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Prevent: is it failing to stop terrorism?

“Born out of the 7/7 bombings in London that killed 52 people, the Prevent programme is one of the pillars of the Government’s counterterrorism strategy,” said The Times.

It works on the idea that “prevention is better than cure”: if potential terrorists can be spotted early, by teachers and social workers, they can be “educated away” from violence. “That is the theory.”

In practice, according to William Shawcross, author of a long-awaited review published last week, things “can be worryingly different”. Shawcross believes that Prevent must focus on its core remit, particularly on Islamist terrorism.

In recent years, he suggests, it has paid too much attention to far-right radicalism, which, while a problem, “poses a much less potent threat to life and limb”. There is a reluctance among some to identify potential Islamist terrorists, “for fear of being labelled racist”. Meanwhile, people voicing populist right-wing sentiments “too often end up being referred despite harbouring no violent intent”.

A ‘controversial’ strategy

Prevent is “naturally controversial”, said Brendan Cox in The Independent. Because it involves acting before a crime is committed, it is often caricatured as a kind of “thought police”. Yet it’s a voluntary programme – you have to agree to be referred – so it needs public support. And a perception that it is biased against Muslims “has plagued it since its inception”.

A thorough review would have been a very good thing. Sadly, the choice of Shawcross was unfortunate. In 2012, he described “Europe and Islam” as “one of the most terrifying problems of our future”; he has also defended the use of waterboarding at Guantánamo Bay. This made it almost impossible for his review to “hold credibility”.

‘Failing to prevent’

Even so, Shawcross is right, said Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times. Prevent is failing. “Of the 13 terrorist attacks on our shores in the past six years, seven were carried out by people who had previously been referred to Prevent.” Some groups it has funded have advocated Islamist extremism. It’s also focusing on the wrong people: only 22% of its referrals are of Islamists, compared with 80% of active investigations by counter-terrorist police.

It’s true that Prevent doesn’t work, said Kenan Malik in The Observer. It “too often fails to prevent that which should be prevented while attempting to prevent that which should be permissible”. For instance, it regards support for Palestine as a potential “warning light”, and it draws universities and schools into its intrusive system of surveillance. It’s not a review we need: it’s a “complete reassessment of counter-terror strategy”.

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