The UK’s Counter-Radicalization Strategy Just Failed; What Now?


Almost ten years ago, in the wake of the 2005 London transport bombings, the UK government under Tony Blair launched its ambitious “Prevent” strategy “to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism both in the UK and overseas.”

Its aim was to “increase the resilience of communities to violent extremism,” “address grievances, whether real or perceived,” and thereby “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” through a range of measures to support Muslim moderates. In military terms, Prevent was the “hearts and minds” element of a domestic counter-terrorism strategy. “We need to reach out and give greater support to the overwhelming majority [of Muslims] who are disgusted by terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam,” said one minister at the time. Tony Blair meanwhile spoke of the broader need to show that “religious faith is not inconsistent with reason, or progress”.

Fast forward seven years and the mood is darker. The current prime minister, David Cameron, has starkly described the war on Islamist extremism as a “generational struggle” which “we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime”. Meanwhile, the Prevent strategy, formerly the centrepiece of the UK’s ideological push-back against domestic jihadism, lies discredited and moribund. Nationwide spending on core Prevent work, namely grassroots community-based projects delivered through local councils, is a mere £ 1.7m for 2013/4, a 90 percent reduction from 2012/3 when £17m was spent, and a fraction of the 2008/9 high of £140m. The human cost of the failure of Prevent’s bold ambitions was further illustrated last month by a British jihadist’s involvement in the execution of the U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria. This was  followed by the similar murder of David Haines, a British aid worker, on 14 September. The killer was one of over 500 British jihadists in Iraq and Syria. Pointedly, on 29 August, the UK’s domestic terror threat rating was raised from “Substantial” to “Severe”, indicating that an attack on the UK was “highly likely.”

Significantly, the causes of Prevent’s failure share much in common with other Western attempts to strengthen liberal and democratic Muslim forces in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere over the past decade. These include:

  1. Choosing the wrong partners: Many of the government’s key Muslim partners had a limited interest in countering extremism. They saw Prevent as a money-making tool or as a means to advance their own profile. The “Active Change Foundation (ACF),” one of the most prominent “de-radicalization” providers, run by Hanif Qadir, a British Pakistani who had once fought for the Taliban and whose “counter-radicalization” work has been featured by CNN, is a case in point. One convicted extremist, Mizanur Rahman who was “de-radicalized” by Qadir after his release from prison later described his experiences:

Hanif Qadir actually attended one of my meetings with Waltham Forest probation. I met him every fortnight. He did nothing. I used to go to his office, sign my name in and go home. That was the extent of my de-radicalisation with Hanif … it’s just a face for the media, a money-making scheme.

Hanif denied these claims, but funding for ACF has since been sharply curtailed.

  1. Islamist subversion of new organizations: In several instances, new Muslim organizations seed-funded by the government were quickly co-opted by the very extremists they were supposed to tackle. For instance, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB), an “independent” organization founded by the government in 2006 to address radicalization in British mosques and funded with £174,000 ($290,000) of taxpayers’ money quickly fell under the control of Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood activists. MINAB’s output accordingly became a stream of alarmist statements on anti-Muslim attacks (a “slow-burning anti-Muslim pogrom”) and complaints about media coverage of extremism (its blanket dismissal of one BBC investigation of informal Sharia courts as “one-sided and unbalanced” was typical). MINAB, instead of tackling the very “grievances, whether real or perceived” that Prevent was meant to be tackling, was recklessly stoking them; in August, ostensibly in protest over events in Gaza, the group severed ties with the government that had created and funded it.
  2. Highly effective Islamist counter-campaigning: On Prevent’s launch, Islamists correctly identified the program as a potentially grave threat, put aside their differences, and launched a unified propaganda assault on it, sometimes in alliance with leftist activists. Particularly effective attacks conflated Prevent with existing anti-western conspiracy theories, describing Prevent as a neo-colonial “divide and conquer” strategy, while branding Prevent-funded moderate Muslims as “neo-conservatives” and “government stooges.” Likewise, criticism of particular Islamist ideologies, groups, and movements was successfully depicted as “Islamophobic” and as “demonizing” innocent Muslims. Ordinary Muslims, confronted with this barrage of propaganda, naturally began to regard Prevent programs with suspicion, sharply impacting Prevent’s reach and effectiveness.

