Terrorism ain’t what it used to be. Not precisely, anyway. Instead of suicidal jihadists, it’s white supremacists and neo-Nazis who are making the running. Over the last three years, Europol, the FBI and MI5 have all said that far-right terror plots are multiplying faster than Islamist ones.
The shift complicates an already challenging set of riddles. Government efforts to combat terrorism have focused for two decades on people who act in Islam’s name. And though politicians and police regularly speak of winning hearts and minds, suspicion of surveillance and entrapment operations has become entrenched in Muslim communities. Tracking the far right’s surge is essential, but reshaping counter-terror while maintaining public confidence and safeguarding civil liberties isn’t going to be easy.
The government announced in January that the independent review into the Prevent strategy – its anti-radicalisation programme – is to be conducted by William Shawcross: an author, journalist and former head of the Charity Commission.
But Shawcross feels like a baffling choice. No candidate would have commanded universal respect, but he’s a deeply divisive figure. He’s supported waterboarding at Guantánamo Bay, and his polemics of the Eurabia/Londonistan variety are still capable of alienating even the most laid-back British Muslim. A 2006 article for the Jerusalem Post warned of a “vast fifth column” of Muslims in Europe who “wish to destroy us”. A National Review lament written four years later described “Britain’s humiliation” by mass immigration and multiculturalism.
The outbursts subsided during Shawcross’s time at the Charity Commission, but the controversies rumbled on: throughout his six-year tenure from 2012, critics complained that the commission focused disproportionately on the flaws of Islamic charities.
Shawcross now says he looks forward “to hearing from a wide range of voices, particularly those who have had experience of Prevent in practice”. Quite predictably, however, that’s not about to happen. Seventeen human rights and community organisations – including Liberty and Amnesty International – have said they won’t talk to him.
So why was he offered the job? Perhaps the simplest explanation is expediency: the Home Office’s first choice stood aside after a legal challenge and Shawcross is what the government would consider a safe pair of hands. (He’s an Old Etonian who’s friends with Michael Gove, and a habitué of rightwing thinktanks Policy Exchange and the Henry Jackson Society; his interview will have gone smoothly.) Apparent indifference to complaints of Islamophobia within the Conservative party may also have played its part. Someone may well have calculated that antagonising Muslims and human rights activists is more likely to attract Tory votes than lose them.
The appointment illustrates more than what looks like cynical cronyism, however. To appreciate why, a potted history is helpful. Since the Prevent strategy assumed its current form in 2015, it has sought to identify risks before they escalate into violence. This has hindered a lot of peaceful activity. Organisations ostensibly opposed to terrorism now face defunding if they demonstrate “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”, which are said to include “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs”.
A corresponding obligation to monitor radicalisation risks has similarly been imposed on public sector employees. That’s turned hospital wards and prisons into ideological frontlines. In schools, teachers are duty-bound to both encourage open debate and report on dangerous opinions – a clear contradiction. Thousands of pupils have been affected, and more than 600 referred to Channel, a complementary deradicalisation programme, were under the age of six. Some may have been vulnerable, but one was a four-year-old who’d just got over-excited about the video game Fortnite.
Many Muslims are understandably angry at the intrusiveness. Yet wholesale opposition to Prevent might also be wrong. As was vividly apparent in 2015, when at least 700 British citizens were living in Isis’s pseudo-caliphate, too many religiously deluded young Muslims have been inspired to kill, or to chance death. A reluctance to intervene before anything happens lingers in some quarters, and that’s still dangerous – not least to Muslims themselves.
Should the downsides of disengagement need emphasis, Prevent statistics provide it: last year, while 30% of the people deemed to be at risk of hateful radicalisation came from Islamic backgrounds, 43% were potential far-right extremists. The dangers behind the figures ought to be recognised and addressed – because we’re all at risk when frustrations turn to violence.
These prickly matters merit a wide-ranging dialogue – yet Shawcross’s apparent contempt for civil liberties is sure to compound distrust among the vulnerable individuals that Prevent is supposedly meant to protect. His inclination to link terrorism and Islam also makes him ill-equipped to assess emerging racist and neo-fascist dangers. The only people likely to find his conclusions persuasive are those who already share his views.
Shawcross isn’t to blame for the flawed process that resulted in his selection, of course. Fault in that regard lies with the government alone. And though ministers have had plenty else to think about, it reflects a complacency at the top. National security threats are mutating as quietly and unpredictably as any virus. That’s why parliament formally required the Home Office to appoint an independent reviewer of Prevent.
However, far from concentrating minds, this legal obligation has now led the Home Office, under Priti Patel, to install an appointee who’s more rubber-stamp than reviewer. The UK’s most senior counter-terrorism police officer, Neil Basu, is among those who’s worried. “Only when all sides of the discussion are heard can this review achieve what it sets out to achieve,” he said. And he’s right to be concerned. If the government won’t take its own security legislation seriously, malevolent forces might end up more likely to ignore the law too.