04/06/2018 14:36 BST | Updated 04/06/2018 14:36 BST

The 'Contest' Strategy Signals A Zero-Tolerance Approach Towards Extremism

Extremism has no place in our society. Intolerance should not go uncriticised in public life

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The launch today of a strengthened counter-terrorism strategy by a new Home Secretary on the surface might look procedural. Delve deeper though and we can see a clear push back by the Government against critics of the counter-radicalisation programme, known as Prevent – designed to deter individuals from supporting terrorism – and against those who wrongly claim to speak for British Muslims.

Coinciding with the first anniversary of the London Bridge attack, the new Contest strategy reflects the lessons learned from the horrific events of last year – and changes are, for the most part, pragmatic and proportionate to the evolving threat. Better data-sharing, for example, and increased pressure on tech companies to tackle terrorist content online are important responses to key changes in the ways terrorists now behave (as recommended by Policy Exchange on our 2017 report, The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online).

Today, the scale of the threat is unprecedented. More individuals, acting with a high level of volatility, can carry out attacks more quickly than the security services are able to detect them. An extra 2,000 security officials are intended to make up that shortfall, while plans to share intelligence-derived data across government and local agencies – as suggested in David Anderson QC’s review of last year’s attacks – allow for information to be shared to spot potentially dangerous behaviour earlier and increase opportunities for intervention.

These changes recognise the new context for terrorism. The lines between Prevent, the “soft” end of counter-terrorism, and Pursue, the “hard” investigatory arm of Contest, are increasingly blurred. Enabled by the internet, the processes of radicalisation now happen at speed and individuals can find themselves both the target of terrorist grooming and the subject of a police investigation. Manchester bomber Salman Abedi was among the 20,000 so-called closed subjects of interest whom the security services are worried may seek to re-engage, while the would-be Parsons Green bomber Ahmed Hassan – who told officials of his time at an Islamic State training school on arrival in the UK – needed both safeguarding and police investigation. 

There is also another push to get tech companies to take more responsibility for extremist material on their platforms. Recent cases, such as the Finsbury Park attacker Darren Osborne and the Ripple Road mosque ‘teacher’ Umar Haque, demonstrate the reach of such online propaganda – Umar Haque tried to raise an “army” of jihadi schoolchildren by showing them Islamic State beheading videos. Increased collaboration with tech companies should be welcomed – but, realistically, this is never going to work on its own. To date, there’s not been a single direct referral to British police by any social media company about potential terrorist content. 

Crucially, however, the new strategy reaffirms the Government’s commitment to a preventative approach to tackling terrorism. Despite concerted campaigns against Prevent from Islamist-sympathising voices and others, today’s announcement by the UK’s first Home Secretary of Muslim background, Sajid Javid, signals a zero-tolerance approach towards all forms of extremism, including the far-right – an approach that prioritises identifying and deterring extremists before they strike, as well as challenging the extremist narratives that can act as drivers of terrorism.

Ever since former Prime Minister David Cameron overhauled Prevent in 2011, cutting off patronage from so-called representative Muslim groups who endorsed extremist or intolerant positions – such as calling for the deaths of British troops overseas – the strategy has come under relentless criticism, often from those unhappy at no longer being partners. This included organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and others, whose Islamist grievance-mongering or intolerance towards Jews, homosexuals or other Muslims, for example, were overlooked because they were thought to act as a bulwark against jihadist violence on British shores.

The introduction of the Prevent duty on public sector bodies in 2015 galvanised its opponents, and it was far from a fait accompli that the Cameron approach would survive his departure from office a year later. Groups such as Cage – that infamously described Jihadi John, the Islamic State executioner, as a ‘beautiful young man’ – and MEND have since led a campaign of misinformation that characterises Prevent as an attack on Muslims, and they secured support from public sector activists as well as elements on the political left. Recent errors in judgment saw leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn host MEND in Parliament. MEND has been accused by some of associating itself with individuals who have espoused extremist or intolerant views – and the group’s former director lost a libel case following comments he made supporting the killing of British and American soldiers in Iraq by fellow Muslims.

Last year, those previously sidelined by Cameron’s policies also sensed a weakened Government consumed by Brexit. Home Office officials were on the verge of reversing long-standing policy by re-engaging with the MCB, after the group was originally cut off in 2009 when one leader signed a statement which appeared to condone violence against UK armed forces were they to support an arms blockade against Gaza. Sajid Javid’s comments to the BBC on Sunday, however, show renewed resolve. Addressing allegations that the Conservative Party has an Islamophobia problem, he said he would be suspicious of anything the MCB says, “not least because [...] too many of their members have had favourable comments on extremism and that is not acceptable.”

A group claiming to represent British Muslims, the MCB is actually a self-appointed group of ideological hardliners out of step with the mainstream, moderate majority of British Muslims. MCB leaders still downplay the full threat from extremism and displayintolerance towards Ahmadiyya Muslims – all while denouncing any criticism as “Islamophobic”. In 2016, Policy Exchange did one of the largest quantitative and qualitative surveys ever of British Muslim communities – and found that a mere 4% of Muslims believed the MCB represented them.

But we should not be complacent. The new strategy includes plans to transfer administrative and budgetary responsibility for Channel, the Government’s de-radicalisation programme, from the police to local authorities. While this will see one-on-one interventions with vulnerable individuals more appropriately located within safeguarding rather than security structures, it requires clear criteria for engagement and due diligence. Too often those who espouse extremist Islamist positions remain in influential advisory positions at a local level in the name of community engagement. In Lewisham, one extremist imam – whom a High Court judge found had advocated armed jihad as a religious duty – was a member of the local religious education advisory board. Would Lewisham Council consider him an appropriate Channel partner?

Today’s launch is a victory for pluralist, anti-extremist voices over regressive Islamist narratives. But it is a victory that requires constant vigilance. Extremism has no place in our society. Intolerance should not go uncriticised in public life. As the new strategy is implemented, the Government and all its institutions need to be careful that those who they are seen to endorse cannot be accused of promoting either.

Hannah Stuart is Co-Head of Security and Extremism at Policy Exchange