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The CONTEST Review: What Next for Prevent?

As the UK looks to update its counterterrorism strategy, there is a need to overhaul the current referral process and to reassess whether the UK’s definition of violent extremism reflects contemporary challenges.

Evolving threat: the terrorism landscape in the UK has changed significantly over the last decade. Image: Brian Jackson / Adobe Stock

This week the government announced a refresh of the UK’s counterterrorism (CT) strategy CONTEST. Periodic reviews of CONTEST are normal, and this one has reportedly been launched in large part to respond to the reality of ‘new, emerging and persistent threats’. Indications are that the review will be light touch (it is due to be completed by next year). Yet there is an argument that the government should consider a more radical refresh. Specifically, a case can be made for a review of the Prevent Pillar to ensure it is reaching individuals who are likely to go on to commit acts of terrorism. This does not mean prioritising one form of violent extremism (VE) over another, but would involve raising the threshold of evidence for the referral system to focus on cases where violence is referenced and exploring whether the UK’s definition of VE reflects contemporary concerns.

Is Prevent Fit for Purpose?

After 15 years of funding, there is limited evidence that programmes implemented under the Prevent Pillar – including the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP) and Channel – are working. Supporters point to the number of people who have passed through Prevent or Channel programmes. For example, since the introduction of the Prevent Duty in 2015, 3,037 referrals have been supported through the Channel Programme. However, the issue is proving that these programmes have helped to deter individuals away from violent groups and ideologies that could have resulted in harm – particularly since the operation of Prevent has not been made subject to evaluation. The UK is not alone in its lack of overall reporting. In fact, it is closer to the norm rather than the exception. The impact of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) interventions is often untested or poorly assessed, with the field suffering from limited information sharing, weak monitoring and evaluation regimes, and a general lack of longitudinal analysis hampering collective understandings of P/CVE outcomes. The most damning unpublished evaluation of Prevent is by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a company part-owned by the government. BIT studied 33 programmes in schools, youth centres, sports clubs and English-language classes across the UK. Of these, only two were found to be effective.

Added to this, critics – including human rights lawyers, some teachers and health workers, and representatives from the Muslim community – question whether those who are referred to Prevent are those who are most likely to go on to commit acts of terrorism. The criticism is fuelled by media reports of absurd cases in which students, almost always of Muslim background, have been questioned by the police after staff raised concerns – such as the four-year-old whose picture of a ‘cooker bomb’ turned out to be a cucumber.

In contrast to Islamic State and al-Qa’ida, which have a worldview and structure, some far-right ‘movements’ lack these features

While the UK has well-developed risk assessment tools, they are still based on incomplete data sets (often focused on male, criminal populations). As a result, they lack information on societal base rates for certain risk factors and fail to consider the impact of age and gender. Most importantly, practitioners agree that the knowledge and experience of the individuals performing the assessment is essential in generating reliable and consistent judgements. Though training exists, the statutory obligation on frontline professionals such as teachers, healthcare practitioners, social workers, the police, charities and civil society, psychologists, community leaders and others can contribute to a high number of ‘false positives’. In 2017–18, 40% of those discussed at a Prevent panel were redirected to other services. The situation has been exacerbated by the online space, where ideas and words are the focus and there is no clear understanding of how what people say they will do translates into violence. It is also striking that most terrorism offences are committed by individuals between the ages of 18 and 30, yet Prevent referrals involve a significant proportion of children, including those of primary school age.

Is Prevent Currently Suited to Tackle Emerging Threats?

The Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism as the ‘use or threat of action … designed to influence the government … or to intimidate the public or a section of the public … for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause’. The landscape has changed significantly since then. Today’s threat is ‘dominated by increasingly fragmented ideologies, self-initiated terrorism, and the reach of hateful online ideologies into the lives of the young people’. In contrast to Islamic State and al-Qa’ida, which have a worldview and structure, some far-right ‘movements’ lack these features. Of greater significance, however, is that the nature of violence related to these movements (low-impact and disjointed), and the impacts of institutional bias and racism in relation to the far right, mean that these issues have not historically triggered the same political and media responses as jihadist VE.

In the absence of a group structure or clear ideology, Prevention frontline practitioners and the police have often expended much energy on trying to determine and address individual motivation and whether it is driven by political, religious or ideological causes. This is often impossible given the complex, multidimensional factors that are involved and interplay in an individual’s radicalisation process – a fact which is exacerbated by the rise in lone actors expressing incoherent self-assembled ideologies that draw on different ideas and narratives. There is significant inertia within the existing system when it comes to deviating from ‘known’ threats, and the emphasis on countering ideas by dismantling structured ideological belief systems is of limited use here. A further avenue worth exploring concerns the relationship between mental health disorders and radicalisation, particularly among lone actors or single-issue-inspired attackers (such as animal rights, anti-abortion or environmentalist), and the implications for Prevent-type activities.

A Way Forward?

The threat posed by these different forms of extremism and whether they should be defined as terrorism is clearly worthy of review in relation to CONTEST. In contrast to the view of the Independent Reviewer of Prevent, William Shawcross (who is apparently concerned that there are more cases sent to Channel over extreme right-wing concerns, when CT investigations by police and MI5 frequently involve Islamist plots), this does not mean prioritising one form of VE over another. Rather, the UK needs to continue to acknowledge that terrorism comes in many forms and is influenced by many different ideologies.

There needs to be an overhaul of the current referral process to increase the burden of evidence for referral, and better training for frontline practitioners on signs of cumulative VE rather than one-off references

Instead, what is needed is an overhaul of the current referral process to increase the burden of evidence for referral – including a focus on cases where violence is suggested – and better training for frontline practitioners on signs of cumulative VE rather than one-off references, and on the manifestations of different forms of VE. Revising the definition of VE applied in the Prevent Duty in cooperation with civil society and communities most affected would also help. Steps to remove confusing references to the importance of upholding ‘British values’ as a litmus test for VE and redressing the over-emphasis on tackling extreme ideas as opposed to extreme behaviours are particularly important.

These measures could even pave the way for a future review concerning the ‘four P’ (Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare) structure – removing ‘upstream’ Prevention-based activities from CT and integrating desistance and disengagement activities (for example the DDP) into the Pursue Pillar. This is a radical step, but one that that may be worthy of consideration in due course.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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