Frustrated by such challenges, several of which are common to many other “hearts and minds” campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the UK Home Secretary Theresa May, sought to address these issues in 2011 as part of a last-ditch attempt to reform Prevent. May admitted that “funding sometimes even reached the very extremist organisations that Prevent should have been confronting” but promised that in future “we will not fund or work with organisations that do not subscribe to the core values of our society” and that the reworked Prevent would now also tackle “the insidious impact of non-violent extremism.” Three years on, despite some successes, even these modest goals are largely forgotten.

In place of its “counter-radicalization” strategy, the UK is now instead turning to traditional “repressive” police-based measures, effectively the domestic version of air-strikes without “boots on the ground.” In a series of rapid, arguably draconian moves, the UK government now plans to seize passports of would-be jihadists, forcibly relocate suspected extremists within the UK in a modern form of internal exile, and increase the security service’s surveillance powers. Significantly, the only substantial surviving remnant of Prevent is the “Channel” program, an apparently successful police-led initiative aimed at identifying and “de-programming” predominantly young, “late-stage,” radicalizing individuals who may be on the brink of turning to terrorism. Others have asked if and how the government should try to de-radicalize jihadists returning from Syria, even though de-radicalization efforts have generally produced mixed results at best.

The implications of the simultaneous winding down of Prevent and the enhanced focus on policing and, to a less extent, de-radicalization, point to a clear trend: after years of intensive effort and financial expense, the UK has effectively given up trying to stop jihadists from being created. Instead resources are being focused on trying to catch jihadists before they can strike. This is an admission of a grave defeat, not just for the UK but also for wider global counter-extremism efforts, many of which looked to Prevent as an example. It was the most significant domestic program ever undertaken by any Western country to foster a moderate version of Islam or to prevent Islamist radicalization. And it has failed.

This reluctant realization and the UK’s subsequent retreat from grassroots counter-extremism work have not occurred in isolation, however. It is paralleled by a wider Western reluctance to get closely engaged in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, which are also increasing regarded as unsolvable. Indeed, the UK’s shift from seeking to nurture a moderate Islam to simply trying to catch jihadists before they strike can also be seen as part of a broader ideological retreat by Western powers, the result of a decade of bruising and dispiriting encounters with radical Islam at home and abroad. Now, instead of seeking to seed democratic ideals and shape Muslim societies in a democratic quasi-Western image, the West’s focus is shifting toward protecting its own societies, primarily through security services rather than through any soft power while also hoping – as in Afghanistan – that the spectre of western withdrawal will encourage Muslim moderates to step up more vigorously themselves. No longer seeking to change Muslim societies or to influence how Islam is interpreted, Western governments are merely looking to limit the damage to their own societies and “contain” the jihadist problem, rather than cure it. Some may regard this as welcome step back from the ideological proselytization and pro-democratic evangelism of the George W. Bush era. However, it also represents a fundamental ideological defeat and a loss of self-confidence, not only in ourselves and our society, but in the broader human condition, and in the West’s potential to inspire, lead and occasionally chide or even coerce others down the path to greater democracy, liberty and more complete self-realization. More alarmingly, it also looks like a vote of no-confidence in Muslim moderates and liberals, or at least a recognition that the West can do relatively little to aid them.

Such “generational” macro-narratives aside, however, it is also unclear if a state or society can win an ideology-based conflict if it ceases defending, advocating, believing in, and seeking to spread its own ideals; historical examples tend to suggest the opposite. From a micro-level too, the UK’s new ideology-light, policing-heavy approach to tackling jihadism is intrinsically risky; however good the security services are at catching would-be jihadists, as long as fresh extremists are being constantly created, it is almost inevitable that some attackers will get through. As with the Syrian civil war, however, and 18 years after Bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of War, it is becoming ever more apparent there are no good, easy or simple options when it comes to tackling jihadism, only less bad ones, and all choices are in retrospect little more than informed gambles. The Prevent strategy, however flawed and over-ambitious, was a necessary gamble and the UK government has been right to question whether the gamble worked. However, the question now is whether junking Prevent and trying to tackle radicalization without a counter-radicalization strategy may turn out to be an even bigger gamble. Given the UK’s central role in modern jihadism, this is also a gamble that we are all have a stake in.

James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). He was formerly the director of research at Quilliam, the counter-extremism think tank. You can follow him on twitter at @thejamesbrandon


Photo credit: Ian T. McFarland