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Explained: Review of UK’s counter-terror scheme raises eyebrows

The UK’s anti-terrorism programme Prevent has raised a few eyebrows since its implementation. Launched almost a decade ago, Prevent is part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which “contains a duty on specified authorities to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism,” aka Prevent duty.

A review of the programme was supposed to be penned by Lord Carlile, but he was forced to step down in December 2019. Lord Carlile’s appointment for this task was deemed to be “a serious misjudgment by the secretary of state,” Yasmine Ahmed, the executive director of Rights Watch UK, said.

The Guardian reported in December 2019 that “Rights Watch UK … objected to Lord Carlile because in the past he has declared his strong support for the programme, which is aimed at combating radicalisation leading to terrorism. It has become a toxic brand for many within Muslim communities, with some viewing it as a state tool for spying on them.”

Lord Carlile was replaced by William Shawcross, “an author and the former chair of the Charity Commission, [who] was seen as a controversial choice to head the report when it was announced four years ago, leading to a boycott of his review by independent groups including Amnesty International,” wrote The Guardian.

The controversy continues

Shawcross, in the eyes of human rights’ organisations and the Muslim community in the UK, was not a welcome choice, and considered not much of an improvement over his predecessor.

Shawcross, when he was a director at the neoconservative think tank Henry Jackson Society, had criticised Islam, saying, “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”

A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain commented that Shawcross’ appointment was a “Trumpian” move. They said: “Once again, the government is making it clear it has no interest in truly reviewing the policy. William Shawcross is singularly unfit to be a neutral and fair assessor of this government policy, which has been criticised for unfairly targeting British Muslims, given his frightening views about Islam and Muslims.

“It is ironic that a policy supposedly charged with preventing extremism is to be scrutinised by a person who holds hostile views on Islam and Muslims, who has links to people with extreme views on us, and who defends the worst excesses of the so-called ‘war on terror’.”

The Muslim Council of Britain spokesperson was referring to Shawcross’ support of ”the use interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that are widely regarded as torture, as well as the detention of suspected Al Qaeda militants at Guantanamo Bay.”

The independent review of Prevent by Shawcross

Earlier this month, Shawcross finally published his assessment. Finding that there’s “room for improvement” in the Prevent programme. Shawcross says it must “return to its core mission – countering all those ideologies that can lead people to committing or supporting acts of terrorism.”

In his review, Shawcross continues to say that the programme should be “increasingly concerned about the growing threat from the Extreme Right,” yet adds a caveat: “But the facts clearly demonstrate that the most lethal threat in the last 20 years has come from Islamism, and this threat continues.”

Shawcross makes a comparison between the types of threats to the British public, saying his research shows that “the present boundaries around what is termed by Prevent as extremist Islamist ideology are drawn too narrowly while the boundaries around the ideology of the Extreme Right-Wing are too broad.”

He bases this comparison on the Home Office data, that revealed that “there were more adopted cases for individuals referred for concerns related to extreme rightwing radicalisation (339; 42%) compared [with] individuals with concerns related to Islamist radicalisation (156; 19%).”

Reactions to the review

“More than 450 Islamic organisations [throughout the UK], including 350 mosques and imams, boycotted the government’s review of the anti-radicalisation programme. Many did so because of Shawcross’s involvement,” The Guardian
reported in February.

Amnesty International says it “strongly criticises” the review of Prevent by Shawcross. Amnesty International UK’s Racial Justice Director Ilyas Nagdee has condemned the review as being “riddled with biased thinking, errors, and plain anti-Muslim prejudice,” saying it has “no legitimacy.”

Pointing out Shawcross’ “history of bigoted comments on Muslims and Islam,” Nagdee believes he should have been precluded from reviewing the programme.

According to Nagdee, “There’s mounting evidence that Prevent has specifically targeted Muslim communities and activists fighting for social justice and a host of crucial international issues – including topics like the climate crisis and the oppression of Palestinians.

Nagdee says Prevent has affected many people negatively: “Eroding freedom of expression, clamping down on activism, creating a compliant generation and impacting on individual rights enshrined in law.”

What Nagdee on behalf of Amnesty has wished he had seen was a “proper independent review” but he says “the host of human rights violations that the programme has led to … have largely been passed over in silence”.

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