Mike Yeomans is a researcher on violent extremism and terrorism, focussing on jihadism and the Middle East.
The Prevent Strategy and the Channel radicalisation-avoidance programme are the main parts of the Government’s programme to counter violent extremism – by helping to intervene and re-educate those on the path to radicalisation. Channel’s success depends on citizens supporting it, so that they look out for one another, identify those at risk of becoming radicalised, and help to ensure that they get expert support to avoid harm. Without support the system cannot work, since the reporting of those at risk will not occur.
Unfortunately, the programme has lacked support – with widespread condemnation in parts of the media – as it purportedly demonises Muslims and creates a police state by forcing teachers to spy on their pupils.
At heart, Prevent is a very sound strategy, bu at profound misunderstanding of what it does and how it works has undermined its success, due to a total misperception. Presently seen as an exercise in counter-terrorism, the strategy should instead be understood as part of the duty of care that we have for the vulnerable in society.
To compare: if a child (or any vulnerable person) displayed signs of being groomed sexually, then nobody would hesitate to intervene so as to guarantee the child’s safety. Intervention doesn’t mean that anybody is going to prison, or that the police necessarily get involved: rather, it means an investigation occurs to ensure the child’s wellbeing is not at risk. If nothing sinister is going on, then all is well. But if something were wrong, then it would be a tragedy (and dereliction of duty) to risk the child’s safety by failing to escalate the concerns.
Prevent and Channel work on the same principle. If a child (or adult) displayed signs of glamourising Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden (and being ensnared by any dangerous ideology, not just radical Islam), then any responsible adult would surely fear for the child’s wellbeing, since the child may be at risk of harmful indoctrination. To not do so would be negligent. The child cannot be arrested at this stage but they may need the help that being referred to a trained expert provides.
For cases in which help is needed, a “Channel panel” is typically formed, with representatives from local government, health, and social sectors present (this is very similar to the multi-agency partnerships that exist in the Every Child Matters frameworks to protect the wellbeing of children). The panel assesses referrals for risk and 80 per cent of the time finds a false alarm. But in the 20 per cent of cases where there is a risk, the panel invites the individual to participate to prevent radicalisation. The process is completely voluntary, and the individual can refuse to participate without being criminalised.
Once begun, a tailored programme is created, with the individual matched to an expert mentor who explains and challenges the dangerous ideology to help the referee realise why such thinking is undesirable or wrong. The process takes time, but has proven results, with people being led away from thoughts such as Holocaust denial, or the endorsement of suicide bombings.
So, given the voluntary, supportive nature of the programme, why does it reviled? The main criticisms seem to be that the programme accuses Muslims of being terrorists, that it involves thought-policing, and that teachers must spy on their pupils. None of these are very fair.
Nationally, 56 per cet of referrals are from Muslim communities. This is not the proportion going through Channel (which is not publicly disclosed), but rather reflects what people report to Channel, as well as views of the public of radicalisation rather than how the strategy operates. Remaining referrals are mostly for those displaying signs of neo-Nazism. The numbers vary regionally too, with neo-Nazi referrals greater for localities more often associated with racially-motivated crime, and Islamist referrals from areas of the country more densely populated by people adhering to Islam.
Teachers are afraid. They now have a duty to manage this, with OFSTED threatening serious implications for those failing to perform. However, central government is woefully inadequate at providing training over just what or how to carry out the duties under Prevent or Channel. Terrified of being penalised and unsure how to act, a perception has occurred that spying is necessary when, in reality, teachers simply need to do almost the same as they would in cases of suspected paedophilia (that’s to say, report it appropriately).
All this has given rise to a profound misunderstanding, giving Prevent and Channel a sinister reputation that destroys its effectiveness. Instead of it being supported, the public has been alienated. And since the strategy depends on public support to look out for fellow citizens at risk from terrorist recruiters, this is a real tragedy. The scheme can only be used by those willing to accept help; it does not criminalise; it helps stop terrorist grooming. Given that, it’s time everyone line up to support both the strategy – and those who may need it.