The Prevent programme is the government’s main strategy for combating terrorism. Since its launch in 2006, it has been heavily criticised. This criticism has been fairly wide ranging, coming from, for instance, the parents of children referred to social services for innocently wearing a T-shirt saying: ‘I want to be like Abu Bakr al-Siddique’ (Abu Bakr al- Siddique was a key figure in the first years after the death of Mohamed, and not the same as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – just like Harold Wilson and Harold Shipman are not the same person). Community groups that oppose Prevent, like CAGE and MEND, have been joined by the NUT and even by the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, and Dal Babu, a previous superintendent of the Metropolitan Police.
There are two key problems with the Prevent strategy that critics of the programme have repeatedly brought to the attention of the UK government. First, the programme has a very simplistic understanding of the radicalisation process, based on the discredited theory of radicalisation that holds that exposure to an extremist ideology or ideas cause people to become terrorists. To that end, anybody exposed to such ideas falls under suspicion and even the discussion of extremist ideas, necessary to counter them, is legislated against. The UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, has noted that this “creates unease and uncertainty around what can be legitimately discussed in public” and risks “promoting extremism, rather than countering it”.
The second major problem with the Prevent programme, however, is its narrow focus. Aside from dangerous eco- terrorists like Caroline Lucas (who was labelled an extremist by police during a Prevent training session for teachers in 2015), the strategy is mainly focused on Islamic terrorism. In the UK, terrorist threats also exist from right-wing extremism, for example. The Prevent programme did nothing to prevent the killing of Jo Cox, and currently does nothing to scrutinise the vocal hate groups like the EDF and similar organisations.
By continuing with the Prevent programme in its current form, the government is like a doctor trying to treat a bacterial infection in a community by applying leeches haphazardly to a handful of random people in the street, inevitably using an inappropriate approach on the wrong people.