’ officers gave a presentation on Prevent and the need to tackle extremism. It promoted ‘Channel’ which was designed to “safeguard individuals who may be vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists”. According to the literature its objective was to “ensure that individuals and communities have the resilience to resist all forms of violent extremism whether it is far-right extremism, Irish-related, Al Qaeda-inspired, animal rights, environmental or any other form”. In other words, it was lumping together animal rights and environmentalists with Al Qaeda and anything Irish, but not mentioning the far more dangerous Islamic State.

The document gave two ‘case studies’. The first related to Dorian, aged 32, who “was given support by local individuals linked to far right extremism” after his father died. He became involved with their “group” and he “was promoted to the role of radicaliser”. At English Defence League marches he was “easily able to exploit common public concerns and grievances about unemployment, immigration and other Government policies”. He was then about to carry out a “violent attack”, had a mental breakdown and over 18 months Channel “offered a tailored programme of care, guidance and support”.

The second case was Ismaa’iyl, a “young Muslim from Afghanistan” who “blamed David Cameron personally for his financial situation” and wanted to return home and “fight against British troops and kill them”. It was decided that he too had mental health issues and “his desire to join violent jihad was identified as an expression of his frustration”. After “taking medication” he was no longer regarded as a problem.

The word Islamist did not appear in the document but it made two references to “far-right extremism”.

At our training session we were told to look for factors which could make people vulnerable to recruitment by these radical groups. It included “changes in behaviour and friendships”, “issues of personal identity”, mental health issues and “supporting violence”.

We were then given examples of these ‘terrorists’ that we should be looking out for. They included an animal rights activist, who had been imprisoned for conspiracy, and a far-right activist (whose name was miss-spelt) who, we were mistakenly told, received a two-year sentence as part of a plot to poison the water supply with ricin. In fact, he was convicted under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 of three counts of ‘possessing information useful in committing or preparing terror acts’. These included The Poor Man’s James Bond and the Anarchist Cookbook – both of which the judge noted during the case can still be bought on Amazon.

Any political movement can produce extremists and some might resort to violence. But because some individual might, does not necessarily mean that the whole movement should be categorised as ‘extremist’. In 1977, when the former leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, was charged with incitement to murder, under the present police logic it too would be added to the list of ‘violent extremist’ groups. Likewise, in 2006, a ‘peace’ activist received a custodial sentence after carrying out an unprovoked attack on a musician leaving him brain-damaged and unable to walk.

There are many unsavoury and extreme individuals prone to violence amongst the far-right as indeed there are some amongst animal rights, environmental and many other different political movements in the UK. Is this a reason to lump them all together with Al Qaeda and regard them all as ‘terrorists’?

Terrorist attacks often provoke a response in which the people perceived to be responsible are targeted. The majority of recent physical attacks on Muslims in the UK appear to be mindless revenge attacks, often carried out by individuals with mental issues. Likewise, in Leicester, there have been attacks on Muslims by Sikhs, following allegations of child grooming, although they have yet to be categorised as ‘terrorists’ even though their motivation appears to be no different.

Since 1975, Searchlight magazine has been exposing the extreme right in the UK and from its early days it has been exposing alleged plans by obscure neo-Nazi groups in the UK to carry out violent attacks on their perceived enemies. Although its sources may have been reliable few if any of these reports ever resulted in anything except badly-attended protests. Within these groups this mindless rhetoric and planning for a ‘race war’ continues and the only difference today is that the police, and now the security services, are monitoring their activities very closely. So just when support for the British National Party and English Defence League collapses, the police are warning of a growing threat from the extreme right.

Since 2005, 117 people have died from terrorist incidents in the United Kingdom. Of these, 82.1 per cent were carried out by Islamic extremists, 15.4 per cent were in Northern Ireland and 2.5 per cent were by white extremists. Of the three white extremist attacks, in 2013, 2016 and 2017, all were individuals with mental health issues rather than by active members of far-right groups.

Therefore, the chance of being killed in a terrorist incident in the UK in one year is 0.000013 per cent; and the chance of being killed by a far-right activist is 0.00000038 per cent.

Compared to being killed by a terrorist, you are 275 times more likely to die in a transport accident; 33 times more likely to die in a fire; 18 times more likely to die of swine flu; and seven times more likely to die in police custody.

Since it was introduced, the Prevent programme has been criticised for focusing on Islamist extremists which, given that they have been responsible for 96.9 per cent of mainland terrorist deaths, seems to be a reasonable assumption. This criticism has increased in recent years and in 2017 the Government recently said that there would be an “uplift” in Prevent – whatever that means – in order to continue its “good work”.

What appears to be happening is that for reasons of political correctness the Home Office has subtly extended Prevent’s remit to cover far more groups, many of which are clearly not engaged in violent protest let alone terrorism. Although this exercise may succeed in countering criticism and identify more people who can be prosecuted under Section 58, it is difficult to see how directing attention away from potential real terrorists is ever going to make us any safer.