Community is key to tackling Islamic extremism

Posted: October 9, 2008 in Guardian
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My latest on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website. I see it has sparked off some debate, though i also see the Doctor’s plot trial in the UK started today as well, which i now somewhat regret not referencing in some way. Oh well, that’ll be for next time.

Community is key to tackling Islamic extremism

The ‘Prevent’ strand of counter-terrorism is difficult to implement. But security services should see those at risk individuals first.

The British government is reported to be overhauling its counter-terrorism strategy. The threat is apparently as high as ever and there are heightened fears about the appearance of “lone wolf” terrorists self-radicalising and moving into action without the usual connections to known networks.

At the core of this overhaul is an apparent revision of the “prevent” strand of the policy and the problem of measuring success in this opaque field.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the British government revamped its counter-terrorist strategy. Founded in lessons learned from the Irish struggles, the new approach laid out a four-pillar method to counter the terrorist threat: “Pursue, prevent, protect and prepare” – the so-called “four Ps” strategy.

The “prevent” strand is concerned with tackling the radicalisation of individuals, both in the UK and elsewhere; “pursue” is concerned with disrupting terrorists and their operations; “protect” is concerned with reducing the vulnerability of the UK and UK interests overseas; “prepare” is concerned with ensuring that the UK is as ready as it can be for the consequences of an attack.

This widely emulated bureaucratic codification (both the EU and American homeland security strategies owe something to it) was intended as a way of defining how we face the immediate threat, while also outlining a long-term strategy to tackle a “generational” struggle.

All four pillars are interlinked and it is impossible to completely separate them from each other. Broadly speaking, the pursue, protect and prepare strands can be addressed in a relatively clear pre-emptive manner. This is not to say we can completely insulate ourselves, but we are able to at least understand the parameters within which we can manage the risk. The prevent strand, on the other hand, is hard to grapple with and previous assumptions are regularly thrown out with the discovery of new plots.

To those seeking patterns in terrorist profiles, there would seem to be almost none – a fact broadly confirmed by a recent MI5 report published in the Guardian. Our end goal in preventing terrorism is a cessation in attacks, but what are the mid-points to know we are going in the right direction?

There has not been a successful attack since 2005 (though a number of near-misses), but does this mean that prevent is working? And against this backdrop, we continue to be told that the threat level remains “at the severe end of severe”.

One step would be something that measures a lessening in radical activity – or more specifically, some way to assess a lowering of dangerous radical activity that may lead to violence. But this is where the difficulty comes, as it is very hard to define where that line should be drawn. We may find someone’s views abhorrent, but does that mean they are dangerous to the point of violence? What exactly is the “acceptable” level and who determines this?

Similarly, there is little value in focusing on whether people agree with government’s foreign policy or not – this may be an exacerbating factor among individuals involved in terrorist activity, but hardly a defining one given the broad disagreement against current foreign policy that exists.

An alternative approach might be to focus less on the ideology and more on the individuals. Measuring tangible and positive community engagement such as working with local youths or helping local community development projects (and assessing whether this is merely a cover for something else or genuine) could offer a glimpse into whether groups or individuals are potentially a risk, or are actively engaged in a positive way in the world around them and consequently have less of a vested interest in destroying it.

Efforts could be made to draw individuals towards active engagement in projects that appeal to their sense of adventure, but at the same time assuage their sense of being part of an international community. Projects, for example, that provide youths from at-risk communities with an opportunity to work in international development.

In the end, what is needed is some way of assessing what value we are getting for the money that is being poured into preventing terrorism. By focusing on individuals’ tangible and proactive engagement with the world around them, we may be able to start to map this.

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