The government’s controversial strategy for preventing the spread of violent extremism has become so distrusted within the Muslim community that it needs to be reviewed after the general election, the UK’s former senior prosecutor has told BuzzFeed News.
In the wake of the Manchester attack, Lord Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions (DPP), said the Prevent strategy, which aims to stop people supporting terrorism, was well-intentioned but had been undermined because many Muslims believe it discriminates against them.
"You have to query whether it's working. It needs to be looked at as a strategy," said Macdonald, who was DPP when a group of suicide bombers murdered 52 people in London in July 2005.
Prevent is one of the main pillars of the UK’s approach to counterterrorism, providing government funding for community-based initiatives designed to combat the spread of violent extremism. A long-running debate about the scheme reignited yesterday as security experts and politicians began debating the implications of the Manchester suicide bombing.
With campaigning for the general election due to resume on Friday, the government's approach to tackling violent extremism could become a political battleground. Politicians from various parties expressed contrasting views about the future of Prevent in interviews on Wednesday.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, told the BBC’s Today programme on Wednesday that the Conservatives will give Prevent an "uplift" if they are re-elected, by increasing its funding. Rejecting criticism of the strategy, Rudd said Prevent had stopped 150 British citizens travelling to Syria to fight for jihadi groups.
“We can always learn more, we can always improve, and as the threat against us changes we need to make sure that our defences change,” Rudd said.
The Tories' policy manifesto, published last week, did not mention Prevent specifically but promised to ramp up measures to confront “the menace of extremism” in British communities if they win the election on 8 June.
The party pledged new criminal offences and support for “the public sector and civil society in identifying extremists, countering their messages and promoting pluralistic, British values”. The Conservatives said they will establish a new Commission for Countering Extremism to “identify examples of extremism and expose them, to support the public sector and civil society, and help the government to identify policies to defeat extremism and promote pluralistic values”.
A Conservative spokesman declined to give further details of the policy.
The Home Office says Prevent has supported 142 anti-extremist community projects that reached more than 42,000 people, provided support to more than 1,000 young people who were vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism, and removed 220,000 pieces of terrorist material from circulation.
Other parties, however, have indicated they might replace Prevent.
In its manifesto, Labour said it will review the strategy “with a view to assessing both its effectiveness and its potential to alienate minority communities”.
In an interview with BBC Two's Newsnight on Wednesday night, Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said too many Muslims viewed the policy with suspicion.
"Prevent has begun to be seen in that way by some in the Muslim community," Burnham told Newsnight. "And I've argued that it is in need of a review. You cannot have policies targeted just at one community without creating a sense of division and alienation."
The Liberal Democrats promised to “scrap the flawed Prevent strategy and replace it with a scheme that prioritises community engagement and supports communities in developing their own approach to tackling the dangers of violent extremism”.
Established by the last Labour government, Prevent was intended to bring together charities and public institutions to counter extremist narratives and to identify and provide support to people who could be recruited by terrorist groups, to help them integrate peacefully into society.
The Conservatives launched a review of the strategy after taking power in 2010, when Theresa May was home secretary, and concluded that Prevent was flawed. "It failed to tackle the extremist ideology that not only undermines the cohesion of our society, but inspires would-be terrorists to seek to bring death and destruction to our towns and cities," May told the House of Commons in July 2011.
May decided Prevent would remain a central part of the government's counterterrorism strategy, but promised it would be more effective at countering radicalisation than under Labour.
"In the past, Prevent was muddled up with integration," May told parliament when she announced a rethink of the policy in 2011. "It operated to confused and contradictory objectives – not any more. At times funding even found its way to the sorts of extremist organisations that themselves pose a threat to our society and to our security – not under this government."
"Our new Prevent strategy will challenge the extremist ideology, it will help protect sectors and institutions from extremists, and it will stop the radicalisation of vulnerable people," May said. "Above all, it will tackle the threat from homegrown terrorism."
However, Muslim groups, human rights campaigners, opposition politicians, and other critics say the initiative has been counterproductive – that too many in the Muslim community have been made to feel alienated and stigmatised by Prevent's initiatives, and even that the state is spying on them.
Lord Macdonald, a Liberal Democrat peer, told BuzzFeed News he believed Prevent was entirely well-intentioned and wasn’t oppressive to Muslims, as the critics contend. However, the fact that it has become so distrusted may have fatally undermined it. "A lot of people in the Muslim community feel they've been spied on," Macdonald said. "You have to be very careful that civil society programmes don't do the opposite of what they intend."
Other security experts also told BuzzFeed News they have reservations about Prevent.
Nigel Inkster, a former deputy director of MI6, said: “The first thing is, throwing money at it isn’t going to help much. Throwing money at what, exactly? There is no doubt that there have been quite a lot of ill-conceived, ill-executed, and wasteful projects undertaken… On the other hand, there have been some good ones.”
Inkster, now director of future conflict and cybersecurity at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said it was “difficult to say with confidence” how effective the programme has been, because there are no real measurements for success in place.
Deterring extremism has “always been a really difficult issue to deal with and it’s very hard to say with confidence what the right answer is,” Inkster added. A better approach to rooting out homegrown extremists may be to increase the amount of community engagement undertaken by police.
However, Admiral Lord West, former head of the Royal Navy and a security minister under Gordon Brown, said Prevent is “very important”, adding: “It’s got a lot better. I think it’s absolutely crucial.”