With a rise in the number of young Britons joining extremist groups such as ISIL the effectiveness of the government’s Prevent strategy to prevent radicalisation is being questioned.
Co-written with Steff Humm
The identification of Mohammed Emwazi as ISIL extremist “Jihadi John” has provoked criticism of the Prevent strategy, which seeks to pre-empt and block radicalisation through terrorist propaganda.
An arm of the UK’s counter-terrorism policy, CONTEST, Prevent aims to counter the risks of radicalisation by challenging the promotion of extremist ideologies and offering support to individuals deemed most at risk of being drawn into terrorism and the institutions they might belong to.
The strategy, introduced in 2003 and amended in 2012 to include a “stop and search” policy where anyone suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism can have their movements blocked, has been accused of promoting harassment and hindering freedom of speech by human rights organisation Cage.
“We have created here in the UK an environment in which the security agencies can act with impunity, can destroy the lives of young people,” said Cage spokesman Asim Qureshi following the revelation that Emwazi had feared for his life while being monitored by MI5.
In a series of articles, Cage, who advocate on behalf of people they believe have been mistreated in the war on terror, explain that Emwazi’s movements began to be restricted in 2009 when he tried to visit Tanzania after graduating from the University of Westminster.
“Poisonous and divisive ideologies”
A crucial element of the Prevent strategy is its implementation in all key sectors such as healthcare, government and education.
“We must ensure that poisonous, divisive ideologies are not allowed to spread, including through our universities,” says a spokesperson from the Home Office.
Beware the security creep in British Universities, an article by Gabe Mythen and Ross McGarry of the Department of Sociology at the University of Liverpool, states that the Prevent strategy has created an issue of security being taken too far, to the point where it is counter productive, and that “vulnerable” communities are potentially being targeted by the policy.
“No particular communities are identified as being at risk from being ‘drawn into terrorism’,” the article says. “Yet the emphasis placed within the Prevent agenda on Muslim individuals and communities defined as being vulnerable to “radicalisation” is a cause of concern.”
A further cause for concern for both the academics and Cage is the strategy’s effect on freedom of speech.
“The inclusion of higher education institutions within the act has been opposed on many fronts,” write Mythen and McGarry. “Much of this opposition was directed towards the threat that these prospects pose to academic freedom.”
This may seem trivial to some in relation to the risks of terrorism but the threat to academic freedom is arguably already taking place in Emwazi’s alma mater. The University of Westminster has cancelled all events that could be deemed controversial since the revelation that their alumnus is a member of ISIL.
This caution may be understandable, given the blame that was targeted at the university for the radicalisation of Emwazi during his studies.
Safeguarding students and staff
When asked to comment, a spokesman for the Home Office says: “There is no contradiction between promoting freedom of speech and safeguarding the interests and wellbeing of students, staff and the wider community… The aim of the Prevent duty for universities is to ensure they have the right policies in place. Decisions on what speakers to allow on campus will remain with the institutions themselves.”
However, the University of Westminster’s implementation of the Prevent strategy remains hazy. When asked for information on their Prevent policies, a representative directed all queries to the university’s freedom of speech page on their website, which doesn’t detail methods to prevent radicalism among students or faculty.
Advocacy organisation Universities UK provides guidelines to higher education institutions on developing extremism speaker policies and balancing free speech with campus safety but the effectiveness of these strategies, being completely unquantifiable, remains to be seen.