If Prevent is so bad, why do other countries want to copy it?

The UK’s comprehensive strategy for counter-extremism and preventing radicalisation, otherwise known as the Prevent strategy, is almost unique among Western nations. Through the Channel programme, Prevent aims to intervene where individuals are at risk of radicalisation in order to divert people away from violence. Although Prevent has become one of the most controversial and heavily criticised pieces of government policy in recent years, other nations around the world are still seeking to emulate it and implement their own version of Prevent. There is very good reason for this.

The strategy is certainly not without its flaws, and of course no piece of government policy should be above scrutiny or criticism. However, too much of the loudest criticism (read: outrage), over Prevent is not actually based on a realistic representation of how it works on the ground. Some of the most high profile controversies around Prevent, such as the now infamous ‘terrorist house’ incident, have either had the facts distorted beyond recognition or were built on half-truths to begin with.

Frankly, taking a quick look at the biographies of some of the individuals and groups leading the chorus of outrage and discontent, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that many of the critics are actually opposed to any and all attempts by the British state to counter-extremism, rather than just the implementation of the Prevent Strategy per se.

This being said, the idea that individuals at risk of radicalisation should be referred as a safeguarding concern, potentially for expressing certain views and political ideas, can certainly seem counter-intuitive at first to many who do not fall into the above category.

There have no doubt been a number of misguided referrals, though these are more often than not the growing pains of what is a relatively new area for many institutions and services. Those fielding these referrals have no control over how or why a referral might come their way — but it is possible to control the response, so that it is both proportionate and appropriate. Most of the time, this is exactly what happens.

For example, we are not going to intervene if someone is mistakenly referred for reading a terrorism textbook, and such individuals certainly aren’t getting put on on any kind of ‘watch lists’ (a common misconception).

On the other hand, as a society, can we comfortably ignore it when a child is writing of their ambitions to grow up to become a suicide bomber? Such an incident needs a societal response; not a policing response, but a supportive one, and there must be a programme providing the necessary resources for such a response. This is Prevent.

Of course, it would be preferable if there were no need for Prevent whatsoever; but with hundreds of Britons attracted to genocidal groups like ISIS, the fact remains that Prevent is an essential tool which can fill the gaping hole between inaction and arrest.

Other European countries are now looking to replicate their own Prevent strategy, and across the Atlantic, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety has recently injected a large amount of funding into counter-extremism and radicalisation work; à la Prevent. The city of Minneapolis in Minnesota presents an interesting case: while rates of ‘home grown’ support for al-Qaeda/Islamic State ideologies have been comparatively lower in the US than in much of Europe, Minneapolis itself has long grappled with its own extremism problem.

To understand the need for Prevent, we need to look at parts of the world where there is no such thing. Minneapolis can offer that glimpse into the need for a middle route, when individuals are at risk of becoming involved in terrorism. Practically speaking, there is the issue of resources. From a policing perspective, every minute spent on a case involving a young impressionable individual is a minute not spent in pursuit of genuine violent radicals who may pose a more immediate threat to the public.

What’s more, when the authorities do not have the toolkit to intervene with at-risk individuals, families are sometimes forced to take matters into their own hands. In one such instance, having been informed by the FBI that he was planning to reach Syria, one Minneapolis family quite literally ‘beat up’ their son to stop him from boarding a plane to California (taking his passport and wallet in the process). The teen was eventually arrested and is currently facing charges for material support for terrorism, which could land him 20 years behind bars. However, it is possible that the sort of early intervention offered through Prevent might just have kept a family from being torn apart and a young man from throwing his life away.

There are certainly individuals who appear to have a longer-term attraction to extremism and violence, individuals with well established links to radical milieus, for whom early intervention attempts may have proved futile. Perhaps people like the murderous Mohammad Emwazi (aka Jihadi John), or the authoritative 7/7 ringleader Mohammed Sidique Khan (pictured below) may well have fallen into this category.

But for every Sidique Khan figure there are also examples of young, naive and impressionable individuals attracted to the perceived glamour, and to the counterculture appeal of a group like Islamic State. Teenage girls sold visions of marrying a brave, handsome fighter, or those who purchase ‘Islam for Dummies’ before packing their bags for a warzone.

In these cases, without targeted interventions, the likes of teachers, parents and social workers are left with few options: notice something is wrong and do nothing, in the hope that it will be an adolescent phase, thus risking them going on to hurt themselves or others — or alert the police at a later stage and risk a hefty prison sentence if they have done enough to break terrorism laws.

Here, we arrive at the unfortunate dire need for Prevent. It would be tough to find any other piece of government policy with the desired outcome of keeping people out of prison, from getting themselves killed, or from killing other people, which has been so demonised. There must be a way to fill the gap between inaction and arrest, to allow individuals the opportunity to divert away from violence, to re-join society and to prevent families from being destroyed.

Some people are quite literally throwing away their lives over an idea, an idea which just a few weeks down the line they may have come to utterly regret ever having flirted with. Unfortunately, if you find yourself in Syria, and an Islamic State commander is demanding you perform a martyrdom operation, chances to reconsider are few and fleeting.

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